This piece appeared in a slightly edited version in my 'After Words' column in Time Out Mumbai, Volume 9 Issue 18, April 26-May 9 2013.
Indian Cinema is a 100 years old. I have been around for approximately half that time. I can measure my life out in matinee shows (do they even call it that anymore?). My back-story begins, so I am told, with my sleeping through most of ‘Shikar’ (1968). My mum would wake me whenever the tiger made an appearance and I would make loud growling sounds, irritating all the other Dharmendra fans. I was four.
In the same year, I was given a choice of seeing either ‘Brahmachari’ (chakke pe chakka) or ‘Raja aur Runk’. I chose the latter as I already knew Mark Twain’s ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, read out to me from Classics Illustrated comics. I still haven’t seen ‘Brahmachari’, except for the song where Mumtaz in a cut-off saffron sari shakes a jelly belly.
In the late 60s, movies came to us through advertising rather than actual movie going. As a schoolboy, my eyes were stabbed by the flash of psychedelic hand-painted billboards of ‘Hare Krishna Hare Ram’ (1971) and ‘Bobby’ (1973). One poster I can never forget is of ‘Bhoot Bangala’ (1965) with its skeletons doing the twist and Tanuja screaming on the Radio Cinema; a rerun, in a rundown theatre. Radio would make its way to dusty death in 1974, to be replaced by the pyro-happy Manish Market, home of ‘do number ka maal’.
I readily believed in ghosts for several years after, an obsession fuelled weekly by very cinematic radio plays called ‘Adbhut Kahaniyaan’ on Vividh Bharati. Radio is where we got our primary movie education. New movies would be presented in 15 minute ‘radio-programs’. The phrase ‘kitne aadmi the?’ was on everyone’s lips much before ‘Sholay’ opened on 15th August 1975, thanks mainly to the radio, our very own social media. Television was something we knew of only by reading American Gold Key Comics.
Television (1972) brought with it the back catalogue of films (from the 40s to the most recent) which we assiduously imbibed every Sunday evening at a convenient neighbour’s house, and learnt songs by heart every Thursday with ‘Chhayageet’ and antakshari. Hindi films (and advertising) also educated us in Urdu. Even as a child I knew some impressive words- ‘Aalingan’, ‘Ulfat’, ‘Jwar Bhata’, ‘Salaakhen’, ‘Saawan Bhadon’.
It is lesser known, but world cinema was regularly telecast on Bombay Doordarshan in the 1970’s. I vividly remember every ‘bloody’ scene from Chabrol’s ‘Le Boucher’ (1970) telecast in B/W when I was 8 or 9. Even after television, radio-programs for films would survive well into the 1980s, when the Asian Games, colour TV and Delhi Doordarshan killed all civilised programming that once came out of Bombay’s Worli studios. The memes of popular cinema continued as songs, thanks to Radio Ceylon and toothpaste. Ameen Sayani would host the weekly ‘Binaca Geet Mala’ right until 1988.
Seeing movies was something we took for granted in our fledgling years. All movies ran at the same time- 3.30, 6.30 and 9.30 pm, while children’s films had matinee shows at 10.30am. I saw 3 movies a day several times, especially in college, hopping from theatre to theatre all located near Bombay VT.
Even the prices were mostly the same: cheap seats were the Lower and Upper Stalls, the Balcony was costlier and the Dress Circle the costliest. A carryover from the days of drama, many of Bombay’s cinemas were converted playhouses, which meant that sometimes you had to hope that you wouldn’t get a seat with a column in front of you.
Movies were like comfort food. They would begin with advertisements, the Indian News Review, a Films Division Documentary, the trailers (forthcoming attractions) and a cartoon, all before the main (feature) film started. We missed none of these pleasures.
Hindi picchers were to die for. I waited 2 days straight in line for a ticket of ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ (1977) and went back home disappointed after reading ‘House-full’ in every seating slot just above the booking window. I had to content myself with radio-programs for several weeks before I finally witnessed the awesomeness of Manmohan Desai’s magnum opus (but I knew all the dialogues before that). Do movies ever go ‘House-full’ anymore?
Seeing a movie ‘First Day First Show’ was a matter of peer pressure. We could not believe how one bunch of kids in school always managed to do that. They would gleefully commit the unforgivable sin of telling you the story and ruin everything. We hated them.
The only movie I managed to see in all its First Day First Show glory was Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ (1982) at the Regal. We got lucky, buying tickets from the ‘panch ka pachhees-wallahs’ at no extra cost because on an unusual police presence. Of course, this hardly a story we could tell the next day to those smug so-and-so’s and return the favour.