For Sadhna Agrawal and other State College residents from India, it’s about time Bollywood — the Mumbai, India-based movie industry that’s wildly popular in South Asia and other parts of the world — had a presence in State College.
“We used to drive to New York or Washington to see Bollywood movies,” Agrawal said. “I think this should have happened years ago.”
The first Bollywood film shown in State College was the comedy “Humshakals” in June at the UEC Theater 12 on Premiere Drive. Since then, four others have been featured, each carefully researched and selected by “the Bollywood lady,” as Yasmin Badani says she’s commonly called.
Bringing Bollywood to State College is an initiative Badani started more than two years ago.
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“State College has a big South Asian community, and people used to go to Harrisburg and Pittsburgh to watch Bollywood movies because we never got movies in State College, so I decided that I wanted to do something about it,” she said. “I took it as a challenge.”
A medical technologist, Badani got a crash course in the film industry when she took up her challenge.
“I was working part time and I had some time to do research, so I talked to different cinemas and different distributors and it took me about one and a half years to get the first movie,” she said.
The local theater connected Badani to John Zenner, a film buyer and product manager working at UEC’s corporate office in Minnesota. Today, the partnership operates the same as it has from the start: Badani looks into new Bollywood releases and makes a selection based on how the film is distributed and what she thinks would be a good fit for State College audiences. She sends information about the film and research to Zenner, who talks to the distributor to see if UEC 12 can get the release print.
“State College is a unique community, and I’m glad that UEC gave me the opportunity and took the chance,” Badani said.
According to Zenner, U.S. film distributors like Fox International and Disney have started to become more involved in Bollywood films. That, coupled with Badani’s help and support, has made it possible to bring the titles to State College, Zenner said in an email.
“It is easy for a theater to just show all the standard Hollywood product, but finding other product to show (that maybe not as many people are familiar with) is actually a more fulfilling process,” Zenner wrote.
So far, Badani said she has been pleased with the turnout for the films. Audiences particularly latched onto “Finding Fanny,” an English-language Bollywood film that Badani said brought out about 500 people during the two-week showing in December.
Promotion of the films has been handled exclusively through word of mouth. While Badani does the legwork on her own, she relies on people telling friends, co-workers and neighbors about the films. State College resident Sudha Babu said she has been a cheerleader for the initiative since the first movie.
“This is just the beginning, so spreading the word is very important,” she said.
Before a new movie comes out, Badani papers the university and Indian restaurants with fliers, posts on social media and sends out emails to a list of addresses that continues to grow. What Badani tells people about Bollywood films is what she has experienced growing up watching them in Mumbai and then seeking them out in the United States: they are family-friendly and, overall, a lot of fun.
“Bollywood movies have action, drama, romance, comedy, musical, everything,” she said. “It’s all in one movie.”
The films — usually in Hindi and shown with English subtitles — often depict Indian life, values and traditions.
“It brings back so many good memories, especially having been away from India for so long,” Babu said.
The challenge has been in reaching audiences who are not already familiar with Bollywood movies, Badani said. Audiences at the showings have largely been of Indian descent, and Badani said she hopes more people of different ethnicities take an interest, not just in State College but across the country.
“Bollywood movies are really big everywhere else in the world,” she said. “It is just sad that it hasn’t taken off much over here in the United States, and I think as people get more introduced that can change. Just like Indian food is becoming mainstream in the U.S., I think in the future Bollywood movies might become mainstream.”
Eventually, Badani said that showing a Bollywood film every month is a goal, but for now she’s focused on making careful selections about what comes to town.
“Right now I’m very selective, because State College is an educated community and I want to get different kinds of movies to please everybody,” she said.