Photo faces down the sidewalk of Gerrard St E. showing the shop fronts. There is a shop with traditional South-Asian clothing in the display window with the name "Chandan Fashion". In the background a group of people crowd around the entrance to a restaurant.

Bollywood Dreams and Bazaar Scenes

This story was researched and written by Emerging Historian Sarah Takhar (2023) and made possible by the generous support of our Tours Program Presenting Sponsor, TD Bank Group through the TD Ready Commitment, Emerging Historian Champion Andrew and Sharon Himel and Family, and Alexandria Pike.

Last updated: June 27, 2024

We’d love to hear your feedback. Contact us.

The first economic and community hub for South Asian immigrants in Toronto originated in the 1970s. 

Located along Gerrard Street East, from approximately Greenwood Avenue to Coxwell Avenue, sits the Gerrard India Bazaar. Also known as Toronto’s “Little India”, this area has been attracting visitors for over five decades with unique businesses and cultural events. Recognized around the world as a hub for Toronto’s South Asian community, the Indian newspaper India Today compared the Bazaar to London’s Southall, England’s own “Little India” boasting the largest Punjabi community outside of India. 

To understand the origins of this community hub, we should look at the broader history of this Toronto neighbourhood. Throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the area was largely home to English, Irish, and Scottish households, many of whom worked in the neighbourhood’s brickyards or industrial businesses, such as the Wrigley’s Chewing Gum factory on nearby Carlaw Avenue. 

By the mid-20th century, the neighbourhood began to see an increase of Italian and Greek residents as Canada’s post-World War II job market attracted large numbers of Southern European immigrants. The 1960s, however, brought a decline to many businesses along Gerrard. Many of the area’s residents began moving to Toronto suburbs for larger homes and affordable land. Around the same time, Chinese and Indian immigrants began moving to the area, interested in the low cost of Gerrard Street East’s real estate.

A black and white photo of a grocery shop on the corner of the street, looking west along Gerrard St E. A man pushes a bicycle in front of the shop. Cars are parked along the street and a man stand in front of the nearest vehicle, parked beside the street corner.

As Toronto’s South Asian community grew, the Gerrard Street East became an important economic hub.

The earliest recorded settlers to Canada from India arrived in the early 20th century. Like many other newcomer communities, South Asian newcomers faced Canada’s strict quota system, which only allowed 150 Indian, 100 Pakistani, and 50 Ceylonese immigrants per year to enter the country. This system ended in 1961, replaced by the 1967 Immigration Act that introduced a points-based immigration system. The new system emphasized a newcomer’s educational background or employment skills rather than country of origin, opening the doors to migrants of many backgrounds in South Asia to enter Canada. This resulted in a large population increase of South Asians in multiple regions of Canada, including Toronto.

Despite the growth of Toronto’s South Asian community, Gerrard Street East never became a residential centre for the city’s South Asian residents, unlike other Toronto cultural districts such as Chinatown. Instead, the district developed into an economic hub for the community, with a wide variety of businesses featuring South Asian food, clothing, or household goods. This economic, rather than residential, focus is reflected in the area’s Business Improvement Area (BIA) name: the Gerrard India Bazaar.

Three young South Asian men walking past a shop with a sign that reads Kohinoor Foods Indian and West Indian Food and Spices.

The Naaz Theatre drew crowds to Gerrard Street East.

Gian Naaz immigrated from India to Toronto with his family in 1968. Not long after his move to Canada, he began to host screenings of Indian (or Bollywood) films in rented school halls. In 1972, aware of his fellow immigrants’ interest in Indian cinema, Naaz began renting the abandoned Eastwood theatre at 1430 Gerrard Street East. The popularity and demand for Indian films enabled Naaz to purchase the theatre in 1974; he renamed it the Naaz Theatre and began holding regular showings of Bollywood films.

In these early days, the theatre offered three showings on Saturdays, with audiences almost filling the space to capacity. Tickets were $3.50, and food such as samosa or chana masala were available from the theatre’s snack bar. With the popularity of the theatre, other South Asian businesses began to open nearby, serving the South Asian clients who made their weekend pilgrimages to the area to enjoy a Bollywood film. 

Black and white image of the front of Toronto's Naaz Cinema. The theatre is flanked by an Indian record shop and an Indian restaurant. There are 1980's cars parked in front of the theatre.

Indian cinema is more than escapism, it is culture and community.

It may seem surprising that the opening of a movie theatre led to the development of a thriving commercial district, but Indian cinema is very interwoven into Indian culture. The 1970s are known as the golden age of Indian cinema and birthed the term “Bollywood”, a combination of the words “Bombay and “Hollywood.” 

Indian cinema has always stood out for its music, dancing, and deep connection to traditional Indian culture. For the Indian diaspora, the films were a way of going home for a few hours, showing familiar culture, places, and celebrities, like Amitabh Bachchan, on the big screen. For many Indian families in the 1970s, going to the theatre was a big event, a cultural phenomenon Naaz reproduced for South Asian immigrants. 

The Naaz Theatre was also the first of its kind in North America, drawing visitors from both Canada and the United States. Neighbourhood business owners can recall visitors coming to the Bazaar from as far away as New Jersey or even Florida. The Naaz Theatre and the Bazaar provided a place where South Asians could speak their native language and find a sense of community within their new country.

