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Watching a Film in Small Town India

Technicolor hues appear brighter in small-town cinemas. Then life decides to catch up through a controversial film

Published: Apr 23, 2013 06:42:48 AM IST
Updated: Apr 17, 2013 02:38:54 PM IST
Watching a Film in Small Town India
Image: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Villagers in Ond, 300 km from Mumbai, throng a travelling cinema

I  was nearly 16 when, much to the embarrassment of my family and the mechanic at the garage where we stood waiting for the car to get fixed, big fat tears rolled down my face.

What had happened was this: We lived in an industrial township, a couple of hours from Udaipur. There were no theatres in the colony. There was at least one in the nearest town, Kankroli, but ‘respectable’ middle class families avoided it. My mother would never go there at any rate, and I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to go on my own.

But we did drive into Udaipur occasionally. Here, I could watch a movie in a real cinema hall. Or so I had hoped. But now the stupid car had broken down. I wanted to leave it at the mechanic’s, and go straight to the hall instead. But mom felt we must watch over the repair job, partly because she did not own that car, and partly because it was a dangerous drive back home. A badly fixed car meant a plunge into a rocky ravine.

Mom told me not to be silly. Who wept about missing a film? My brother was torn between grinning at my grief, and comforting me. Perhaps he understood. Perhaps he didn’t.

My craving for cinema halls was hard to explain. Cable TV had arrived. We could—and did—watch English and Hindi movies at home. But how I longed for the big screen! The dark hall, the ring of metallic bottle openers sliding across cola bottles!

I loved TV, and it wasn’t like I didn’t love reading. But my love for films was tinged with longing, perhaps, a little panic. Films ended and I could only consume them while they lasted. The story wouldn’t be carried forward, unlike TV soaps.

This may also have had to do with the cinema deprivation of childhood. We had lived in an industrial township in Rajasthan since I was about five. We did not own a TV set initially and even after we acquired one, the state-controlled Doordarshan (DD) was the only channel available. Growing up in the shadow of a cement factory, we waited impatiently for Sunday evening, when a black & white booster shot of song-dance-melodrama smashed into our grey lives.

Hindi films meant more than escape. They meant being allowed the richness of other people’s lives. I was a glutton for stories, spending most of my childhood negotiating with mom for more and more stories in any form, any genre. On Sunday afternoon, DD had a slot for regional films—Indian movies from languages other than Hindi, played with sub-titles. I watched those too. Sometimes, a cable guy would play a film on the colony network (usually this was Mr India, so all the kids knew each scene and song by heart).

But all of this was nothing compared to watching a film on the big screen. At night! In colour! The big screen in our colony belonged to the ‘workers’. Sometimes a travelling projectionist would show up and set up a large white pardah. Worn rugs were spread out on either side of the makeshift screen. Working class men squatted on the uneven earth, taking their uncushioned entertainment sans popcorn.

The families of white-collar workers joined in occasionally. They would carry out folding chairs and form a makeshift ‘balcony’ behind the rows of workers. But my mother wasn’t interested in films. Sometimes, we kids were allowed to go on our own, hauling two blue folding chairs. This is how I saw Aan Milo Sajna, starring Rajesh Khanna and Asha Parekh. I also remember being asked to come away in the middle of a movie once, after I’d spotted one of the factory managers hanging right at the back, near a hedge. He had a bandage on his head. He had been assaulted by the workers during a recent strike.

Oddly, I also remember clearly some films I have not actually watched. My classmates would see a film on the big screen the night before and at school, during the lunch break, they’d narrate the whole film to me. Scene by scene. Sometimes, they’d even remember lines of dialogue.

Watching a Film in Small Town India
‘Girls like us’ would not sit among the whooping, whistling, cat-calling men of the front rows

This is how I learnt to understand films without necessarily watching them. And I learnt to long for them, to wait for them, to woo and cajole adults into taking me to cinemas. When we went to Lucknow for the summer vacations, I drank at the fount of Hindi cinema with surround sound and peanut shells underfoot. This is how I saw Sadma, at the end of which I howled the place down, refusing to accept the injustice of such a story. This is how I saw Agni Sakshi, with my aunt squirming in the seat next to mine, muttering under her breath, “We shouldn’t have brought the kids.”

But such trips happened only once or twice a year and my hunger for the big screen was never quite satiated. If there was one thing I couldn’t say ‘no’ to, it was a trip to the nearest darkened hall. I still remember going to watch Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! in a Mumbai theatre on a day when one of my most beloved aunts was in hospital, trying to get a fractured elbow fixed. Guilt lay bilious and green on my palate, and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to walk away from the cinema. Who knew when I’d get to watch a movie (a new movie! Not something from the 1960s or 70s) on a big screen again?
I even went into that awful cinema in Kankroli with my brother and some friends. The film playing was Hulchul (starring Kajol and Ajay Devgn). The hall was filthy. Rats did not scurry so much as stride across the aisles. I don’t remember seeing a ‘balcony’ section, though there might have been one.

The upper stalls were packed. We had tickets but all the seats were full. The exhibitors had brought in wooden benches and placed them in the aisles. However, since the aisles are built at an incline, the only way you could watch a film seated thus was if you were leaning on someone else, or had someone else lean on you.

