“India is known for its culture, and over here we do the same thing. No other cinema does that. People have to come here to watch those movies. And it’s like a community."
For the western filmgoer, visiting Albion Cinemas can feel like entering an alternate reality. Located at the Albion Centre mall in North Etobicoke, where first generation immigrants are over 50 per cent of the population, the Albion is one of three movie theatres in the GTA that exclusively show Indian cinema. The theatre is more than just a venue for Bollywood: it’s a shrine.
The walls are decorated with framed stills from Bollywood classics, and cut-outs from old posters of Dhoom 3 and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. In the stairway, there’s a painted mural of Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Amitabh Bachchan, and other superstars, and in the lobby, you can pose for a selfie with a life-sized cardboard stand-up of Shah Rukh. King Khan’s enormous head also looms on the office wall of Ashish Sharma, the theatre’s 22-year-old manager. Sharma took over this year after the previous manager (who ran the theatre since its 1992 opening) retired earlier this year.
“India is known for its culture, and over here we do the same thing,” says Sharma. “We not only play Hindi movies, we play regional movies as well—Tamil, Telugu. No other cinema does that. People have to come here to watch those movies. And it’s like a community; when we have regional movies, all the people come together, they talk about the movie.”
One such regional movie, a Telugu production called Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, shocked Hollywood when it opened No. 3 at the North American box office last April. The Albion and its sister theatres, the York (in Richmond Hill) and the Woodside (in Scarborough), had the foresight to acquire exclusive GTA screening rights. “It was busy,” says Sharma. “People were coming from Niagara, they were coming from Ajax, all over, just to see the movie at Albion.”
I saw Baahubali 2 at the Albion on the first Tuesday of its release, and stood in a line that stretched outside the mall. This epic historical fantasy chronicles the adventures of a poor boy who grows up to discover that he is the rightful heir to his kingdom’s throne, and leads an uprising to overthrow the cruel and illegitimate monarch. With its outlandish, cartoonishly violent CGI action scenes (there are many, many dismemberments), the film plays like a straight-faced Kung Fu Hustle. Seeing this movie in one of the Albion’s two cavernous theatres, with an enormous screen and pounding sound and a sold-out audience that cheered all the best parts, reminded me of how big and exciting movies felt when I was a kid. With dozens of families in the audience, the 167-minute film felt like an event—a full evening’s entertainment—not just a diversion. “My face hurts from smiling so much,” said my friend Justin Decloux as we filed out.
I’ve been making occasional visits to the Albion since 2006, when, at age 17, I attended a screening of the most popular Bollywood film of its day, Dhoom 2. This turbocharged blockbuster starred Hrithik Roshan as “Mr. A,” an international super-thief with abs you can use to grate cheese. He targets museums in Mumbai and Rio, stealing all the things that a thief would steal: priceless diamonds, the queen’s crown, etcetera. Hot on his trail: no-nonsense agent Jai Dixit (Abhishek Bachchan, son of the legendary Amitabh) and broad comedy-relief sidekick Ali (Uday Chopra). The pursuit takes the cops to Brazil, where Mr. A is plotting an ambitious jewel heist with his new partner Sunehri (Aishwarya Rai).
Dhoom 2 is pure entertainment, a procession of mind-boggling moments. There’s the opening scene, with Roshan disguised as Queen Elizabeth. And a scene where Roshan disguises himself as a marble statue using only a single jar of white cream, then steals a diamond using a remote-controlled robot. And a scene where Roshan, disguised as old janitor, unloads acid from his shoes to break through a manhole cover, and then emerges seconds later from the sewer atop a geyser of water in a completely different disguise. And the requisite musical numbers, including such catchy tunes as “Crazy Kiya Re” and “Dhoom Again.” Through it all, Roshan, Bachchan, and Rai are filmed with the slow-motion coolness of a shampoo commercial, and we remember that in the Indian film industry, movies are really movies, and stars are really stars.
I can’t claim to be an expert on Indian cinema, but over the years I’ve visited the Albion to keep up with some of the highlights: Om Shanti Om, Jodhaa Akbar, Chennai Express, Happy New Year, Dangal, and others. In the early-to-mid 2000s, the theatre hosted visits from stars like Rani Mukerji, Shahid Kapoor, and Sunny and Bobby Deol, and even King Khan himself (a photo from that appearance hangs in the projection booth).
But since the Dhoom 2 era, other Toronto theatres have discovered that Bollywood is big business, and the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex now offers many of the same movies closer to this downtowner’s home. Baahubali 2 notwithstanding, Sharma says that the Albion has not been immune to the changes in the moviegoing landscape. “When they opened the cinema, we didn’t have the competition of DVDs and CDs. So, for outings on weekends, people used to come out and watch movies. Now they have DVDs, they have YouTube, they have torrents, they go online, they have Cineplex.”
How does the Albion compete with Cineplex? “Cineplex… is on a different level. We are on a different level. We try to do our best. We try to give the best customer service. We try to make our customers happy. We got the new sound system for the customers, now we’ve renovated … we are trying to compete with them. We want to pull the customers over here.”
Whatever the challenges, the Albion remains something of a community hub: its pre-show features advertising from local, often Indian-run businesses, and it has loyal customers. “We do have regular customers—they come every Tuesday—and there are some seniors who come every time to the Albion because they like that atmosphere. We get new immigrants, we get international students, so we get a lot of new customers, but we get regular customers as well.”
What is the Albion’s competitive advantage? “Over here we try to keep the Indian culture and the Indian atmosphere. We renovate the place according to Indian cinemas, and we play Indian movies—we don’t play Hollywood movies. We try to keep the atmosphere that way.”