About a month before the new apartments in the old Naaz Theatre were finally cued to open, owner Gurnam Multani was upstairs moving Whirlpools.
Not hot tubs, he said, but dishwashers, good ones, for the 25 two- and three-bedroom suites he plans to start renting in July.
With plaster dust on his pin-striped pants, and a cell phone that never quit, Multani walked downstairs and across the granite-tiled ground floor where the Angela Beauty Parlour will go and agreed to sit a while and share his take on the first star of Little India.
“Everybody came to the Naaz Theatre,” he said, smiling.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Gerrard-Ashdale Library on Gerrard Street East, the Naaz Theatre got its name from Gian Naz.
A mechanical engineer who loved movies, Naz moved to Toronto in 1968 and found nowhere to watch South Asian films. So he began screening them himself, at first using a 16 mm projector that he set up in school gyms.
At a time when VHS was still a faraway and secret project by another two engineers in Japan, Naz’ screenings were popular enough that by 1972 he started renting theatres to show full 35 mm prints.
The empty Eastwood Theatre on Gerrard became the favourite, and in two years, he had the $10,000 to buy the building, and rename it Naaz.
“I was here every day,” said Multani, who started running the Skylark restaurant across the street in 1979.
Besides the 750-seat theatre, the Naaz housed a meeting hall that would occasionally host receptions for visiting Bollywood stars. As the first theatre of its kind in North America, it drew visitors from Chicago, New York, Buffalo, and Montreal.
And it always drew Multani from across the street, in part because he and Mr. Naz struck a special deal – dinners at Skylark for tickets to the Naaz.
Dinner and a movie is not only the most trusted recipe for a good first date. On Gerrard Street, it started the whole India Bazaar.
Gurjit Chadha says he knew nothing about restaurants when he and his wife opened MotiMahal, the first in Little India, back in 1975.
“I was a travel agent, so I worked in a travel agency,” said Chadha. “My wife came, and she cooks very good food – everybody said, ‘Why don’t you open a restaurant?’”
Today, Chadha’s daughter Neelu Sabharwal and her husband Harjot are slowly taking things over from her unstoppable dad and “Super Woman” mom, who still cooks all the time. Incredibly, the other cooks, Sohan Singh and Kalam Singh, have been with them since day one.
Neelu said she still hears stories from her parents’ original customers. Before or after a movie at the Naaz, people would walk the street to pick one of the several Indian and Pakistani restaurants that sprang up after MotiMahal.
Neelu heard about one family who saw a man standing alone and asked him, “Where’s a good place to eat?”
The man thumbed to the restaurant just behind him, and followed as they walked inside. He stepped behind the counter, smiled, and said, “How can I help you?”
It was her dad all along, said Neelu, laughing.
Two years after the Gerrard India Bazaar got its official start as a BIA in 1982, it reported a year with 100,000 visiting tourists. With a low US dollar and a stand-out market complete with South Asian restaurants, sari shops, jewelry and music stores, it was a high point. But there were plenty of low points, too.
“I’ve seen a lot of hard times here,” said Multani, recalling years in the eighties when there was a lot of theft and vandalism, and people were afraid to walk the street alone at night.
Racism plagued the street too, to the point that in 1977 a South Asian anti-racist group started a 24-hour hotline for reporting racist attacks.
Today, said Multani, the police know everyone on the street. Some speak Hindi, Urdu, and other South Asian languages.
But it wasn’t always that way, Multani said, and some South Asian owners felt their concerns about crime were ignored at the time.
Another low was the first end of the Naaz Theatre, which sold in 1985 as home video finally hit the market and Bollywood films became more widespread. After an attempted revival in the 1990s, the lower floors were converted into a small mall called India Centre.
Last fall, a short piece in the New York Times travel section highlighted a new burst of commercial life in Little India – Gerrard Art Space, Tea N Bannock, The Swag Sisters toy shop, and Lazy Daisy’s Café, together with a dusk photo of the brightly coloured Flying Pony cafe and art gallery. A dozen more shops and galleries could make the list.
“My feeling is there will be big growth in the next few years,” said Chand Kapoor, an accountant and chair of the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA.
With a vibrant cultural mix and both downtown Toronto and the Beach close at hand, Kapoor said the street is an obvious draw for people who enjoy city living.
After the former Naaz Theatre renovation, Multani hopes to build a new condo a block east, and a set of low-rise condos is already going up just west of Highfield Road.
“It’ll be quite a big change for Gerrard India Bazaar,” said Kapoor.
But a minute later, when asked why even the newest stores on the street are still mom-and-pops, Kapoor pointed out the remarkable continuity that goes with the change – families who have held the same property and run the same business for 40 or 50 years.
Getting up to take a look at the new front on what was once the Naaz Theatre, Gurnam Multani sounds like someone who has seen it all, and still sees what’s coming.
Six years after he bought the old theatre that he used to see every day from his restaurant across the street, it is finally due for a new name – Multani Village.
“Times change,” he said, smiling. “Time never waits for anybody.”