Indians at Cultural Crossroads: Local Groups Find Unity in the Diversity

Article excerpt

On good nights, the line can stretch halfway down the sidewalk toward the other end of the strip mall. But sometimes only a few people show up. They wear a mix of colorful saris and shlawar keemz, long tunics with pants, as well as formal suits and casual street clothes. Mothers in traditional dress are accompanied by teen-agers in baggy pants and flannel shirts.

They've come to Loehmann's Cinema in Falls Church to see first-run movies from the Indian subcontinent. Movie nights are among the ways the South Asian community of Washington holds on to its culture. Most movies are only two weeks old - anything older than that already has been pirated. Unlike American movies, most are nearly three hours long, full of songs and Indian movie stars, with little reference to sex.

"Every other movie, I'm here," says Ali Abbas, who drives in from his home near Dulles Airport to see the movies. "I like the ones that are a little different than the typical Indian movies, but I'll come to anything."

During the intermission, many of the men, from different parts of South Asia, congregate outside or in the lobby, talking about politics or home. "There's always someone here to talk to," Mr. Abbas says. "Talking to people from different places is part of the experience."

"All kinds of people come to the movies here," says Rahima, who asks that her last name not be used. Her company, Hindi Movie Entertainment of Northern Virginia, leases one screen in the bargain movie theater on Route 50. "From the ambassador's deputy chief to our people at 7-Eleven, they all like to come here."

For many, this is the big night out. It's a social event, and most people dress up for a night at the movies. Women who are stay-at-home homemakers flock to the evening shows. Teen-agers who are not allowed inside area discos are allowed to come to the movies unchaperoned, although most come with their parents. Families with young children come prepared with baby bottles and fresh diapers.

Of course, sometimes business suffers. It's mostly during the football season - American football, not soccer - when the men of the household are too busy watching the games to drive to see the latest import from India.

"The ladies don't watch [the games], but usually the men drive, so if they won't drive, no one goes," Rahima explains.

Business should pick up soon with the beginning of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in late October and November. Exact dates are at the discretion of each temple. In India, which produces movies at a pace second only to production schedules in the United States, that is the time when all the big movies are released. It's when the biggest crowds come. For the past 2 1/2 decades, the population from the Indian subcontinent has swelled dramatically in the Washington area as well as around the country. By the late 1960s, only about 1,500 Indians, many of them students, lived in the District. Upon graduating, however, many chose to remain in the Washington area. As the political situation on the subcontinent worsened, others came in search of a better life.

Today, there are more than 65,000 people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the metropolitan area. The majority are white-collar professionals with homes in the suburbs and children born here.

Like any immigrant group confronted with the strangeness of a new land, the Indian community has struggled to reconcile the old traditions to a new way of doing things. This is a special challenge, for the community itself reflects the linguistic, religious and geographic diversity of the subcontinent.

"Back in India, every 200 miles there's a new dialect, a new food," says Dr. Renuka Misra, president of the India Cultural Coordination Committee (ICCC).

More than 1,500 languages and dialects are spoken in India, with 15 languages officially recognized by the Indian Constitution. …