Forget the lack of subtitles — the most puzzling aspect of the Movieplex 5 experience is simply finding the joint. The theater sports no signage, interior or exterior, and is housed in a remote underground annex to Windsor Park Mall. Few are aware that the defunct Regal Cinema has recently reopened under a new moniker, so don't expect mall staff to be helpful with directions. Those rare employees in the know will probably laugh and warn you against going to the theater (as they did me), since all they show is Indian movies. (No surprise in a town where brown skin can be an immediately misleading cultural indicator, but absurd nonetheless.) But do not be dismayed or dissuaded: The Movieplex 5 is a worthwhile journey even for the most casual cultural daytripper.

Owner Hanif "Mike" Lavji, a man of natural ease, seems quite nonchalant about the theater's low visibility. Perhaps due to its inconspicuousness, the Movieplex 5 is not yet an economic cash cow. The Movieplex project appears to be more a labor of love for Lavji — who already owns a successful truck stop — than a potential pot of gold. He opened the theater doors just six weeks ago, showing films on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in two of his five operational screening rooms. Friends and family have lent a hand to help him clear out the dust and keep the place running — casually, at least. Our screening time was delayed by the late arrival of a large group but, as Lavji cleverly notes, "It wouldn't be an Indian movie if it started on time."

The diasporic Indian population is estimated at about 20 million worldwide, a number which includes "NRIs" (Indian citizens not residing in India) and "PIOs" (persons of Indian origin with born or acquired citizenship of a country other than India). Lavji, like myself, falls into the PIO category; he was born and raised in Africa, not India. Many first generation Indian-Americans are children of nostalgic expatriates who feel the need to kung fu grip rather than embrace their heritage. The result is often a second generation of very closed cultural circuitry — small but tight-knit and closed-lipped communities. For those twice and thrice removed from the motherland or less tethered to tradition (again, like myself), pop culture provides an appealing middle ground: a celebratory rather than binding experience, not associated with any sort of cultural or religious evangelism.

Movieplex 5 owner/operator Hanif "Mike" Lawji
Photo by Mark Greenberg

The cult popularity of Bollywood movies is slowly on the rise nationwide among South Asians and hipsters alike. Bombay churns out close to 1,000 feature films per year — all in the name of pure entertainment. Campy, corny, and delightfully fluffy, mainstream Indian movies seem to appeal to an ethnically borderless Id by furnishing audiences with escapism. Thin plots are decorously masked by visual opulence and attenuated by nonsensical musical numbers, creating a fantasy world where every sentence is punctuated with song, every scene change a serenade, and every romance an epic journey.

Lavji's labor of love is complicated by the inevitable ball and chain of supply and demand. By his description, distribution of Indian films stateside is still sketchy at best. Additionally, most Bollywood film prints do not come with English subtitles, making the average American moviegoer's experience a purely sensory one. Successful Bollywood outfits in Dallas and Houston have managed to survive on expatriate patronage alone, but unlike Dallas and Houston, San Antonio is not exactly an expatriate Mecca. According to the 2000 Census, this city is home to only 3,500 Indian and Pakistani immigrants, many of whom represent that region's massive brain drain: naturalized individuals of a post-graduate education level who hold jobs in our medical, technical, and hospitality industries — not exactly art patrons. Also within that humble number is a population that reflects the intrinsic ethnic hybridity and cultural pluralism of the Indian subcontinent: Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians; Tamils, Punjabis, Bengalis, Maharastrians, and so on. Cultural sub-groups tend to polarize in large Indian population centers; here they seem to mingle with relative ease. But obviously, if an Indian theatre is to survive here, it will have to capture a wider audience.

Lavji is currently researching Anglo-friendly film prints, and is enthusiastic about screening other foreign and independent features as well. In the meantime, one thing is sure to draw out a cross cultural fan base: the snacks. Before screenings, patrons crowd around the theater's snack bar, where samosas (savory Indian pastries), chai (aromatic spiced tea), and exotic sweets are offered shoulder to shoulder with more traditional movie fare — all at a fraction of traditional movie theatre highway robbery prices. Attendance is modest at best, topping 40 on a good day, but Lavji is confident that business will pick up as more San Antonians come to realize the irresistible charm of chai and a movie.

Movieplex 5
9:30pm Friday, 6 & 9:30pm Saturday, 3pm Sunday
7900 IH 35 North (ground level, covered parking lot)
590-FILM or 241-2792

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