Archive for August, 2003

Kuch Kuch Hota Tha

Monday, August 18th, 2003

Aug 18, 2003

Movies used to be magic. But was it worth it, all that time and money?

One of my first memories—I must have been two years old or so at the time—is of sitting in my father’s lap in a cinema hall in Calcutta. The hall suddenly darkened, the screen lit up, and I started bawling. So enraged was I by the nature of this art form I was being introduced to that my father had to leave the hall and sit with me in the lobby throughout the show, while my mother watched the film. At one point, an usher came up to us and told me: “Baba, today you’re crying to get out of the hall; there’ll be a day when you’ll cry to see films.”

This man was clearly an extraordinary visionary. Because by the time I was a teenager in Bombay, as far as I was concerned, reality was for bozos who couldn’t handle movies. For eight or nine years at a stretch, I must have seen at least two films every single week. I bunked classes to see films, I wrote exams in a hurry so I could make it to the matinee show on time, I cycled 10 km one-way to watch the first day first show, I made tedious rail journeys from Kharagpur to Calcutta so I could catch three films in a row and take the 3 am train back. I was indiscriminate. I needed to watch films like some other people need to mainline heroin.

I am cured now. I have survived, though there must be some parts of my brain which have been permanently addled, some tissues which have turned Eastmancolor. Today I watch films in moderation, mostly on CDs in the safety of my home, though I still demand no distractions, no small talk, all activity to stop while the images flicker on the screen. I look back today at my addiction with mild interest and some mystification.

Why would someone watch Shatranj Ke Khilari four times, yet enjoy Paanch Qaidi hugely (This obscure rip-off of Magnificent Seven and Dirty Dozen starred Mahendra Sandhu, Amjad Khan, and of all people, Girish Karnad, and the funniest thing about the film was that the qaidis or convicts did not even number paanch, there were about a dozen of them!)? How could a sane human being cycle 20 km to and fro to watch a matinee show of Bobby, and then go back again to catch the night show? Why would a man watch Mithun Chakrabarty inMrigaya, and then buy tickets in black to see him in Suraksha, Disco Dancer and Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki? Why?

What made an upper middle class student from one of India’s truly elite institutes happily participate in a near-riot to buy film tickets? In a small town in Assam, my cousin and I were waiting in queue with another 50 or so young men for the advance booking counter to open. The film was, I think, Besharam, with Amitabh, which was not only directed very badly by the comedian Deven Verma but also had him playing three or four roles. As soon as the counter opened, everyone abandoned the queue and got into serious hand-to-hand combat. My cousin waded into the melee, fists and feet flailing. Then a couple of young men ran up from a distance and launched themselves into the air, landing on the heads of the mob, and started literally swimming through the crowd, five feet above the ground, towards the counter, where the man behind the grill sat watching the mayhem with studied boredom. All this was clearly business as usual. So I too joined in the skirmish with full rabidity. Then some young men took off their belts and started whipping random people with total abandon. At this point my cousin and I quit the action, bought tickets in black and went home.

The hall was in a delirium of grief, drowning the dialogues.

Besharam was hardly an exception. I don’t think I liked even half the films I blew my time and money on. Often, we would be just sitting there and laughing our heads off at the inadvertently ridiculous stuff that was unfolding on screen. We would be shouting out rude comments in response to the dialogue. Some films that we would have already seen twice or more, we would walk out of the hall when a song sequence began, smoke in the lobby and go back in when the song ended. We’ve watched many films several times over simply because they were so bad that they were hilarious. I think I have walked out of only two films ever halfway through, and they too reveal no pattern. One was an “art film” called Parinay (which, incidentally, was the first film Shabana Azmi shot for. The first film she signed was Faaslaand Shyam Benegal’s Ankur was her first release) and the other, a high-budget Manoj Kumar migraine-maker called Sanyasi (in a dance sequence of which, Hema Malini changed her clothes 16 times).

Of course, one’s response to a film also depended on company and ambience. In a noon show at Calcutta attended entirely and solely by middle-aged women (I had gone with my mother), the whole hall was in a delirium of grief, the wails and sobs threatening to drown out the dialogue, as Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan hurtled towards the inevitable tragic end inShakti. This sort of thing is infectious. Suddenly I found that I too was sniffling. But a friend and I watched Ram Teri Ganga Maili in exactly similar ambience, and because we were support systems for each other, we sat through the film calmly while women all around us wept themselves silly. We were chivalrous enough not to laugh, though we found much of the film hypocritical and ludicrous.

And so it went. Many years of youth wasted in dark halls, devouring the entire spectrum, much of it stuff that only demented pollyannas would have ever expected to make money on. Well, they got my money, and they got my friends’ money. But in return, when I look back at those days of intense infatuation, they gave hardly anything. They did not improve our minds, did not provide any particular insight about anything, did not even entertain us to the minimum acceptable extent. And the bugs and mosquitoes in those humid halls gorged on our blood. It was a one-sided love affair, quite unrequited. That sort of relationship can’t last, I suppose. We’re just good friends now, and enjoy each other’s company once in a while.