When Just Going to the Movies is Dangerous: Indian Diaspora Targeted in Canada

In Canada, you might think that going to the movies would be a relaxing and pleasant pastime. If that’s what you think, you would be wrong

By: /
8 May, 2024
India has the world’s largest film industry in terms of output. Image: Tumisu/Pixabay
Hugh Stephens
By: Hugh Stephens
Author of In Defence of Copyright (Cormorant Books) available here.

Immigrants who take up a new life in what is often a culturally very different country from their original homeland naturally seek out the familiar by associating with those from “home” as part of the adaptation process. This is certainly true of the Indian diaspora, in Canada as elsewhere. Part of that comforting feeling of “home” comes from sharing cultural experiences, such as food, music, and movies. As is widely known, India has the world’s largest film industry in terms of output, so it is natural that Indian films will be an important part of cultural bonding for South Asian diaspora communities. But what is an Indian film? The Indian film industry is far from monolithic. There is Bollywood, to be sure, for Hindi language films, but also Tollywood, a term variously used to describe Telugu language films originating in Andhra Pradesh but also Bengali films from Kolkata, and not to be forgotten, a South Indian film industry based in Kerala in southwest India, using the Malayalam language, as well as Tamil language films. And others.

In other words, there are lots of Indian diasporas, many of which have a long tradition of producing their own filmed entertainment. Most of these groups are well represented in Canada. According the 2021 census, the South Asian population of Canada (those identifying as South Asian) was just over 1.8 million, or roughly 5% of the population. The term South Asian includes Muslims from Pakistan and Tamils from Sri Lanka, so if we are talking solely about Canadians originally from India, the total falls to 1.4 million. In terms of geography, the largest group is from the Punjab, the majority of them Sikhs, although there are significant populations of immigrants from Gujerat, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Hindus make up 2.3% of Canada’s population; Sikhs 2.1% (it is interesting to note that Sikhs make up about the same percentage of India’s population as they do in Canada). One characteristic of Sikhs in Canada is their degree of political activity. In the current Parliament there are no less than 18 Sikh MPs out of a total of 338, spread across three different parties. By contrast, India’s Lok Sabha, with 543 members, has just 13 Sikh Members. But I digress.

Let’s get back to Indian films, particularly South Indian films, in Canada. You might think that going to the movies to watch a flick from home would be a relaxing and pleasant pastime. If that’s what you think, you would be wrong. In fact, going to a Telugu, Tamil or Malayalam film in Canada can be very stressful, if not downright dangerous. For more than a decade there has been a history of violence against cinema operators screening such films. Screens have been slashed, stink bombs set off and worse. The most recent violence involved drive by shootings at four Toronto area cinemas, resulting in the cancellation of showings of the Malayalam language epic “Malaikottai Vaaliban” in Cineplex venues across the country. What’s going on? Is someone trying to stop the South Indian diaspora from enjoying their movies? Well, not exactly. They are trying to stop them from enjoying their movies in certain locations.

What is happening appears to be commercially motivated, with a turf war taking place over the distribution of these films, with distributors accusing a collection of independent theatres of violence and sabotage (no arrests have been made or charges laid). Screening ethnic films can be a lucrative business with tickets reportedly going for as much as $30 a head. However, large mainstream multiscreen exhibitors like Cineplex routinely charge about half that amount and as the company has moved into showing Indian language films, it has been targeted. To date, the disruptors have succeeded, as on several occasions Cineplex has cancelled scheduled showings, including screening Malaikottai Vaaliban in British Columbia, even though the most recent violence took place in Toronto. In the past there have also been violent incidents regarding the screening of South Indian films in Edmonton and Calgary.

It is natural for a national chain like Cineplex to want to move into the diaspora market, given the size of Canada’s immigrant population. As of the last census, almost 25% of the population was born outside Canada. The COVID pandemic, which for a time brought movie attendance to a standstill (Cineplex shuttered its theatres for several months in 2020), wreaked havoc on the theatre exhibition industry. Things are recovering, however, with revenues up substantially in 2023 although attendance has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels. But NATO (the National Association of Theatre Owners, i.e. the other NATO) is concerned about predictions of a drop in revenues in 2024 owing to a shortage of films after last year’s SAG-AFTRA strike. This is yet another reason for chains like Cineplex to move into screening of diaspora films, where strong attendance for limited showings can be anticipated.

In Canada, Cineplex, the nation’s largest cinema chain and the fourth largest in North America, struggled as much as others during COVID. One result was the collapse of its acquisition by Cineworld, the UK based exhibitor (which operates Regal Cinemas in the US) that had made a bid for Cineplex in 2019, just prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. With the onset of the pandemic, Cineworld backed out of the deal, and was promptly sued by Cineplex. The result was a $1.24 billion judgement in favour of Cineplex. Subsequently, however, Cineworld declared bankruptcy in the US. No collection on that debt.

Meanwhile, what should Canada’s Indian diaspora do when even going to the movies becomes a fraught and potentially dangerous outing? They should be demanding action on the part of the police! In my estimation, Canadian police forces have typically been slow to come to grips with what one might call “blue on blue” violence, where one element of a diaspora community will harass or intimidate other elements within the same community. In part, it is a result of certain institutions being behind the times and not reflecting the current ethnic make-up of the population; it takes time to win the trust of and to be able to penetrate some ethnic communities. But even allowing for these excuses, it is unacceptable that random (or maybe not so random) violence should be permitted when it comes to something as basic as going out with your family to watch a show. I guarantee it would not be tolerated in the non-diaspora community. Can you imagine the owners of the local indie theatre sending out gunmen to shoot up the local Cineplex because the theatre chain had the temerity to show “Live at the Met” on a Saturday morning? That is the equivalent of what’s been happening, and it’s been going on for far too long.

Even though to date no one has been injured or killed, if this violence continues something really bad is inevitably going to happen. Cancelling showings is not the answer; this only encourages the perpetrators. Toronto-area police forces need to make investigating and stopping this illegal activity a priority. It is like the “broken-windows theory”. If you can’t take your family in safety to the movies, what’s next for the unravelling of law and order?

I don’t think I will ever go to a Telugu or Malayalam language movie, but I respect the rights of those who do. I hope that the next diaspora blockbuster to come to Canada gets a proper screening across the country in popular venues that provide inexpensive, comfortable and safe viewing. Our immigrant communities deserve no less.

© Hugh Stephens, 2024. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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