Growing up in Kashmir, Raj Singh loved going to the theater. "In Kashmir, I was watching two movies in a day," Singh recalls. "Here, I have no time to see movies."
Movies, instead, are Singh's job. As general manager of the Naz 8 cinema in Artesia, which is northeast of Long Beach, he runs an operation that screens Bollywood movies -- as many as 12 shows a day, seven days a week.
Naz 8 theaters are reminiscent of home for many immigrants, Singh says. The one in Artesia isn't much to look at -- it's at the end of a strip mall off the 605 freeway, flanked by a laundry and a uniform supply store. (Most of the mall's other storefronts are recession-era empty, fluorescent lights flickering on and off.)
But inside the theater, alongside boxes of movie theater candy, the concessions stand features Indian tea in Styrofoam cups and crunchy samosas, brought in from a nearby Little India restaurant.
Most of the theater's movies are in Hindi, but it also shows regional Indian cinema, along with films from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Korea.
Moviegoers can speak and hear their languages, Singh says. They feel comfortable bringing their traditions to the theater. Crowds at a recently screened Tamil film, for example, threw newspaper confetti at the screen when their favorite actor appeared.
"In India, people throw money," Singh explains.
Singh, 44, left Kashmir in 2001. His first job in the United States was as a cashier at the Naz 8 cinema in Fremont, across the bay from San Francisco. He became the manager there six months later and, in 2003, transferred to Artesia.
He eagerly describes his homeland as jannat, a heaven on Earth, unparalleled in its natural beauty. But Singh came to the United States seeking political asylum during a particularly violent period in Kashmir and has not seen his family, including his wife and child, since he left some 10 years ago. Recently granted asylum, he hopes to bring his family to California soon.
Singh remembers opening day of the 2003 romantic melodrama Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow Might Never Come), when 4,000 people came to watch the three-hour movie, lining up for hourly screenings that began on a Thursday afternoon and ran through midnight.
It's different here than it was in Kashmir, Singh says. In America, his customers want to see love stories.
"American people are far from their families," he explains.