Raghuji Chawda, my father, or Bwana Chawda as the locals christened him in Swahili, was a brilliant entrepreneur, philanthropist, adventurer, sometime hunter and even an occasional marriage counselor in the Indian community in Arua, Uganda, where I was born. As a community leader, he was the pre-eminent businessman that politicians, including remnants of the old British colonial overlords, courted to curry favor with the locals. One of my father’s dreams had been to own a cinema and in 1955, he made his dream come true. His cinema, the first in the region, was perhaps the only one in a 200-mile radius area of northwestern Uganda. It was inaugurated with a screening of the Dev Anand classic Taxi Driver—shown in open air on a warm, starlit evening. Mom recalls that when the first show finally started, dad sat down on the ground—and cried.  This backdrop of a life lived with Hindi movies showing nightly in our compound forged my lifelong love affair with Hindi movies.

25thanniversary_aniruddh

Looking back, my happy, privileged childhood in Uganda reads like an anomaly in light of the negative international spotlight that would zoom in on that country. By the time I was born in 1959, the cinema was thriving. As a business, the cinema was in addition to the family’s retail, garage, transport, construction, and farm operations. Chawda Cinema was the talk of West Nile District—the far northwest Ugandan administrative enclave bordered on the north by the Sudan, Congo (then Zaire) to the west and the River Nile to the east. In addition to being my birthplace (!) West Nile is famous for two other historical forces that became scourges to emerge from eastern Africa towards the end of the last millennia—theWest Niles virus, the mosquito-borne bug that has played havoc in far corners of the globe, and the distinction of being the home of Idi Amin, who rose from obscurity in the Ugandan army to take over that country in a military coup in 1971. And yes, my family knew Idi Amin before he became president; Arua was his home town.

Our cinema faced outward at one corner of a large walled-in area  on our property. Considering that I ran off to the cinema just about every night to catch my favorite stars Rajendra Kumar, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, and Vyjantimala on the big screen, it amazing that I kept up with school work! The cinema used a single vintage 16 mm projector that spun out black and white stock, one-after-another, from a small projector room onto a brick-and-mortar screen about 70 feet away.  Given the comfortable tropical climate, Arua’s 3,800 feet elevation gave it a balmy 76°F average year in and out, the open air staging made perfect sense.

My cinema memories from that period take me to the onset of an oft-heard Lata Mangeshkar song “Ruk Ja Raat Theher Ja Re Chanda,”—one I had heard a couple of hundred times already—and I remember how my eyes would invariably wander towards the stars or an occasional blindingly bright moon while listening to the songstress croon. The Hindu women’s annual jagarancelebration was played out with dandiya dances and then on to all-night Hindi film shows at the theater. For later evening shows, the women insisted on Dev Anand movies. More women would stay up to watch his movies than anyone else’s—the good-looking screen icon could mesmerize an audience in what amounted to a tropical, ladies-only midnight showing!

It was quite a shock when we had to leave Uganda on dictate from Idi Amin’s sudden pronouncement giving Uganda “Asians” 90 days to leave the country. We arrived in the United States as political refugees. The fact that my Ugandan education was in English—with lessons in Gujarati tossed—made the transition to life in the United States far easier for me than for others who joined the exodus of refugees out of Uganda.

Compounding the shock of arriving here in winter from a warm tropical country was the experience of leaving Arua and arriving in New York city a couple of days after Christmas, 1972. Nixon was president and the Watergate hearings saturated the airwaves.

During this journey, my obsession with Hindi movies did not diminish even as we settled in Lansing, Michigan. At college in East Lansing, I joined the India Student Association for a very selfish reason—I got to order Hindi movies for monthly campus screenings.  In the 1970s, Hindi movie screenings in the United States were primarily on single cinema, single show venues, with perhaps multiple shows thrown in on weekends. From Lansing, the nearest regularly scheduled shows were in suburban Detroit—more than 90 miles away, which seems far even by today’s GPS-aided drive times. On Saturday mornings, an AM station from Detroit played a half-hour Hindi language program which included Hindi songs and ads for new movie releases. On many Saturdays, we’d listen to the radio program on Saturday morning and, depending on what movies were showing (Fakira, Mehbooba, Dus Numbri), we’d bundle up in my sister’s old Datsun and travel across the state to catch the show.

