Part 1: Memoirs
It is hard to concentrate Indian cinema in one space; any space – geographical, textual or even visual. With so many different languages and genres being shot out of varied political and physical regions of the Indian nation, it is impossible to define or classify Indian cinema as a single comprehensive unit. I would love to meet the true Indian film buffs who have been privileged and dedicated enough to have watched cinema from Assam, Orissa, Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil, Kashmir, Himachal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra…and the many more I have missed. These fanatics may have a complete idea of Indian cinema that goes beyond this hugely informative but hardly insightful Wikipedia entry. I, on the other hand, don’t even know what kind of films or which broad school of cinema do many of these regions conform to. And I have only lived a little over a quarter of what Indian cinema has, limiting my cinema further. But I am definitely not complaining; having watched some of the most magnificent cinema through these years and harbouring some cherished cinematic experiences that are sacred. This is a reminiscing ramble about some of these memories and moments…
My sharpest memories of Indian cinema are undoubtedly bollywood. I lived the first four years of my life in the heart of everything filmi – the suburbs of Bombay. It was not a city of dreams to me, and it never will be, but it was definitely a city where dreams could be watched on screen with eyes wide open. The big white screens with patches of grease and paint looked like an artist’s canvas waiting to be projected upon. The seats were hard, covered with rexine (it could not have been leather! Surely) that was usually a dark shade of brown or red depending on how old, or new, the cinema theatre was. In Bombay there was a unique concept of independent theatres lined one beside the other forming a sort of inside-out multiplex. The idea of watching cinema was much more precious back then and no audience could be denied the experience just because one theatre had a house full board outside. And no, there were no popcorns, at least not where I went. You had to go outside the theatre complex and buy yourself a bhelpuri during the interval. I remember watching Hatya (1988). Govinda was slim and Neelam was beautifully pure. Even the antics of Johnny Lever made people go crazy in the theatre. It was a mystery, with some comedy thrown in and some song and dance, obviously. I like that film even today. There was a scene where Govinda’s car broke down or something and he got out of it to see what the problem was. What ensued was a tremendous fight sequence where Govinda used a wheel’s rim as a flying disk, much like Krishna, and defeated the villain. I clearly remember renting a VHS of Hatya many years later, in Delhi.
My cinema equalled bollywood even when I moved to Delhi. The unique pleasures of the single screen theatres that we have all grown up with were definitely there, but the technology was taking over. There was a VCR that could play all the latest, and old, Hindi cinema. Then there was the Doordarshan as well. One of the biggest anticipated blockbusters that turned out to be a complete dud was the great grand Amitabh starrer Khuda Gawah. Usually all Hindi films came in a set of 2 VHS tapes, but this one was a foursome! Such a long movie that is all about revenge, pathans, Amitabh, Sridevi and that awful music of Laxmikant Pyarelal. Maybe Tarantino would have made some sense of the script but Mukul Anand definitely could not. The biggest advantage of home viewing was that you could watch some old classics too, like Devdas (Dilip Kumar’s), Pakeezah and Chalti Ka Naam Gadi. Doordarshan also showed some documentaries (it still does) and though I do not remember any of them but I know I saw many. The range of Indian cinema was widening for me, slowly but surely. Then came the deluge. We got cable television at home. And like a blood thirsty dog, the entire family devoured cinema. Zee and Star became gods and goddesses for us and we prayed in front of everything, from the silly Ajooba and Mere Mehboob to the superstar hits like Aaradhna and Zanjeer. Even black and white became a colourful experience with Dev Anand eyeing Madhubala languidly and Dharmendra looking dashingly handsome in his dinner jackets. But Indian cinema was still bollywood and remained so for quite some time.
The rush of television passed as the daily soaps and western media took over. Watching English films was considered cool and it was certainly a fresh experience. But an Indian never misses out on his dose of bollywood and as the Maine Pyar Kiyas and DDLJs kept hitting the big screens, I kept visiting the theatres. Not with much passion, but with a sense of duty and commitment to the modern films and their stars. In this new era of films that were highly inspired and heavily production oriented, I found my passion coming back in sync with the rise of an actor – Aamir Khan. I loved to see him act on screen, I still do. He is one of the finest modern actors that Indian cinema has seen. My watching films, first-day-first-show, religiously is attributed completely to Aamir. I remember going to see Lagaan on a humid morning in August 2001 and getting the fifth row ticket. The crowd was going mad as the match was reaching its climax. The funniest part was that no one watched the prayer song that happens on the eve of the final match day; the public was rushing out to pee! You can’t blame us, it was a long movie. One day I did the unthinkable. Going against my norm, I watched a non-Aamir film first-day-first-show, and not by chance but by choice. Getting out of bed was not worth it unless it was Aamir on screen, but this was definitely an exception. Mughal-E-Azam – in all its coloured glory and grandeur. Seeing the screen presence of Prithvi Raj Kapoor was mesmerizing. I had seen the film before but a theatrical experience of the same was not to be missed. One of the most revered films in Hindi cinema, even Indian cinema, Mughal-E-Azam justified all the hype and craze. Those eyes of Madhubala were to die for and the battle scene at the end gave me goose bumps. I remember it all too clearly. It’s sad that I don’t watch first-day-first-shows anymore. It is even sadder that there are no more first days and first shows. Maybe I should go watch a Friday morning show soon. Maybe I will.
They say that Indian cinema has changed over the years. It must have. A 100 years is a long time and definitely for something like Indian cinema which is the most prolific of all cinemas in the world today. But what about the magic of cinema? The euphoria you feel when you see a flying wheel cap, a diving catch or a marching army, what is that if not magic. I still marvel at the wonderful Mr.India in which the person wearing a watch simply disappears. And the best part was that he could only be seen through something red. The film catered to the two extremes and met in the middle, it was as ridiculous as it was political. The villains were made to eat stones and sand, literally! And I can never stop being amazed by the audacity of Shekhar Kapur to shoot that song sequence with Sridevi where Anil Kapoor hides himself as Mr. India and the lady continues to move most erotically, all alone. Mind you, this magic is not just because cinema can make people disappear at will or do other such gimmicks. Cinema is a magical filter of emotions too. Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa captures the pathos of the protagonist in scattered and scarred lighting, makes him die in darkness and resurrects him to life through a glow as intense as is required for such miracles to happen. This understanding of cinema, for me, is not about watching Bunuel or Godard or Eisenstein. It is a gift of Indian cinema, through and through. It’s just that my evolution is chronologically screwed, from Mr. India to Pyaasa, with all the others fitting in the middle somewhere.