'Like a cartel:' Shootings point to turf war over rights to screen South Indian films

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — The day Thomas Shajan was expecting to see a South Indian action epic at a theatre in British Columbia, a spate of shootings thousands of kilometres away disrupted his plans.

Shajan, a self-described South Indian film fanatic, said he had been waiting months to see Malaikottai Vaaliban, a blockbuster Malayalam-language film about an aging warrior who reigns over a vast desert.

Hours before the scheduled showtimein late January, Cineplex sent a message saying the screening had been cancelled and the company would be issuing a refund "due to circumstances outside our control."

Shajan, who moved to Surrey, B.C., from Kerala in southern India in 2017, said he was "heartbroken."

"I was really sad and we were never told why," he said in a phone interview earlier this month.

But the events that forced the cancellation soon became more clear.

Earlier in the day, police in Ontario reported shootings at four theatres in the Greater Toronto Area, which had been planning to show Malaikottai Vaaliban. Windows were shattered in some locations, but no injuries were reported.

York Regional Police said this monththat while the drive-by shootings in their area remained under investigation, they believe the incidents were targeted and involved the same suspect.

For Shajan and Saleem Padinharkkara, who distributes South Indian films in Canada, those reports did not come as a shock.

Padinharkkara, who lives in Ontario and is the founder of film distribution company KW Talkies, alleged that there is an ongoing campaign to prevent popular South Indian movies from appearing in major Canadian theatre chains like Cineplex.

He claimed there is a group of distributors trying to ensure that these films are only shown in a select group of smaller, independent theatres, which charge higher ticket prices than large chains like Cineplex or Landmark Cinemas.

This, he alleged, was part of an effort to safeguard higher profits by controlling the market.

For example, he said Cineplex tickets can cost anywhere between $13 to $16 but people can pay up to $30 per ticket to watch a South Indian movie at a smaller theatre.

"It's like a cartel," added Padinharkkara, who said he has personally received threats for trying to distribute rights to South Indian movies to certain theatres.

"It's disheartening. It's soul destroying. I've lost money too. There's a set of theatres in the GTA that are benefiting from these attacks. For me, it's very blatant what's happening but … there's nobody talking about what's happening."

Padinharkkara said that cancellations, like those that affected Malaikottai Vaaliban, result in "a big loss" for the distributor.

"There is no way he is going to recover his money and movies have a shelf life."

The Movie Theatre Association of Canada wrote in a statement that it "was aware of various incidents that have occurred at member theatre locations" and "it has been tremendously frustrating that criminal activity has prevented theatres from safely playing certain content."

The association has had "productive meetings with Public Safety Canada" and it "is working closely with both local authorities and the federal government to raise awareness," the statement added.

Public Safety Canada did not comment on the shootings.

Cineplex's chief executive Ellis Jacob said in February that the company lost money due to the shootings but it remains determined to offer international programming, which makes up 10 per cent of its annual box office revenues compared with four per cent at many of its counterparts.

"We are working very closely with the authorities,” Jacob said, noting that the most important thing is the safety of staff and moviegoers.

Canadian interest in South Indian cinema has been rising.

Shajan linked that in part to the COVID-19 pandemic when people were searching for a wider variety of content to stream with theatres shuttered. He also cited the growing numbers of immigrants from southern India.

Padinharkkara said that in 2010 rights to distribute a South Indian movie in Canada cost between $10,000 and $20, 000. Now those rights can cost up to $200,000.

Shajan has started a petition signed by about 500 people urging the federal government, the RCMP, Cineplex, Landmark Cinemas and others to take action.

"These criminal activities not only undermine the cultural diversity represented by South Indian cinema but also limit the choices available to movie lovers in Canada," his petition states.

"The attacks and intimidation tactics against theatres daring to show South Indian movies demonstrate a blatant disregard for the principles of fair competition and freedom of artistic expression."

- with files from Tara Deschamps.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2024.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Thomas Shajan's last name