Up until the late 1970s, most stage shows featuring Indian singers or actors were single-act shows that sometimes used medium-sized concert halls in larger cities but were limited in their appeal to audiences for that particular singer. In 1976, while visiting a brother in Montreal, I saw onstage the finest Indian music concert I have ever attended—a once-in-a-lifetime show with Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh singing on the same stage. To hear “Sawan ka Mahina” (from Milan) live by the original artists was a treat unto itself.

I had no idea how fortunate I was to catch that show in Montreal. The following week, the duo was scheduled to perform in Detroit. My sisters and I arrived at the venue—the magnificent Ford Auditorium in downtown Detroit—only to get the shocking news that the legendary Mukesh had passed away shortly before curtain call. The audience was given the choice of either getting a refund for the tickets, a then-steep $25, or donating the funds to help ship the singer’s body back to India. We drove back to Lansing with heavy hearts, and even though $75 poorer for the three tickets still in hand, extremely enriched by a lifetime of golden tunes the singer had bequeathed to us. There were other shows: Kishore Kumar in Kampala in 1971, R.D. Burman-Asha Bhosle in Montreal and in Detroit, Kishore Kumar in Detroit, Lata Mangeshkar in Chicago. For sentimental reasons, however, no show ever comes close to the Mangeshkar-Mukesh experience from the summer of 1976.

Single-act events, however, did not attract a wide enough audience to cover higher arena fees and eventually gave way to large venues with multi-media shows featuring up to half-a-dozen top line stars. The biggest of these, perhaps, had to be a single tour that featured Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Sridevi, Kalyanji Anandji and a host of playback singers, including Sadhana Sargam. The tickets got pricier, with VIP passes going for up to $500, and proved to be a successful formula that waned only in the years following 9/11.

On the home front, meanwhile, there arrived a most dangerous and sinister force ever unleashed on mankind—yes, the dastardly VCR. The VCR, hands down, had to be the single-worst technological breakthrough, ever. Even though the old AMC Gremlin, the vuvuzela, and one’s ability to text while driving contend for this dubious distinction, the VCR wins out in a contest of the stupidest of technologies perpetrated to quench homo sapiens’ unceasing thirst for cheap, novel, easily accessed, one-step fixations for an ultra-grainy, forever-flashing “12:00,” so-called “movie” experience. The VCR also accommodated video piracy more readily. The hard work, the artistry, and the sweat that went into making movies—especially Hindi movies—was suddenly reduced to $2 knockoff tapes in the bargain cart at Indian grocery stores on Devon Avenue. Indian filmmakers, lacking copyright protection enforcement muscle that is available in some other countries, were at a particular disadvantage. For the record, I never bought a single VHS movie. Nada!

After the dark ages of the VCR passed, there arrived the CD era, at roughly the same time that the Internet got a jump start. At first, it seemed shocking that people from all over the world could virtually meet and greet online. One such discovery lead to an online chatterbox called Blue Lotus that primarily attracted South Asian gay and lesbian contributors. It seemed to have some of the most cutting edge discussions about everything from finding housing in the Bay Area to advice on starting support groups.

I never missed an opportunity to give opinions about popular movies in the discussion groups, which in 1994 included were Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Mohra, and 1942: A Love Story. What propelled my foray into film critiquing was the arrival of two highly controversial movies from India—Bandit Queen andBombay. Both released in 1995 and both set off a firestorm of chatter online. Like for other recent movies I had seen, I posted a long-winding review of Bombay. In the comments I received, there was a very pleasant note from Arvind Kumar at India Currents. I had even inquired what India Currents was (imagine not knowing India Currents!). Arvind and I discussed my postings. He informed me that India Currents was looking for a film reviewer. I readily accepted. Over the years, 16 years to be exact, I traded many exchanges with first Arvind and then each successor editor at India Currents. And yet, it was not until 2010 that I actually met publisher Vandana Kumar and editor Vidya Pradhan face-to-face on a Bay Area long weekend trip. Meeting them truly felt as if I was reuniting with long-lost family members!

