Guiding S. Jersey's foreign film series

Posted: May 02, 2014

What matters most in a movie, Ramesh Kajaria says, is the story.

This one might have possibilities: A boy grows up in "Bollywood," immigrates to America, and, after a successful engineering career, finds happiness curating a foreign film series in South Jersey.

"There were five studios in Andheri, my town in suburban Bombay, and my friend and I used to sneak inside and watch movies being made," Kajaria (kuh-jar-ia), 67, recalls.

"Bollywood was a big part of life," he says. "Movies were quite inexpensive in those days - about one rupee," 20 cents.

Audiences snacked on roasted peanuts as ceiling fans turned, and "if you wanted air-conditioning, you had to go to the big theaters downtown."

I meet the genial, soft-spoken, self-taught scholar of cinema at the Evesham Township branch of the Burlington County Library System, where he started his monthly Sunday matinees in 2004 by showing Run Lola Run, a streetwise German film with a pulsing techno music soundtrack.

The Marlton resident last year launched a similar series (once again with Run Lola Run, a film he calls "very action-packed") at the Mount Laurel Library. Both series are free and generally attract a couple dozen people, most of them middle-aged and older.

The showings are open to anyone who wants to watch and discuss recent or classic films from around the world.

Coming soon to Evesham: Central Station (Brazil) and The Red Violin (Italy). In Mount Laurel, A Better Life (Mexico) and The Syrian Bride (Israel) are up next.

"These aren't just movies he picks off a shelf and says, 'This will do,'" says Evesham library manager Sue Szymanik, who encouraged Kajaria to start the series. "He knows his movies, and he knows what his [audience] will like."

Says Joan Serpico, Mount Laurel library's manager of special projects: "He's on a mission to expose as many people as possible to [a] beautiful art that enables them to understand other people."

Kajaria grew up the eldest of five children in a middle-class family. His accountant father didn't care much for movies, but his mother, a homemaker, took him to his first foreign film.

American movies and stars like Rock Hudson were popular with Indian audiences. But the moviegoing masses loved Hindi-language Bollywood fare - full of songs, dance, car chases, and romance.

(Rather like Hollywood, without the superheros and zombies.)

Kajaria also took in the more philosophical work of acclaimed director Guru Dutt, whose Pyassa ( "Thirsty"), Kaagaz Ke Phool (" Paper Flowers"), and other postwar films "made me realize that moviemaking was an art in his hands." And he became a fan of the director Satyajit Ray, whom he describes as "the best India has ever produced."

Kajaria immigrated to America to attend Tulane University in New Orleans in 1971, served in the U.S. Army, and became a U.S. citizen. He got a job as a mechanical engineer at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and earned a master's degree from Drexel University, where he taught engineering management until his retirement in 2009.

These days "I watch 125 to 150 foreign films every year. I keep Netflix in business," Kajaria says. "If I don't like a film, I don't show it. I know my own opinion, so I usually start by asking the audience for theirs."

"He always shows wonderful movies, not all this violence and Spider-Man and all that," says Mount Laurel resident Dorothy Pensiero, 86.

The mother of a dear friend of mine and a regular at the screenings since 2005, Pensiero says Kajaria often recommends current movies.

"I just saw The Lunchbox," she adds. "It was a beautiful movie."

A film "has to touch your heart," Kajaria says. Although he's "completely" a Woody Allen fan, he generally finds more compelling "human drama" in films from abroad.

And after reading nearly 100 books on cinema, he's writing one of his own.

The working title: 101 Fabulous Foreign Films.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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