Contrary to the name “Little India”, the visitors and the businesses along Gerrard Street East were not exclusively Indian. People from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka gravitated to the area, as well as people from other communities of South Asian heritage, such as Ugandan Ismailis and Indo-Caribbeans. 

Red Text on a white paper background  that reads as follows:
Naaz Theatre, Formerly known as Eastwood Theatre, 1430 Gerrard St. E. (Gerrard & Coxwell), Seven Big Shows, Enjoy your long weekend with Jaya Bhaduri & Anil Dhawan in, Piya Ka Ghar, (colour with english subtitles), May 18 Friday (one show) 8-30 pm, May 19 Saturday (two shows) 5 pm & 8-30 pm, May 20 Sunday (two shows) 5pm & 8-30 pm, May 21 Monday (Two Shows) 3pm & 6pm, Coming soon, 1973 most outstanding hit movies, Seeta aur Geeta, Raste ka Pathar.
Photo faces east down the sidewalk of Gerrard St E. on the north side. A Sikh man in a suit and carrying a briefcase walks toward the camera. An older gentleman is out of focus in the foreground, selecting vegetables at a store front. The shop sign Sonu Saree Palace and the street sign Hiawatha Rd are visible in the background.

The closing of the Naaz Theatre in 1985 as well as the increased accessibility to international products has impacted the Bazaar. 

The Naaz Theatre shut down in the 1980s, unable to compete with the new technology of VHS tapes: People could now watch movies within the comfort of their own homes. While the shutting of the theatre was a loss for the community, other businesses continued to operate in the area. Bollywood movies were now available to purchase on VHS tape and eventually DVDs in the same shops where visitors bought their groceries.  

The 1990s brought along more changes for the Bazaar. For decades, Gerrard Street East was the only place in the Toronto area for South Asian food, fashion, jewellery, and cinema. Yet as the South Asian population began to grow in other areas, such as Scarborough, Mississauga, and Brampton, stores began to open there, where owners could be closer to the regular clientele with the added benefit of cheaper rent. The weekend pilgrimages to Gerrard Street East began to decline due to the convenience of South Asian stores in these new locations.

Today, the first generation of the Bazaar’s business owners are nearing retirement age and are looking to the next generation. However, many of their children are hesitant about are wanting to take over the family business, instead choosing to pursue alternative careers. The draw of the Bazaar for the younger generation has also changed. For example, many South Asian food products, like paneer cheese can be purchased in major supermarkets; South Asian clothing and accessories can be found in online shops, and international newspapers read online. Major movie theatre chains, such as Cineplex, frequently show popular Bollywood films and streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime offer a large catalogue of South Asian films. 

Handmade embroidered tunics and pants in a variety of colours and patterns adorn a wall.

Adapting to a rapidly gentrifying city, Gerrard India Bazaar is reinventing itself for younger generations.

The Bazaar today is a changing space. Iconic shops such as Sonu Saree (opened c. 1979) and Chandan Fashion (opened c.1984) remain important fixtures in the community, while new stores from different cultures are also opening their doors. The new additions to Gerrard Street have brought a new diversity of shops and services, while drawing more foot traffic to the area. However, these newer stores are also representative of gentrification that has impacted the area for several decades. 

Gentrification is something not all long-term business owners are mad about; many property owners have enjoyed significant return investment on buildings purchased for cheap only a few decades ago. For store owners, the changes to the area has brought new clientele and new interest in the Bazaar. Events such as the annual TD Festival of South Asia also have raised the profile of the Bazaar. 

However, the question remains how to balance the culture and the unique fingerprint of “Little India” while also welcoming different businesses and clients into the area. Many business owners want Gerrard Street East to be a space that provides goods and services that aren’t exclusively South Asian, but they also don’t want to lose the identity and heritage the strip has created over the last fifty years. They want to provide a home-like space for South Asian newcomers to Toronto, but not to the exclusion of Canadians from everywhere else.  

Gerrard Street business owners are looking to the next generation to open new shops with fresh and innovative ideas. This next generation, born and raised in Canada, could make their mark on the strip by providing services that blend South Asian and Canadian cultures. Shops that serve both area residents and South Asian clients by providing products with a little cultural twist may help to ensure the Bazaar lasts for the next fifty years. 

Photo faces west down Gerrard St E. at the intersection of Gerrard St and Ashdale Ave. Tented booths with various vendors line both sides of the street and the road is filled with a large crowd of people visiting the festival.

Further Sources

TVO. “Little India: Village of Dreams“. Documentary and additional short videos on Little India published July 1, 2017.

Bateman, Chris. “What Little India used to look like in TorontoblogTO. Article published November 30, 2014.

Bauder, Harald and Angelica Suorineni. “Toronto’s Little India: A Brief Neighbourhood History”. Toronto Metropolitan University. Online resource published June 30, 2010.

Hudson, Andrew. “Dinner and a movie the start of the Gerrard India Bazaar”. Beach Metro. Article published June 16, 2015.

Marlow, Iain. “Urban shift threatens to swallow Little IndiaThe Globe and Mail. Article published December 21, 2012.

Yelaja, Prithi. “Little India: Six blocks, many storiesThe Toronto Star. Article published August 25, 2007.