Being a part of India Currents has been a phenomenally enriching experience.  For a magazine to thrive for such a long time and make an impact on a region that is renowned for its geographic beauty, cultural inclusiveness, human diversity and economic as well as technological impact is hugely remarkable. This affiliation has opened doors to new ideas and channels for networking for me. It has also been immensely rewarding personally; when I received my first official “fan letter” from a reader in Fiji I nearly fainted! I am truly grateful to have been a part of this exciting enterprise!

So what has changed over the years I have been a part of India Currents? Hindi movies in the United States are now more commonplace than ever before. Second and third tier cities now regularly feature Hindi movies in multiplexes. International movie labels, including Disney, Sony, and Fox, are partnering up with UTV, Yashraj, and other prestige Indian labels to gain a toe-hold in India’s lucrative film industry. The fact that the industry as a whole and, more specifically, the financing of Hindi movies has opened up to international scrutiny and increasingly passes muster is a credit to a rapidly expanding South Asian giant.

My hope is that the opening up of India as an international film making hub will not be stifled by the status quo in who most often gets the financing. Currently, a half-dozen or so households with Mumbai-London connections are linked together by either marriage or business. Hrithik Roshan is related to Fardeen Khan who is married to a Madhvani from Uganda who in turn may have an alliance with a Yashraj scion. While the field for how films are financed and who gets the share of the financing pie and resulting revenue is still what amouRaghuji Chawda, my father, or Bwana Chawda as the locals christened him in Swahili, was a brilliant entrepreneur, philanthropist, adventurer, sometime hunter and even an occasional marriage counselor in the Indian community in Arua, Uganda, where I was born. As a community leader, he was the pre-eminent businessman that politicians, including remnants of the old British colonial overlords, courted to curry favor with the locals. One of my father’s dreams had been to own a cinema and in 1955, he made his dream come true.

His cinema, the first in the region, was perhaps the only one in a 200-mile radius area of northwestern Uganda. It was inaugurated with a screening of the Dev Anand classic Taxi Driver—shown in open air on a warm, starlit evening. Mom recalls that when the first show finally started, dad sat down on the ground—and cried.  This backdrop of a life lived with Hindi movies showing nightly in our compound forged my lifelong love affair with Hindi movies.

Looking back, my happy, privileged childhood in Uganda reads like an anomaly in light of the negative international spotlight that would zoom in on that country. By the time I was born in 1959, the cinema was thriving. As a business, the cinema was in addition to the family’s retail, garage, transport, construction, and farm operations. Chawda Cinema was the talk of West Nile District—the far northwest Ugandan administrative enclave bordered on the north by the Sudan, Congo (then Zaire) to the west and the River Nile to the east. In addition to being my birthplace (!) West Nile is famous for two other historical forces that became scourges to emerge from eastern Africa towards the end of the last millennia—theWest Niles virus, the mosquito-borne bug that has played havoc in far corners of the globe, and the distinction of being the home of Idi Amin, who rose from obscurity in the Ugandan army to take over that country in a military coup in 1971. And yes, my family knew Idi Amin before he became president; Arua was his home town.

Our cinema faced outward at one corner of a large walled-in area  on our property. Considering that I ran off to the cinema just about every night to catch my favorite stars Rajendra Kumar, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, and Vyjantimala on the big screen, it amazing that I kept up with school work! The cinema used a single vintage 16 mm projector that spun out black and white stock, one-after-another, from a small projector room onto a brick-and-mortar screen about 70 feet away.  Given the comfortable tropical climate, Arua’s 3,800 feet elevation gave it a balmy 76°F average year in and out, the open air staging made perfect sense.

My cinema memories from that period take me to the onset of an oft-heard Lata Mangeshkar song “Ruk Ja Raat Theher Ja Re Chanda,”—one I had heard a couple of hundred times already—and I remember how my eyes would invariably wander towards the stars or an occasional blindingly bright moon while listening to the songstress croon. The Hindu women’s annual jagaran celebration was played out with dandiya dances and then on to all-night Hindi film shows at the theater. For later evening shows, the women insisted on Dev Anand movies. More women would stay up to watch his movies than anyone else’s—the good-looking screen icon could mesmerize an audience in what amounted to a tropical, ladies-only midnight showing!

