While growing up in India in the 1970s Amir Khan was wild about movies. He'd sit through the same feature three or four times at a stretch. Some of the films he saw were American (a favorite was the disaster movie Airport '77) and others were from Hong Kong (Bruce Lee was a boyhood hero). But most were from Bollywood, the name Indians use for Bombay, the center of the world's busiest movie industry.
Movies play a dominant role in Indian popular culture, just as the glamour and energy of Hollywood films captured the hearts of the U.S. public in the 1930s and '40s. It's estimated that 100 million tickets are sold in India every week. "One block one theater," says Khan. According to writer Pico Iyer, there are more touring theaters--traveling "year-round from village to village" projecting movies on portable screens--than there are movie houses in all of England. Each year Bollywood cranks out two to four times as many films as Hollywood.
Still, Bollywood movies are usually wild, uneven affairs. Films can take several years to complete, in part because money is always in short supply and because stars are contracted month by month. An actor whose contract ends before the film is finished may not be available for another six months; you may actually see actors change clothes or lose or gain weight in the middle of a scene. The delirious, epiclike stories--most films are at least three hours long--include tangled love affairs, tales of rivalries and revenge, and tear-jerking plot twists: children torn from their parents, lovers unjustly separated, people killed by senseless acts of violence. Yet almost all Indian films are musicals. Even the makers of violent action movies like Angrakshak--in which a corrupt politician's daughter is kidnapped by mobsters and nailed like Jesus to the floor of a deserted warehouse--find time for several bouncy dance numbers. Songs are usually lip-synched by the actors and sung by "playback artists," who are often pop stars in their own right. Dubbing is commonplace, because the films cater to a country where there are 16 official languages.
Despite Khan's love of Bollywood, he never tried to break into the movie business. Instead he studied accounting. At the suggestion of friends who'd already immigrated to the U.S., he moved to Chicago and started working at a grocery store on Devon owned by Mafat Patel, who'd been a good friend of his father's back in India. Khan was overwhelmed at first. "India is not like a free country. In India mostly you have to go with the decisions of mommy and daddy--you have to ask your family first and they support you in what you do," he says. "Here, if you have good credit, you have a good business. No problem."
Patel helped Khan adjust to life in America. "He taught me wherever you want to stay, you have to go with that country." He also taught Khan how to run a successful business, emphasizing the importance of customer relations. "Money is not a big deal," Khan says. "Relation is a big deal. If you build a relation then money is coming."
Khan eventually moved up from cashier to manager. Then in 1992 Patel purchased a video store specializing in Indian films, Al-Mansoor, and asked Khan to manage it. Khan jumped at the chance and threw himself into sprucing up the store and trying to make the tiny space more customer friendly--rearranging the long shelves of videos, making sure there were eye-catching movie posters in the window, and getting to know his customers.
Three months ago, inspired by his success at Al-Mansoor, Khan bought his own shop--an ailing giant of a video store, Atlantic Video Rentals. One of the largest video stores on Devon, with 15,000 videos (plus a huge selection of CDs and cassettes), it had the look of a Blockbuster. The spacious, well-lit blue-and-white interior should have been an advantage on a street filled with cramped closet-size storefronts, but to Khan the place seemed cold and uninviting. One of the first things he did was cover the store's plate-glass windows with posters--tough-looking heroes holding huge automatic weapons flee large orange explosions; lovers embrace each other or otherwise pose in ecstasy. Inside are posters of India's rising and reigning stars: Salman Khan, Juhi Chalwa, Madhuri Dixit, Shahrukh Khan, Sridevi.
As he did at Al-Mansoor, Khan also makes a point of greeting all of his customers at the door.
He loves discussing films--which ones to rent, who's hot in India and in Indian com-munities in America. "I love to tell you, watch this movie," he says.
Khan attracts many non-Indian customers, though his customer base is mostly Indian and Pakistani. Recent immigrants from Russia come to rent films by the late actor and director Raj Kapoor, who was for many years India's top star and who remains popular in Russia and the Middle East. (Kapoor's films have their own section in the store.) Most of Khan's other European-American customers head straight for the shelf marked "Religious," right next to a shelf marked "Cricket Matches."
"They rent the Mahabharata. The Krishna serials. I have those with English subtitles. They also buy most classical music. Tabla. Sitar. Ragas. Ravi Shankar."
Do many people come in looking for Satyajit Ray films?
Khan discreetly says he doesn't think he has any in stock. Ray made art films--they aren't as popular as Bollywood's mainstream fare. "But if you want," Khan smiles, "I could get for you Ray."
Atlantic Video Rentals is at 2541 W. Devon. Call 773-338-3600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.