Theatrical ambitions 

Pursuit of the American dream fuels Galaxy Cinema's global reach

When the Atlanta business community talks about its coveted status as an international city, it probably has something out of Fortune magazine in mind. Picture global companies beating down the city's door to do business, international conferences held in its downtown hotels, Scandinavian businessmen drunk on locally brewed beer making a beeline for the Cheetah. What the city's business elite probably are not thinking about are the less glamorous examples of Atlanta's already thriving internationalism: the Latino groceries and video game parlors that cater to a young Asian clientele; the steady stream of chartered buses to Mexico City; restaurants from every corner of the globe that line Buford Highway and make the city undeniably multicultural.

Aziz Damani, a 27-year-old entrepreneur, is part of that thriving world of Atlanta's new internationalism. And he has every intention of profiting from it. Damani is an immigrant who moved to America with his family 16 years ago to escape cultural oppression and the lack of educational opportunities in Pakistan. Today, his family lives just five minutes away from the business that Damani has founded, Galaxy Cinema, home to an eclectic roster of world cinema from India, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Iran, Mexico and Europe. Damani calls the Galaxy "the Southeast's first multicultural entertainment megaplex," and he has made it the theater's mission to cater to the Hispanic, Indian, African and Asian families who live along Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

The very location of the Galaxy is a newly minted immigrant's nexus. Nestled in one of Atlanta's ubiquitous strip malls on Jimmy Carter Boulevard, the theater shares its digs with businesses that provide necessities for setting up a home-away-from-home: a Kmart, an Aaron's and Damani's own forthcoming project, an International Flea Market, opening Dec. 1.

Posters for upcoming Indian films line the corridor that leads to the Galaxy. Soulful lovers in angst-filled embraces feature pert young things -- the Meg Ryans of India -- and their handsome paramours. Inside, the concessions stand offers the usual multiplex artery-cloggers but also samosas and a United Nations array of ice cream flavors: chocolate, mango, pista kulfi, kesar kulfi. Since opening, Damani has offered a sprinkling of solid art house fare (Amores Perros, Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, The Wind Will Carry Us, Lumumba) but also flashy bubblegum entertainments like the Indian thriller Abhay that make the theater appealing to a mainstream crowd.

In his white baseball cap and black leather blazer, his cell phone ringing off his belt, Damani is the very picture of American prosperity. The kind of guy who seems to thrive on a deal in the works, Damani fairly hums with entrepreneurial energy.

"We come from a country that doesn't give you the opportunity to make money," says Damani.

His roots in Pakistan have significantly influenced his passion to take full advantage of the splendor of American possibility. A changed political landscape in the late '70s and early '80s inspired the Damanis to immigrate to the U.S. In addition to the growing trend of Islamic rule that imposed increasing restrictions on citizens' freedom, learning English was banned. That was especially galling for a family that placed emphasis on learning the international language -- the language of the global marketplace and economic progress. "Everybody had to study -- even math -- in Urdu," remembers Damani. His family never returned to the country that proved so stifling, especially when compared with America's heady possibilities.

"You get an opportunity, and you live once, and you can be mediocre or you can be a king," says Damani.

In Atlanta, Damani earned a degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech, but he was dissatisfied with his earning potential. "I worked about six to 12 months then decided it was not enough money," says Damani.

Heeding the call of a legion of ambitious immigrants before him, Damani could not deny the lure of small-business ownership and decided to buy a former United Artists theater located on the immigrant hub of Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

Though venues like the High Museum and George Lefont's Garden Hills have offered their share of foreign films, they often are off the radar of mainstream Koreans, Latinos and Africans who have made the Atlanta suburb of Norcross a New Internationalist metropolis. While such intown theaters address foreign film as a specialty market, from Damani's Norcross perch, it's the only market, with crowds clamoring for entertainment geared to its tastes.

"I thought why not show the Indian movies?" says Damani of the popular and prolific musicals, comedies and dramas churned out of that country's Bollywood movie industry. That programming decision quickly enlarged to include cinema from around the world at the five-screen Galaxy Cinema. Eventually Damani hopes to realize even larger ambitions, for an entertainment complex featuring a coffee bar and performance stages.

It hasn't been a cakewalk, though, becoming the impresario of your own international strip mall.

"Big problem," says Damani, ticking off a list of barriers to his celluloid empire. "Today I bring out a movie, tomorrow the pirate DVD comes out." Dealing with the complexities of film distribution is just one of any number of difficulties facing an enterprising exhibitor in a competitive market of intown art houses, seductive mega-multiplexes and the lure of Hollywood product.

"In six months it's taken me $200,000 in loans and debts ..." he trails off, as if reluctant to dwell on the amount of money already sunk into the cinema. But Damani remains optimistic that the market for international cinema is here and, given time, that his economic future is secure.

Now a "one-man show basically" handling booking, advertising, hiring and all the myriad details of running his own business, Damani also contends with some of the subtler aspects of catering to an audience of immigrants. "You are a Third World country, you're born with that," he says. "You cannot let it go." Such an audience carries in its mind a sense of its Third World origin and is often on the lookout for some insult or slight, he says. But Damani is well qualified to understand the psychology of fitting in to a new environment, and he is aware of the extra burden often carried by immigrants judged by their fellow immigrants.

Damani's enthusiasm for making the Galaxy work is an infectious blend of youthful post-college dreaminess, American ambition and, perhaps most importantly, the certainty that has driven so many immigrants who've come from a place where opportunities are scarce. Though the marquee advertises international cinema, the Galaxy's heart is admirable testament to the ideological power source of American-fueled dreams.

"That's why this is a beautiful country, you can be broke and come back up, whereas in Pakistan if you're poor, you stay down."

The Galaxy Cinema is located at 4975 Jimmy Carter Blvd., in the Green Corners Shopping Center. 770-931-FILM. www.galaxycinema.com.

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