It was quite a shock when we had to leave Uganda on dictate from Idi Amin’s sudden pronouncement giving Uganda “Asians” 90 days to leave the country. We arrived in the United States as political refugees. The fact that my Ugandan education was in English—with lessons in Gujarati tossed—made the transition to life in the United States far easier for me than for others who joined the exodus of refugees out of Uganda.

Compounding the shock of arriving here in winter from a warm tropical country was the experience of leaving Arua and arriving in New York city a couple of days after Christmas, 1972. Nixon was president and the Watergate hearings saturated the airwaves.

During this journey, my obsession with Hindi movies did not diminish even as we settled in Lansing, Michigan. At college in East Lansing, I joined the India Student Association for a very selfish reason—I got to order Hindi movies for monthly campus screenings.  In the 1970s, Hindi movie screenings in the United States were primarily on single cinema, single show venues, with perhaps multiple shows thrown in on weekends. From Lansing, the nearest regularly scheduled shows were in suburban Detroit—more than 90 miles away, which seems far even by today’s GPS-aided drive times. On Saturday mornings, an AM station from Detroit played a half-hour Hindi language program which included Hindi songs and ads for new movie releases. On many Saturdays, we’d listen to the radio program on Saturday morning and, depending on what movies were showing (Fakira, Mehbooba, Dus Numbri), we’d bundle up in my sister’s old Datsun and travel across the state to catch the show.

Up until the late 1970s, most stage shows featuring Indian singers or actors were single-act shows that sometimes used medium-sized concert halls in larger cities but were limited in their appeal to audiences for that particular singer. In 1976, while visiting a brother in Montreal, I saw onstage the finest Indian music concert I have ever attended—a once-in-a-lifetime show with Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh singing on the same stage. To hear “Sawan ka Mahina” (from Milan) live by the original artists was a treat unto itself.

I had no idea how fortunate I was to catch that show in Montreal. The following week, the duo was scheduled to perform in Detroit. My sisters and I arrived at the venue—the magnificent Ford Auditorium in downtown Detroit—only to get the shocking news that the legendary Mukesh had passed away shortly before curtain call. The audience was given the choice of either getting a refund for the tickets, a then-steep $25, or donating the funds to help ship the singer’s body back to India. We drove back to Lansing with heavy hearts, and even though $75 poorer for the three tickets still in hand, extremely enriched by a lifetime of golden tunes the singer had bequeathed to us. There were other shows: Kishore Kumar in Kampala in 1971, R.D. Burman-Asha Bhosle in Montreal and in Detroit, Kishore Kumar in Detroit, Lata Mangeshkar in Chicago. For sentimental reasons, however, no show ever comes close to the Mangeshkar-Mukesh experience from the summer of 1976.

Single-act events, however, did not attract a wide enough audience to cover higher arena fees and eventually gave way to large venues with multi-media shows featuring up to half-a-dozen top line stars. The biggest of these, perhaps, had to be a single tour that featured Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Sridevi, Kalyanji Anandji and a host of playback singers, including Sadhana Sargam. The tickets got pricier, with VIP passes going for up to $500, and proved to be a successful formula that waned only in the years following 9/11.

On the home front, meanwhile, there arrived a most dangerous and sinister force ever unleashed on mankind—yes, the dastardly VCR. The VCR, hands down, had to be the single-worst technological breakthrough, ever. Even though the old AMC Gremlin, the vuvuzela, and one’s ability to text while driving contend for this dubious distinction, the VCR wins out in a contest of the stupidest of technologies perpetrated to quench homo sapiens’ unceasing thirst for cheap, novel, easily accessed, one-step fixations for an ultra-grainy, forever-flashing “12:00,” so-called “movie” experience. The VCR also accommodated video piracy more readily. The hard work, the artistry, and the sweat that went into making movies—especially Hindi movies—was suddenly reduced to $2 knockoff tapes in the bargain cart at Indian grocery stores on Devon Avenue. Indian filmmakers, lacking copyright protection enforcement muscle that is available in some other countries, were at a particular disadvantage. For the record, I never bought a single VHS movie. Nada!

