I grew up around Liberty, Novelty, Minerva, Maratha Mandir and Metro. Those were the nicer theaters, we went to every once in a while. The ones with lovely balconies, red carpets, grand staircases, the beautifully gaudy murals on the walls, the ones about which my father told us stories about premieres, and waiting outside to watch the stars, and him seeing Nargis come for the Mother India premiere show at Metro.
At a time when going to the movies was not considered high-brow entertainment, in fact, looked down upon, in fact, thoroughly disapproved of by elders, my mother made sure we got our 2-3-films a week fix. We saw just about everything that was released, wherever it was released. Not even the most unrespectable dingy theaters put us off if we were in a mind to catch a particular show.
In Mumbai, we did not spare the Shri Krishnas or the Alfreds and the Edwards, full of sweaty, disheveled men, taxi drivers, coolies, just men, and in Pune, we saw films at Vijay in the red-light area, at Liberty in the cantonment area with a lot of bemused soldiers, at West End or Capitol, at Alankar or Apsara in Nana Peth. Our city darshan as children revolved around movie theaters and foods associated with it. The sugarcane juice outside Empire Cinema. The falooda mastani near Vijay.
My mother, despite being a very beautiful woman, was completely unconscious of being in a theater with so many men, she never felt awkward, self-conscious or nervous about being in what I can see now, in retrospect, as extremely shady surroundings, and that definitely made my sister and me quite capable of getting into all kinds of situations, with no thought of being girls.
As a child, it was all very glamorous, the art deco architecture of the theaters, or the old opera or play houses converted to cinema halls; there was one theatre which still had an old swing in the balcony. And yet despite the glamour, and despite how different our own lives, and our own houses were, we seemed to be a part of the industry which was around us. We lived where the film offices were, where the dancers and choreographers lived, where the extras lived, where the audience lived, and the stars were around the corner. I remember two dancers who lived next to my aunt, Huseina Kaki, in a Byculla shawl. Once when we went to eat lunch at her house, like we did everyday from school, their door was open, and they were sleeping on the floor, and even today, whenever I catch a glimpse of them in a film, I remember seeing them sleeping that day, and I remember the excitement I felt then. Anyway, the dancers at the back were always my favorite people in a film, writhing on the floor, tossing their heads around,
My mother loved Nargis, my father preferred the delicate Shakeela. My first film was ‘Brahmachari’ or at least the first film I remember going to, when I was 3, and I was ever after more, the lover of handsome, goofy men.
As children, we spent most weekends at our maternal grandmother’s, Maaji. Ignoring her disapproving muttering, we would take off, dressed up, ready to traipse long distances in the sun, to watch a movie with Mummy’s childhood friends or neighbors.
When we were back home, we went out sometimes with our aunt, Shirin Kaki. She did not need much persuasion, but she was not free to come to any show. She could come only in the afternoons, when our uncle was out at work, and even so, he always found out she had been to the cinema, perhaps by the sparkle in her eyes, and scolded her all evening. Shirin Kaki would go to Maratha Mandir to see films alone too, on the rare occasions when my mother was not available. She was the first woman I knew who went to see films on her own.
I studied for my Xth Std. exams, all morning, and evening. The afternoons were reserved for a film with my mother, who agreed it would relax me. When Dhanno gave her Xth Std. Exams, we used the same method.
Those were also the days when theaters released old films when there were no new releases. So, I saw films like ‘Teen Deviyan’ (1965) or ‘Navrang’(1959) or ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje’(1955) or ‘Pyaasa’(1957) on the big screen. ‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai’ was my Dad’s favourite song, and I guess that philosophy permeated down to us children, leading us away from materialistic success, because of course, who cares?
My prized possession when I was about 13 was a Stardust sponsored Neeta’s Natter ‘Cat’ T-shirt, which I think we ordered through the mail, or got as a freebie with an annual subscription. It was the first T-shirt I owned, and it necessitated the buying of my first pair of jeans.
I probably saw at least 50 films while I was in the womb. And Dhanno saw at least 250 because I was at FTII then, and saw at least 1 film a day. The first film she saw when she was about a month old was ‘Midnight Cowboy’. I sneaked into the Class Room theatre with her, hoping she’d stay quiet and still and not piss off the other students, but then realized the sound level was too high for her, and walked out after 15 minutes.
When she was a toddler, she showed the same excitement as I had about going to the movies, waiting outside for tickets when the show was house-full, pleading with me to accost every stranger with a request for tickets, or sidle up to the black marketeer to buy them. If we ever had to come back without watching a film, it was the saddest thing in our lives.
The 80s were the only period when I quit going to the movies, I was a young woman by then, did not want to spend too much time with my parents, and I was not brave enough to watch ‘Tohfa’, ‘Himmatwala’ and their ilk. My parents, by then, were also happier with their new VCR. We owned a few video tapes, and for some reason, we watched them again and again with the same pleasure.
Then came cable TV, DVD players, downloads, multiplexes. The distance between films, the audience, the industry seems to have grown wider and wider. The heart of the movies no longer seems to be in the old mohallahs, the small towns, the small cities, but in some strange place which does not exist, in some corporate world, where numbers are all that matter.
Reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – “In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.”
But the best stories, at least for me, are the ones with a happy ending, the ones where things go round and come back.
And so, these days, the most exciting thing for me is that KAPHAL-Wild Berries, will have its first official screening at the 15th Mumbai Film Festival at Liberty or Metro.
I tell Teja, “I can’t believe this. This is one of those stupid things that makes me so, so happy.”