Rajdeep and Navdeep Sandhu loved going to the movies when they were growing up in Punjab, India. Although the Punjabi film industry hasn’t gained the international attention of the Bollywood films from India, the brothers loved the comedy, romance and moral stories they addressed.
Their passion for the films was put on hold when they moved to the United States to work in their father’s gas station business. An occasional Bollywood film would be booked into a Fresno theater, but none of the Punjabi movies they enjoyed. They would drive to the Bay Area to see the movies.
That changed after a long drive to see “Mel Karade Rabba,” a 2010 Punjabi movie about a love triangle. The brothers decided it was time to do something.
“It seemed a very shameful thing for us that there are 50,000 Punjabi living in the town and we didn’t have a Punjabi movie playing in our city,” Rajdeep says.
They were able to secure the rights to show “Mel Karade Rabba” in Fresno in 2011 at the Sierra Vista Cinemas 16. To make sure the film was a success, the brothers contacted their friends and family and asked them to attend the screenings. They only made a small amount of money, but the experience was so good they decided to keep booking films.
“It was hard at the beginning,” Navdeep Sandhu says. “We would print up 5,000 fliers, go to the temple to promote it. It took us about a year to get people used to us booking films here.”
They formed Bridgeline Studios, a distribution company for Punjabi movies in the United States and Canada. Locally, their films are shown at Sierra Vista Mall Cinema 16, but they book films into as many as 75 locations, mostly in California including Bakersfield and Modesto.
The brothers work with different groups in each city. They have worked with restaurant owner Jasvir Singh for years. He is the liaison with the Clovis theater to secure screen space and promote the movie.
The brothers don’t expect to ever match the popularity of a top Bollywood movie, which can open in 300 American theaters.
“Our community is smaller. With Hindi movies, Punjabi people will watch them. But Punjabi movies are only watched by Punjabi people,” Navdeep Sandhu says.
Although the brothers estimate the number of Punjabi living in the Fresno region at 50,000, the Sikh Institute Fresno sets the number at between 35,000 and 40,000. The brothers know they cannot keep booking Punjabi movies without the support of the community.
And they have support. There have been weeks the films out-gross English-language movies at the Clovis theater. Sierra Vista Mall is one of the busiest of the theaters where the brothers book films.
Michael Timko, film buyer for Santa Rosa Entertainment Group, which owns the Clovis theater, classifies the bookings as successful. He credits the large Punjab population in the area and the hard work of those promoting the movies. Punjabi movies have not done as well in other Santa Rosa Entertainment markets.
The biggest success so far was the 2015 release “Angerj,” which played in Fresno for six weeks.
Just like Bollywood films that have a wide following, all of the Punjabi films are musicals that often star popular singers. The brothers tend to work with the two or three large production companies in Punjab that have turned out solid hits in the past. There also look for certain actors who are safe bets when it comes to the box office. Most of the movies booked have English subtitles.
The subtitles aren’t always just for those who don’t speak the language. There are a lot of words and phrases used that are unfamiliar to Punjabi who live in the United States.
“We see a lot of Punjabi at the movies, but we also see a lot of other people. There are a lot of people who want to learn about other people’s cultures,” Rajdeep Sandhu says. “The people who have their kids born here, they want to teach them Punjabi or they want their kids to stay connected to the Punjabi language. Then there are people like us, who grew up in India, and are already hooked to these kinds of movies.”
Many factors determine how long a movie stays in the theater. There are limitations because of the number of screens available. When a major film such as “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” or “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens, they take additional theaters and leave little room for other films.
The week before “Batman v Superman” opened, Punjabi movies were the second- and third-biggest draws at the Sierra Vista Cinemas 16 behind “Zootopia.”