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A Cineplex theatre in Toronto on Dec. 16, 2019.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press

Kurup, an Indian crime drama released earlier this month, tells the story of one of the country’s most notorious fugitives, a man accused of murder who may have staged his own death to collect insurance money. But when the movie opened in Ontario theatres, a different kind of mystery unfolded.

Movie screens were slashed at two Cineplex locations in Richmond Hill and Oakville that were showing the Malayalam-language film. Whoever did it slipped away. Four screens were damaged.

It’s the latest act of vandalism plaguing movie theatres in Southern Ontario that show films in South Indian languages. Since at least 2015, vandals have cut up screens, sometimes in front of the audience, and, in some cases, sprayed noxious substances into the air in an apparent attempt to sabotage screenings. At least seven films in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam have been targeted in Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga, Whitby and Kitchener.

Some who work in the distribution industry contend the vandalism is part of an effort to control local screening rights and ticket sales, and keep the films out of major chains. “The threat is real,” said Saleem Padinharkkara, a film distributor in Waterloo.

Cineplex declined to answer questions from The Globe and Mail, other than to confirm the vandalism in Richmond Hill and Oakville. “Those incidents are currently under investigation and we will have no further comment while the matter is with law enforcement,” said Melissa Pressacco, communications director at Cineplex.

In the early 2000s, three independent theatres in the Toronto area were known for screening Indian films in Tamil and other languages. Later, Cineplex started showing Tamil movies in the Greater Toronto Area as the region’s population diversified. (About 177,205 people in Ontario speak Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam at home, according to the 2016 census, the largest such concentration in Canada.) For distributors, the interest from Cineplex created a bigger market, increased competition and gave moviegoers a better experience.

But in 2015, at least two screens were slashed at Cineplex theatres showing a Tamil movie called Thangamagan, and the film was pulled. “At the end of the day, we lost money,” says Sandeep Vasudevula, whose company distributed the movie, adding that he spent tens of thousands of dollars on it. “I’m not interested in doing movies any more because of these issues,” he said.

The attacks were even bolder the next year. Not only were screens slashed at Cineplex locations in Brampton, Mississauga and Scarborough showing a Tamil action film called Theri, but a noxious substance similar to pepper spray was released inside theatres. Police said at the time several moviegoers were treated by paramedics, but no one was seriously injured. Cineplex cancelled remaining screenings in the Greater Toronto Area.

Since then, distributors say Cineplex has not screened Tamil movies in the GTA. “I even tried for some other movies,” Mr. Vasudevula said, “but they didn’t accept it.”

Cineplex isn’t the only chain affected. In October, 2019, Landmark Cinemas in Kitchener showed a historical action movie in Telugu called Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy. On a Friday afternoon, a man wearing black pants and a black hoodie slashed the screen and sprayed audience members with what police believe was bear spray. The same individual then drove to a Landmark theatre in Whitby and did the same thing.

The pandemic temporarily stopped the incidents, but with theatres reopening, the vandalism and threats resumed. Mr. Padinharkkara, the Waterloo distributor, said he arranged a deal with Cineplex earlier this year to screen a Tamil film in Atlantic Canada. His business partner received a threatening phone call telling him he was making a “big mistake,” and Cineplex later dropped the film due to safety concerns, Mr. Padinharkkara said. He secured a different film and struck a deal with Landmark, but it too decided not to show it in the GTA. “We are kind of stuck,” he said. “We could pretty much go out of business.”

Landmark did not reply to a request for comment. Police in York, Halton and Peel regions did not respond or declined to comment.

The three Toronto-area theatres that have long screened Tamil films – Albion, Woodside and York cinemas – have found themselves under suspicion of orchestrating the attacks, and some distributors are reluctant to deal with them, despite no evidence linking them to the vandalism. One of the theatres, York Cinemas in Richmond Hill, reported to police in 2016 that its own washroom was vandalized, and it pulled showings of Theri as a result.

The Globe contacted all three theatres separately and received an e-mailed reply from a representative of Woodside Cinemas who did not give their name. “All of the locations have been victims of vandalism many times over the years,” the representative wrote, declining to offer specifics. “Any inference that Albion, York or Woodside are involved in any such attacks is categorically false.”

The incidents at Cineplex theatres in November suggest a widening target base; Kurup is the first movie in Malayalam to be affected. Cineplex cancelled future screenings in Richmond Hill and Oakville after the screens were damaged, according to Bijo Sebastian, the movie’s distributor.

He also had a deal with Landmark to show the film. “As soon as we heard about this, we reported to Landmark that some issues are happening, so if they’re not feeling comfortable, they can take off the movie,” he said, adding that Landmark pulled Kurup across Ontario.

Mr. Sebastian is disturbed that the attacks on theatres continue years after the first incident. “It’s hard to believe that in a country like Canada, we need to scare other people to run a business,” he said.

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