This spring, the movie theater at Fresh Pond Mall quietly took on the new name of Apple Cinemas. To most moviegoers, it appeared that not much else had changed; Hollywood titles adorned the marquee and the building looked unchanged. But a transformation was just beginning. Fresh Pond was going Bollywood, and beyond, dedicating significant resources to offering not only a full range of Indian movies but additional kinds of foreign-language films for underserved international audiences.
Though Indian films had been screening at the theater for four years, they were largely seen only by viewers in the know. "We wanted to put Indian titles on the marquee, but there are always outstanding English [language] movies so they won't have space. Or they misspell it," said Jegan Gomangalam.
Gomangalam and his business partner, Siva Stian, bought the North Cambridge movie theater at the beginning of this year, after renting a single screen there as independent movie exhibitors iMovie Café. Since the closure of Bombay Cinemas in Allston in 2004, the Boston area has offered few dedicated spaces for fans to catch the latest films of stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Rajinikanth, Chiranjeevi, and Pawan Kalyan, or the music of A.R. Rahman (of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame). Apple Cinemas was the first Boston-area theater to play the latest Bollywood import, "Chennai Express." (Several Regal and AMC theaters, which cherry-pick Bollywood titles with the most potential, have since added screenings of the movie at locations like Fenway and Methuen.) Starring the popular Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan ("Om Shanti Om") and loaded with crowd-pleasing action sequences, "Chennai" has grossed more than $4 million in the US since its Aug. 8 release.
Interviewed as they exited a recent screening of "Chennai" in Cambridge, Somya and Saarthak Sethi, both of Quincy, said they travel to the theater for films they can relate to. "Because I'm from India, I belong to India," Somya, 26, explains. "I feel quite close to the characters and whatever's happening in the movies. That's why I come to watch a Bollywood movie."
"For those 2½ hours, you feel closer to home," adds Saarthak, 29.
Part of the draw is the communal theater scene, which at Apple means an engaged and raucous crowd. Families, couples, and groups of friends fill the rows, excitedly chatting through the trailers until the movie begins. They cheer when the hero makes his first appearance, boo when the villain gets his way in the second act, and whistle and clap when characters launch into a musical number. Gomangalam says for Thursday and Friday night premieres, it's not uncommon for the crowd to throw confetti when a lead actor like Aamir Khan or Mahesh Babu enters the story.
"It's the whole experience of watching the movie on the big screen with the sound and drama. Bollywood is a lot about music, songs for everything," says Saarthak Sethi. "Combined with the movie theater experience, [the result] is more wonderful than compared to watching it alone at home."
According to the 2010 Census, some 3 percent of Cambridge residents identify as South Asian, slightly higher than the state average of about 1 percent. Stian and Gomangalam considered another South Asian community in Framingham before choosing their current Cambridge location for its access to public transportation and proximity to colleges with many foreign-born students. iMovie Café describes its audience as mostly students and young professionals, more than half of whom are originally from India. But the range of films now being programmed at Apple Cinemas seems to offer something for every age and moviegoing taste.
"[Local] companies like Bombay Cinemas and Aap Ka Manoranjan showed Bollywood [Hindi] movies, but when it comes to Indian movies, there's way more than that. There are also Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada," Stian says, referring to the different language-based film industries in India. "But they rarely brought in South Indian movies. About seven years ago, we started exploring this market, found out that the Boston area is mostly Telugu, and we realized the potential of South Indian movies."
With the success of their Telugu and Tamil imports (recent bookings include "Thalaiva" and "Yevadu") and a need for popular Bollywood movies to fill out the schedule, Stian and Gomangalam arranged a series of mergers that pooled the other longstanding exhibitors, Bombay Cinema and Aap Ka Manoranjan, under the iMovie Café company umbrella. Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil films now generate about 4,000-5,000 ticket sales per month at Apple Cinemas, according to Gomangalam. A Bollywood ticket ranges from $11 to $13, but the theater offers a discounted price of $4.75 on all Tuesday shows. Gomangalam estimates that iMovie Café has evolved to screening about 75 movies per year, on a same-day release schedule with India.
"Now we have 10 screens, with one screen dedicated to Indian movies," Gomangalam says, pointing out that they've gained the flexibility to use more screens when a movie sells out or they want to book multiple Indian and other foreign-language films to run simultaneously. "Last week we had a Pakistani movie, occasionally we bring in Punjabi movies, and then we have an Ethiopian movie on a monthly basis."
But creating an international movie haven is a work in progress. Gomangalam and Stian are renovating the theater to replace its well-worn seats and amenities. Their first technological upgrade, converting to digital projection, brought its own set of problems.
Stian laments the ongoing complications: "They'll send us the hard drive from different parts of India, but we need the key [code] to unlock and play it. If they don't know the kind of projector we use, the distributor won't release the key until the day before the show. If they miss that, we have to call somebody in India and get the key. When we opened 'Miriyam,' I had to get everyone online to get the keys while there were people waiting in the theater. The movie was to start at 9:45 p.m., and we didn't get the keys until show time."
Digital restrictions have increased in the ongoing effort to stem the rise in piracy, which is so rampant that studios race to make their money, rushing movies from theaters to the home in mere weeks. As Gomangalam explains, "Most movies run only one week. Big Bollywood movies can sometimes be kept for three or four weeks. The reason why most movies don't go past a second week is because you can buy the DVD at any Indian grocery store for cheap."
He explains how piracy has changed their business: "Ten years ago, when it was a big Indian movie, audiences would buy 50 percent of the tickets ahead of the show. But now there are alternate resources like the Internet or Netflix [which has released Bollywood movies within three or four weeks of theatrical openings], so if they miss this week's movie, they're not bothered."
Still, iMovie Café has found a loyal audience in college students, the local Indian community, and adventurous moviegoers. As local Bollywood fan Shubhneet Sandhu, 24, of Cambridge, explains, "I feel connected to my friends when we watch a movie in a language we understand. I feel in touch with my friends back home and my culture when I can see the movie right away in theaters [at the] same time as India."
Monica Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.