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Kamal Sharma: A Cultural Trailblazer Preserving South Asian Heritage

Monica Sethi Darpan, 26 Jul, 2023
  • Kamal Sharma: A Cultural Trailblazer Preserving South Asian Heritage

Revisiting Kamal Sharma's journey is like delving into history and witnessing the remarkable transformation and advancement of South Asian Entertainment in Vancouver. From a time when the community would willingly pay $10 to rent a pirated movie to get their fix of Bollywood entertainment to now when they have access to multiple streaming platforms, Kamal has seen the evolution and played a pivotal role in keeping the South Asian art and entertainment alive, connecting the immigrants living in Vancouver to their roots. 

From being the first person to sell original Bollywood movie prints to hosting entertainment shows that garnered a cult following among ethnic communities to introducing concerts that brought legendary South Asian artists to Vancouver, Kamal has been a pioneer in shaping the South Asian cultural landscape and still has his eyes set on new frontiers as he brings the first ever Indian musical, Mughal-e-Azam, to the community.

Early Life

Son of an Indian diplomat, Kamal grew up in Old Delhi, near Novelty Cinema, one of India's oldest movie theatres. On his way back from school, he would invariably check out the current and upcoming movies at the theatre. He also enjoyed spending time reading and researching extensively about the Indian film industry. 

Kamal moved to Vancouver in 1978 when his father got posted to the Indian Consulate here. He fondly reflects that despite being an avid reader and traveller, he had not heard of Vancouver until then. After relocating, Kamal joined computer programming at UBC. Alongside this, he started working with a travel company. In 1979, the owner's brother was venturing into the video business and asked him to join as a manager. This fascinated him as it resonated with his love for movies. And within a year, he got married, quit UBC, and started managing the video store, The Video King, full-time. The Video King was the first store to introduce original video prints in North America for Bollywood movies. Kamal has been a part of the entertainment business ever since. 

Foray into the Entertainment Business

Kamal recalls his early days in Vancouver when there were only three places where one would find people from the South Asian community – the Gurudwara at Fraser and 11, grocery stores, and the third place that became a focal point was the video store. The latter became a major attraction where people, including prominent media personalities and community leaders, would spend hours discussing and exploring which movies to pick. 

In 1983, when India won the cricket World Cup, Shushma Datt, the first Canadian broadcaster of South Asian descent who was one of the producers at the World View Channel, which catered to the ethnic communities, met Kamal at the video store and asked him to come and give his views on India's victory as he was a cricket enthusiast and also played for the Everest Cricket Club. Impressed with his speaking ability, one of the producers hired him on the spot to do sports news for the TV channel. However, since sports news was limited at that point, Kamal pitched a show called "Yaadien," where he would delve into the lives of famous yesteryear Bollywood personalities whose contributions remained etched in the minds of the community. Yaadein's first episode on Madhubala was a smashing success, and Kamal followed it with episodes on Meena Kumari, Guru Dutt and many more. This established him as a household name in the South Asian community, someone who helped in connecting people to Bollywood back in India.

While Yaadein appealed to the older generation, there was also a strong demand for a show catering to the younger audience. To fill the gap, he came up with another show called "Kamal's Top 10", where he ranked and played the top 10 songs from the movies released in the month. This, too, became a huge hit, even bigger than Yaadein. 

According to Kamal, most immigrants who came to Canada in those days were from small towns and villages and were too shy and scared to venture into the city. His zest to do something more for the community inspired him to do "Kamal's Top 10" from different locations in BC. "During those days, people from our community seemed confined to their homes, and I wanted to take them around and show them what BC had to offer, which resonated with them," he said. Since then, he has hosted this show from different parts of Canada, London, Hong Kong, and almost every major city in India, which made it famous across all ethnic communities.

From being a monthly show, it became a weekly show, with Roger airing it on the Multicultural Channel every Thursday evening. Though Kamal's life was hectic, he was thoroughly enjoying it. He worked at the video store until 9 pm and then went to the studio to do the recordings. Some of Kamal's most memorable interactions included interviewing Sunil Dutt, Pandit Jasraj, Manna Dey, and Shreya Ghoshal. 

On December 1st, 1990, Kamal opened his video store on Victoria Drive, Kamal's Video Palace (KVP). Owing to his popularity, he sold his entire inventory of 300 videos on the opening day and did a business worth $35,000. The store became a focal point for the community and attracted politicians, business leaders, and entertainment personalities alike. Akshay Kumar, Jagjit Singh, Alka Yagnik, Ghulam Ali, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Shilpa Shetty, Abida Parveen, Jazzy B, Harbhajan Mann, Pankaj Udhas, Gurdas Mann, Manmohan Waris, Sangtar & Kamal Heer, Ustad Sultan Khan, Pandit Jasraj, and Kailash Kher were some of the Indian and Pakistani artists who visited KVP. "It became a ritual—if a film star or singer from the community was coming to Vancouver, they had to visit Kamal's Video Palace," he shared. 

Kamal attributes KVP's popularity to the fact that it was the first fully computerized video store in the South Asian community. It was also one of the first few stores to start cataloging different CDs and DVDs under different genres, making it easier for people to browse the store, which others followed later. But more than anything else, Kamal's clientele trusted him because he would exclusively deal in original prints. These made KVP a high-density store that would remain busy until 9/10 at night. Owing to its high footfall, the store also sold various concert tickets. 