After the dark ages of the VCR passed, there arrived the CD era, at roughly the same time that the Internet got a jump start. At first, it seemed shocking that people from all over the world could virtually meet and greet online. One such discovery lead to an online chatterbox called Blue Lotus that primarily attracted South Asian gay and lesbian contributors. It seemed to have some of the most cutting edge discussions about everything from finding housing in the Bay Area to advice on starting support groups.

I never missed an opportunity to give opinions about popular movies in the discussion groups, which in 1994 included were Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Mohra, and 1942: A Love Story. What propelled my foray into film critiquing was the arrival of two highly controversial movies from India—Bandit Queen and Bombay. Both released in 1995 and both set off a firestorm of chatter online. Like for other recent movies I had seen, I posted a long-winding review of Bombay. In the comments I received, there was a very pleasant note from Arvind Kumar at India Currents. I had even inquired what India Currents was (imagine not knowing India Currents!). Arvind and I discussed my postings. He informed me that India Currents was looking for a film reviewer. I readily accepted. Over the years, 16 years to be exact, I traded many exchanges with first Arvind and then each successor editor at India Currents. And yet, it was not until 2010 that I actually met publisher Vandana Kumar and editor Vidya Pradhan face-to-face on a Bay Area long weekend trip. Meeting them truly felt as if I was reuniting with long-lost family members!

Being a part of India Currents has been a phenomenally enriching experience.  For a magazine to thrive for such a long time and make an impact on a region that is renowned for its geographic beauty, cultural inclusiveness, human diversity and economic as well as technological impact is hugely remarkable. This affiliation has opened doors to new ideas and channels for networking for me. It has also been immensely rewarding personally; when I received my first official “fan letter” from a reader in Fiji I nearly fainted! I am truly grateful to have been a part of this exciting enterprise!

So what has changed over the years I have been a part of India Currents? Hindi movies in the United States are now more commonplace than ever before. Second and third tier cities now regularly feature Hindi movies in multiplexes. International movie labels, including Disney, Sony, and Fox, are partnering up with UTV, Yashraj, and other prestige Indian labels to gain a toe-hold in India’s lucrative film industry. The fact that the industry as a whole and, more specifically, the financing of Hindi movies has opened up to international scrutiny and increasingly passes muster is a credit to a rapidly expanding South Asian giant.

My hope is that the opening up of India as an international film making hub will not be stifled by the status quo in who most often gets the financing. Currently, a half-dozen or so households with Mumbai-London connections are linked together by either marriage or business. Hrithik Roshan is related to Fardeen Khan who is married to a Madhvani from Uganda who in turn may have an alliance with a Yashraj scion. While the field for how films are financed and who gets the share of the financing pie and resulting revenue is still what amounts to an oligarchy, where I find “artistic democracy” becoming entrenched is in Hindi film playback singing. What was once a domain controlled by a handful of singers (Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Mohd. Rafi, Asha Bhosle) is now excitingly open and new voices are continuously being tested on the charts. Indipop bands like Bombay Vikings now routinely lend their lead singers to music directors like Pritam for a niche number for an Akshay Kumar movie. This development heralds a new creative era in Hindi film music, one that, I hope, will be followed by a similar movement to bring fresh blood and new talent in the movies themselves.

Now if they would only get rid of bad popcorn at concession stands and replace it with good espresso!

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

nts to an oligarchy, where I find “artistic democracy” becoming entrenched is in Hindi film playback singing. What was once a domain controlled by a handful of singers (Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Mohd. Rafi, Asha Bhosle) is now excitingly open and new voices are continuously being tested on the charts. Indipop bands like Bombay Vikings now routinely lend their lead singers to music directors like Pritam for a niche number for an Akshay Kumar movie. This development heralds a new creative era in Hindi film music, one that, I hope, will be followed by a similar movement to bring fresh blood and new talent in the movies themselves.

Now if they would only get rid of bad popcorn at concession stands and replace it with good espresso!n

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

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