Planet Bollywood makes its mark on the Pacific Northwest

A rickshaw painted by Bobby Solanki depicts a classic Bollywood scene featuring Amitabh Buchchan and Rekha. (Photo from Flickr by Meena Kadri)

My first Bollywood experience was driven more by air conditioning than cinematic interest. I was on a trip to Morocco (where Indian films are immensely popular) when an icy gust released from swinging theater doors lured me in from the sweltering sidewalk for three frosty hours of song, dance and star-crossed lovers.

The length of the film was challenging and the musical format took some getting used to. But the glamour, drama and romance were undeniable, and I’ve been drawn to all things Bollywood ever since.

With recent Seattle temperatures pushing 90, I again turned to movie listings for some air-conditioned relief and was excited to discover that a number of local theaters have started playing Indian films.

And screenings aren’t all. From Facebook groups to festivals, dance parties to college courses, our region enthusiastically celebrates the global powerhouse that is the Indian film industry.

“All of us grew up on a steady diet of Bollywood music,” explains self-identified “Bollywood aficionado” (and associate professor of economics at Seattle University by day) Meenakshi Rishi. “It is like mother’s milk to us.”

Rishi — who helped start a local Facebook group where members play a regular game of Bollywood trivia — says Bollywood offers glittery escapism from daily life, as well as a regular connection to India, where she was born and raised.

“For the Indian Diaspora [it’s a way] to keep in touch with what is going on in India, to feel like you’re back there and share something that feels uniquely Indian,” explains Rishi.

She says regular showings of Bollywood films at local multiplexes are a sign of the cultural impact of the growing Indian population in the Pacific Northwest.

Chandana Dixit — a famous Bollywood singer who now lives in Redmond. She is also an accomplished artist who did the painting in the photo herself. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Chandana Dixit — a famous Bollywood singer who now lives in Redmond. She is also an accomplished artist who did the painting in the photo herself. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

But it’s not only Indians and Indian Americans who are interested in Bollywood.

Former Bollywood singer Chandana Dixit says her connection to the industry interests people of all backgrounds.

“Whenever you tell anyone about [working in Bollywood], they’re so intrigued all other conversation immediately stops — everyone wants to know more,” says Dixit in her Redmond home where she teaches classical Indian and Bollywood singing to Indians and non-Indians alike.

Dixit’s own rise to fame reads much like a Bollywood film script. At 20, she cold-called a Bollywood music producer who — impressed by her pluck — auditioned her and then quickly moved her to Mumbai (the center of the Indian film and music industry) to groom her for success.

After a few years of struggling to land jobs she won a singing contest that led to a hit song and, ultimately, a career singing in more than 40 Hindi-language films.

Burnt out by long hours and the cutthroat nature of the business, Dixit moved to Washington with her husband in 2002 to start a family and pursue new creative projects (she now paints and performs classical Indian music).

She describes her time in Bollywood with a laugh, “It’s just like a universe, a planet of its own completely.”

It’s a planet many in our region are eager to visit. Students at Seattle University have the opportunity to travel to Mumbai to meet Bollywood directors, stars and film journalists with associate professor Sonora Jha as part of a “Mass Media in Modern India” class.

“Husn Hai Suhana” — one of Chandana Dixit’s best known songs.

Seattle-born director Adam Dow now lives in Mumbai and recently released “Beyond Bollywood,” a documentary that explores the industry from the perspective of unsung, behind-the-scenes players like makeup artists, labor organizers and aspiring actors.

“The Earth is becoming a smaller and smaller place by the minute,” writes Dow in an email from Mumbai explaining the interest of American, and specifically Seattle, audiences in his film. “With the giant Diaspora of Indians that are working in Seattle … there is a bunch of demand for cross-cultural relations.”

You may not be able to make it to Bollywood yourself, but if you’re interested in exploring from a distance Lincoln Square Cinemas in Bellevue, the Regal Parkway Plaza in Tukwila, the Roxy Cinema in Renton and Totem Lake Cinema in Kirkland are all currently playing newly released Bollywood films.Maybe I’ll see you there on the next 90-degree day.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at