In 1994, one of Kamal's clients suggested that he foray into the concert business, an idea that seemed like a natural next step and led to the inception of KVP Entertainers. The first artist KVP Entertainers brought to Vancouver was Jagjit Singh, and it was a massive success, with the entire show sold out a month in advance. At this point, he also started a second store at the 92nd on Scott Road in Surrey, which was becoming a hub for the South Asian community. According to Kamal, other businesses in the area decided to extend their lease owing to the popularity of his store. He continued to operate from there until 2003 when he moved into his building at 82nd on Scott Road. "At a time when most people thought that 92nd was the most exciting location, I could envision that the real strength of Scott Road was in the middle, and it would be the growth center of Surrey. Now 82 to 84 is the most lucrative real estate area in Surrey," he shared. 

Under KVP Entertainers, Kamal brought a number of artists for the first time to Vancouver, including Hrithik Roshan, Sunidhi Chauhan, Roopkumar Rathod, Kailash Kher, Ustad Rashid Khan, Kabir Bedi, Kareena Kapoor, Farhan Akhtar, Mohit Chohan and legendary Reshma. 

In 1997, for the 300th Anniversary of Khalsa, he called Daler Mehndi, the king of Punjabi pop whose music was popular and appealed to the masses. The concert was a huge success, and Vancouver Sun featured it on the front page of its entertainment section. Another of Kamal's memorable concerts was "Awesome Foursome" in 1998 at the Pacific Coliseum, bringing Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Juhi Chawla and Akshay Kumar together. It differed from the other concerts as the venue offered a stage in the middle and a platform that ran around the circumference, allowing the actors to connect with the crowd. 

Since then, Kamal has experimented with different genres – Bollywood, ghazals, folk, qawwali, classical vocal, classical instrumental, and theatre. He was one of the first to introduce Hindi theatre to the community bringing Anupam Kher, Neena Gupta and Rakesh Bedi with "Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha," which sold out completely and was a huge success. "This was the first time that the community got genuinely interested in theatre as they saw Bollywood artists coming and performing in these plays," he said. Later, he also brought "Kaifi Aur Main," a play in which Javed Akhtar plays Kaifi Azmi and Shabana Azmi plays her mother, Shaukat Azmi, where both engage in a soulful exploration of Kaifi Azmi's most iconic songs with Jasvinder Singh and his musical ensemble bringing those songs to life. 

One of Kamal's career highlights involves bringing the revered Gulzar Saab to Vancouver, a legendary poet, director, and lyricist whose work left a lasting impression on him. Having been part of the entertainment industry for over four decades, Kamal considers hosting the legendary Mahendra Kapoor his most memorable accomplishment. "When I learned that he's coming to Vancouver, I knew it had to be special, and I had to do something different. So, I approached the Center for Performing Arts in Vancouver, which has a proud history of hosting great productions. While they were initially reluctant, I managed to persuade them - and this became the first South Asian concert to be held at the venue," he shared.

Mahendra Kapoor was 70, a bit shaky then, but he insisted on entering from the back and walking through the audience towards the stage. Kamal said: "I remember being hesitant and reluctantly acquiescing to the request, but that was one of the best decisions I've made because, to date, it gives me goosebumps when I remember his entry, reciting, 'Jab zero diya mere Bharat ne, Bharat ne mere Bharat ne…. Hai preet jahan ki reet sada, Main geet wahan ke gata hoon…,' and the entire hall erupted. He was terrific and the best performance I have seen in my entire concert career”.

Looking Ahead

Now, with KVP Entertainers, Kamal is focusing solely on the concert business as he shut down Kamal's Video Palace during the pandemic. He also founded the KVP Heritage Society to encourage and promote Indian classical music. Kamal has hosted eight shows this year, starting with a Bhajan program at the Hindu temple with classical vocalists. In March, he hosted "The Legends" across five cities in Western Canada. The event drew inspiration from Jolly Mukherjee's vision and showcased Indian vocalists performing timeless melodies from renowned actors such as Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, and Rajinder Kumar. Recently, he also hosted Zakhir Husain and the Masters of Percussion. 

Next, he's excited and eagerly waiting to bring the first-ever musical, Mughal-e-Azam, from India to Vancouver, a massive production with over 150 artists touring 14 cities across North America. 

Impact

Doing something for the community has always been a priority for Kamal. In the late 70s, the community was growing, and most people were working from morning till late evening and sorely missed South Asian entertainment. At that point, Kamal became the first to bring original movie prints to Vancouver. However, as videos took over, the few Bollywood movie theatres also got shut. At this point, Kamal's radio and TV shows offered the community a much-needed source of entertainment, which they looked forward to. With concerts, Kamal has contributed to changing the perception of Vancouver, which was perceived as a city with one of the toughest crowds. The fact that his concerts have never had any issues helped tremendously in improving the overall impression of the city. 

Last year, post covid, Kamal successfully hosted a concert with Arijit Singh that attracted over 10,000 people and set the trend for other organizers who later brought Diljit Dosanjh and AP Dhillon, hosting a crowd of over 20,000 people each. 

In 2022, BC Achievement Foundation honoured Kamal with the Annual Community Award. He's proud that his passion for the entertainment industry has helped fill the gap that existed in the community, which he feels has grown immensely in the last decade.

"I feel a sense of satisfaction that I have contributed to the community's growth and helped keep it entrenched to its roots," he shared. 

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