The film started. My eyes were glued to the screen, despite leaning and being leant upon. Kajol was dancing when raised voices were heard at the back. The hall was overbooked and it seemed likely that a fight would break out any minute. My brother pulled me to my feet and ushered me towards the nearest exit. I remember craning my neck to look at the screen until the last moment possible.

Hence, that tantrum in Udaipur. Hence, the small white lies at a women’s college in Ajmer, where we weren’t allowed to step out of the hostel except for legitimate reasons. Like making calls to parents, buying ‘essentials’, visits to the local guardian. Films—especially trips to the local cinemas—were not forbidden but they weren’t encouraged either. We were allowed to go out, once a fortnight, on Sunday afternoon between 12 and 3 pm. This posed a horrid problem since Hindi films lasted three whole hours. We would have to miss the first 15 minutes and the ending.

Still, we went. Piled into a 12-seater tempo, which actually held at least 25 passengers, often skipping lunch. A ticket cost Rs 17 for the balcony and Rs 13 for the stalls in Ajmer. Because we were girls from middle class homes, it was understood that we would only sit in the balcony. We never saw women in the stalls anyway.

I no longer remember what the seats were like, but they probably weren’t cushioned. I do remember being disappointed once, when a Govinda film was showing. The show was houseful, and a large, irate crowd hung outside the padlocked, sliding grill doors. There was a real fear that people would break in and grab seats without tickets.

We girls knew when we were beaten. So we retreated. Another time, the Aamir Khan-Juhi Chawla starrer Ishq was playing. We couldn’t get balcony tickets so, in desperation, we settled for the stalls. A few minutes into the movie, the manager came down and asked us to move to the balcony. He felt he could not let ‘girls like us’ sit among the whooping, whistling, cat-calling men of the front rows.

One of my most memorable film experiences was the time a bunch of us girls went to watch Hamesha (Kajol-Saif Ali Khan). We had been watching the promos, especially the song ‘Neela dupatta peela suit’. We knew the lyrics well and had already planned trips to the tailor to get ourselves retrofitted churidar-kurtas with dual-dyed chiffon dupattas.

The hall was nearly empty. The only other occupants of the balcony were some boys from Mayo College, whom we felt we could safely ignore as they were younger. We had walked into the theatre with leaf bowls full of piping hot jalebis (nobody ‘security-checked’ us for food items in those days). As we passed them around, we realised this was going to be a terrible film. So, we kicked off our sandals, sank lower into the hard seats, rested our feet on the backs of the seats in the row ahead. We could predict much of the dialogue, so we began to speak out loud the lines, just a moment before the actors did. We did this loudly, ending with hoots of joy when we were proved right. It was the most fun I have ever had in a cinema.

Ajmer had one hall where none of us went. It showed ‘English’ films. Even for someone as naïve as me, it took little time to figure this that this was a polite way of saying ‘films not suitable for family audiences’. I never found out whether these were indeed English films or just X-rated ones. But one day, we did go to that cinema. It was showing Fire and one of the leads was Shabana Azmi. I was convinced that it could not possibly be a soft porn film. Azmi’s reputation was a formidable one, her working in films that were rooted in uncomfortable societal truths, meant that this film would be different. And it was.

A few days later, we heard that halls elsewhere were under attack for screening Fire, in cities like Delhi and even Bombay, where politicians like Bal Thackeray were saying lesbianism did not exist in Hindu families. Contrary to expectation, there was no violence in Ajmer. Most of the audience was men, and there was laughter at inopportune moments, but nobody misbehaved.

Strangely enough, the teachers at our strict convent decided that, with the film becoming a subject of controversy, it was important to expose the girls to it and discuss it. So we were taken in a large group to a cinema and I saw Fire a second time. Later, I led a students’ panel discussion and was surprised to see a girl burst into tears while trying to explain her disapproval of the unbridled sexual desires of the film’s protagonist.

This was the first time I confronted the idea that people could get seriously upset by films—not the way I was upset by Sadma, but in the sense of wanting to smash things and hurt people. I just couldn’t understand how anyone would want to attack a cinema. It was a place of such pure pleasure, so many discreetly shed tears. It was a home where we took our small wretched freedoms and from where we returned with dance, song, stories.

It has been years now that I have lived between Delhi and Mumbai.

I continue to watch films on the big screen, flanked by strangers. There are no peanut shells crunching under my heels. Colas don’t come in glass bottles. Entrances aren’t padlocked. Seats turn into plush beds.

I still laugh and cry with the actors. But I no longer feel like the dark hall is my refuge. Sometimes, I feel as if the screen itself has shrunk. Or perhaps, it is just that the city is too large, and the world not large enough.

(This story appears in the 03 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Annie Zaidi


    on May 2, 2013
  • Gol

    What a wonderful article.

    on May 2, 2013
  • Deepanshu

    Commendable Job i must say. U make me remind of my times ... i guess most of us do share the same story. Liked the way you pointed out little little things with serene vividity.

    on Apr 26, 2013
  • Shashi Baliga

    what a lovely piece!

    on Apr 23, 2013