by Jillian Abbott
When long time Queens resident Asif Mohammad transformed Fresh Meadow’s adult film theater, The Mayfair, into the Bombay Theatre in 1996, he proved himself to be a pioneer in destination theatre.
With box offices struggling in many localities across the city, Bombay Theatre, which shows South Asian movies, thrives. India’s Bollywood, produces more films and reaches larger audiences than America’s Hollywood. Over the last fifteen years the number of people in Queens who trace their roots to the Indian subcontinent has ballooned.
Bombay’s retro décor, intermission, and snack bar selling samosas, chat (chickpea polenta) and Madras coffee, make this neighborhood theatre a popular destination for South Asians, film buffs, and anyone old enough to enjoy the fun of Saturday afternoon movies. Bombay, which screens mostly Hindi movies, has survived the surge in pirated movies, the downturn in movie attendance, and continues to bring movie goers into Flushing from all across the Tri State region.
Dr. Meghmaha Tarafdar, know as Meg, had been coming to Bombay theatre for a decade, ever since she moved to Queens from Texas. “Bombay means a lot to me. It’s very cozy, and it gives me an option in Queens. If it wasn’t here I probably wouldn’t go to the movies,” she said.
The film showing on my last visit was Padmaavat, a controversial movie that received substantial criticism in India and media attention worldwide. The film was accused of glorifying ‘Sati’, the Hindu tradition of widows joining their husbands on the funeral pyre. It was also attacked for its portrayal of a Muslim sultan as a stereotypical monster, and was only released after modification including adding five disclaimers addressing the criticisms. Because of all the attention the film received, attendance has been high.
Bombay Theatre adds to Flushing’s uniqueness and allows residents, whether immigrants or native to stay in touch with one of the most dynamic film cultures on the planet.
Mohammad Amir, the owner’s brother and the theatre’s manager had his hands full supervising the ticket selling, snack bar, and maintenance of the theatre. “Our distributor determines which movies we get, when,” he said. He added that Bombay gets to screen no more than five popular movies per year. “If we are going to stay open, we need the community to support us and come to see the films that aren’t as popular,” he said.
Bombay theatre is located in a secluded shopping strip in the Fresh Meadows section of Flushing. The block supports three restaurants serving Italian-American pizza, Chinese-American cuisine, and Afghan-American kebabs. The theatre brings people from all over, and Amir says that “the restaurants’ owners come by and ask when the next big movie is coming?”
Dr. Tarafdar, who often meets friends at the kebab restaurant before movies, said, “This theatre means a lot to the community. It reminds me of the halls in India. I can get the whole Indian film experience here.” She said that if she is planning to go to Bombay Theatre, she will let friends and relatives know so that they can meet up. “I don’t do that when I go to regular American movies,” she said.
It’s not only residents from India or of Indian descent who come here. According to Amir, Bombay Theatre’s patrons come from the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Guyanese, Afghanistan and Tibetan communities. “Hindi movies are popular all over the world,” he said.
Another Queens’ resident who gave her name only as Sue said she had read about Padmaavat in the New York Times and wanted to see it. She had no idea this theatre existed. “It’s wild, the decor is crazy and I bought a samosa at intermission. I mean intermission?” She explained that her grandmother had told her about intermission at the movies, but she’s never experienced it before.
Tourist to India often talk about the experience of watching Hindi movies there. Because the bad guys are really bad, and the good guys really good, it’s often possible to follow the action packed plots despite the characters speaking Hindi. However, Sue was grateful for the subtitles, “I couldn’t have followed it without them.” She’s not alone in that. Dr. Tarafdar said that her daughter, an attorney educated in America who spends a lot of time in India, needs the subtitles. “She catches most of it, but there are some words she’d miss without them.”
The movie theatre business is tough though, and despite its popularity Bombay replies on its community to survive. Asif is branching out to find new uses for the theatre, holding live band performances and renting the space out for parties. “For the popular films, the line for tickets is down the block, but the community needs to support us all the time,” Amir said.
Queens is one of the most international and diverse counties in the United States and the Bombay Theatre adds to Flushing’s uniqueness and allows residents, whether immigrants or native, to stay in touch with one of the most dynamic film cultures on the planet.