May 3, 2009

Remembering Cinema Cinema

Every so often, I go to Hicksville, a Long Island (New York) town with a strong South Indian community, to purchase Indian food and browse two stores that sell Bollywood movies and music.

A couple of weeks ago, while picking up my marsala fix, I picked up the April 24th issue of Desi Talk, one of the free newspapers available to New York's South Indian populace.

After I got home and opened up my copy of the paper, I found myself saddened to read of the April 12th death of Giri Raj Pillari, who founded first the Bombay Holding Corporation and then the Bombay Broadcasting Corporation.

If you lived within the range of WNJU–TV (in its pre–Telemundo heyday), you might remember a one hour Saturday morning show called Cinema Cinema. That was part of Giri Raj Pillari's endeavor to bring Bollywood to the New York metropolitan area — a dream that began when he used a rented a hall to show Indian movies on the weekends.

His sister Vasantha Arora explained the appeal of his efforts to Desi Talk:

In those days, there were no VCRs and DVDs… When I was here in 1981, I used to go and sit in the cinema hall and was quite impressed with the huge crowds that used to come to see movies…

Cinema Cinema made its début in the 1979–1980 TV season. It wasn't the first such show on WNJU, but it did join a diverse leased–time line–up of ethnic programming that made a welcome change of pace from the old Channel 47's Spanish–speaking offerings. That line–up also included the Sunday morning show Vision of Asia — remember that one? They played one half of an actual Bollywood movie (sometimes with hard subtitles — this was back in the era of film prints directly broadcast on TV, before telecine–transferred video became the norm).

Only a few years after Vasantha Arora made the Bombay Cinema one of her regular haunts, firms such as VGP Video Vision of Asia, the Esquire/Everest/Kavico group, and many others would change the way expatriates watched movies. Those videos were still a far cry from what the digital video era would bring, but still…

It probably won't matter to those preparing for Warner Bros.' Region 1 DVD release of Chandni Chowk to China this Tuesday. But this morning, I thought it would be best to recall an era when it took someone as determined as Giri Raj Pillari to bring a huge part of India to the other side of the Atlantic.

And to think that it all looks so quaint today.

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