They were called Cinema Halls

They were the closest of friends. That they were sisters-in-law seemed like an unnecessary detail. My mother and her husband’s little sister were like peas in a pod. Their idea of fun was to grab a samosa or sweetmeat at the greasy, fly-infested sweet store around the corner, or going to visit the town fair. Power failure was a daily ritual those days, and they would sing together in the dark sometimes, with us children and the solitary candle in the room as enthusiastic audiences. But what the two of them enjoyed the most was going to the movies. One fine day they tottered off to the cinema, leaving me with my grandmother. She was glad to babysit, but my four-year old brain chose to play spoilsport. I ate a ring. Yes, the thing you wear round your finger. God knows why they decided to gift a ring to a baby but they did. And I ate it. There were no mobiles so it was only when they were back from the cinema did they know about my little misadventure. It was after two days that the poor shiny little bastard plopped out of my tiny posterior and my granny held it up at the end of a stick like a trophy, grime and all.

The welcome fallout of this was that I was made to tag along whenever they went for a movie, which was not infrequent. My earliest memory of the cinema? It was of a disembodied dhoti-kurta dancing around on the screen. I presume it must have been a darkish actor wearing the said costume and doing a jig, but I can’t be sure as I can’t remember which film it was. The said “town” was Karimganj, with a population of around 50000 souls. And there were four cinemas catering to this population.

You see, movie theatres were not these synthetic, brightly coloured, welcome places we now refer to as the multiplex. They were the opposite of all those things. They were called Cinema Halls and they were unwelcome, dirty and they stank worse than sweaty socks. The screens were filled with stains and dirt. Couple that with bad projection systems and you can imagine the “viewing experience”. Can you blame me for the disembodied dhoti then? But it was also like going to Disney Land. We didn’t know any better, and despite the heat and the stink, we loved being there.

I have a theory about why our mainstream Hindi films have been so loud. The reason is simple: fans. See, most cinema halls till the mid-90s didn’t have any air-conditioning to speak of. What they did have were fans.  Not the ones that ask for selfies. The ones with blades and go round and round. And these fans were noisy like nobody’s business. They were in these metal cages and the blades were extremely vocal in their protest. It had its own music, like the talented Cacofonix from Asterix comic books. In order to be heard above the noise of these fans was no mean task. And that is why I think the dialogues, music, songs, everything had to be loud, because they had to make sure they had to be heard above the whirring of the blades.

When father got a transfer and I went to school in the nearby Silchar, my mother and her dear friend had to call it quits. Plus I was “growing up” and 80s movies were a bad influence. So no going to cinema halls. But Doordarshan and video swooped in to fill the void. “Video” wasn’t a generic term those days. It meant a specific thing. It meant what we today affectionately call “VHS”. The players were called VCRs and VCPs and they shook the foundations of Bollywood and almost killed it.

It was in college that cinema halls came back to my life. I was so confident I knew what college life was about, having seen countless depictions in Hindi films from various decades. The clothes and the hairstyles changed, but it was the same template in every era: annual functions (College Annual Functions were the Bollywood version of Prom – with less kissing and more music), girl gangs vs boy gangs, bullies (Mohnish Behl/ Gulshan Grover/ Anand Balraj), and massive front yard for dances and fights. College in real life was all of that, but with the drama toned down. The high watermark of my college life was when I was introduced to the pleasures of bunking classes. The process was both a science and an art. First answer your roll call, then keep slinking back, one desk at a time, opening up the book every time and finally, slip out the back door. The bunking gang was neatly divided into two groups: those who went off to play cricket, and those who headed straight for cinema halls. No prizes for guessing the group I belonged to.

This was Guwahati, so the cinema halls were better. But now I was to discover a whole new dimension to how tickets were bought. I had seen as a child that one had to stand in long, serpentine lines to buy tickets. You have to understand that watching movies back then was a thing. You planned, had your lunch/ dinner, wore nice clothes, reached the cinema and stood in line. If it’s an average grosser, no pain. You’ll get tickets. But if it’s a superhit or one of those “jubilee” films, the tickets were over by the time you reached halfway through the line or sometimes even before it (Golden Jubilee = 50 weeks, Silver Jubilee = 25 weeks. Yes, movies used to run that long.). And then you had to fall back on this friendly tribe called ‘blackers’. Yes, these guys were black marketeers of movie tickets. Depending on how crazy you were to catch the film, they’d charge anywhere between twice or ten times the price of the actual ticket.

But what I learned in college was a whole new manner of acquiring tickets. We were just as crazy to grab those tickets, but now there were no family members to keep an eye on us. Buying tickets from blackers wasn’t an option since you barely had enough pocket money for a meal and a bus ride back home. And if it’s a hit film, you had to ensure you were among the first ten people to buy tickets. So what did happen was operatic. Have you seen West Side Story? Or still better, Shah Rukh Khan’s Josh? Gang wars broke out in the ticket queues. We fought for those tickets and how! We slipped into the crowd before that 5-6 inch hole-in-the-wall that dispensed tickets, and kneed and elbowed our way to the front. There were some really nasty ones who climbed up and stood atop the iron rails that held the queue. They’d kick from above so that the hands quickly moved away from the hole, and they could swiftly bend down and grab as many tickets as they could in the ensuing confusion.

I was an Amitabh Bachchan and Arnold Schwarzenegger fan. I could never fight. But just like Mr. B I was blessed with long limbs, so the “fighters” in the gang pushed and heaved me forward so that my arm would slip in, squeezing through the dozens of other hands in that hole in the wall, a ten rupee note balled in my fist. And the hole was framed with rusted metal, so our hands would bleed. And that’s how we watched movies. That’s how we watched Raam Jaane (It boggles my mind to think I bled for Raam Jaane!). That’s how I watched Ghulam, or Independence Day. And when is the last time you experienced the same movie in a theatre twice? We used to watch the same movie over and over and over again. And it wasn’t always the blockbusters. One film that I watched so many times I lost count was Tere Mere Sapne. And of course, DDLJ. But a film that I went in to rewatch alone was Braveheart. There was something about those sweaty afternoons, the fan blades whirring loudly and me trying to scream “FREEEEDOMMMMM!!!” in unison with Mel Gibson. But I failed each time. What came out, was a howl.

(To be continued..)


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