120 years of watching movies: Ways of seeing

Shyam Benegal, Sriram Raghavan and others tell us their movie-watching memories


Photo: Amit Madheshiya
Photo: Amit Madheshiya

Chaitanya Tamhane, director of ‘Court’

“I have this memory from 9-10 years ago. Have you heard of Kiran Kotrial and “Timepass Talkies”? I’m talking of a time when the show was completely underground. It would happen about once or twice a year. There was no official mailing list – only if you were ‘in’ the network would you know about it. I got to know about it through director Nishikant Kamath. Once, he asked me to come along. I can’t tell you what an experience that was. Kotrial would point out flaws in scenes you’ve seen a hundred times – and ridiculous flaws. That’s something that had to be enjoyed by a lot of people together in a room. There were 200-250 people the first time I went. There was just such a sense of excitement, and of suspense, because he’d start playing the scene, you wouldn’t know where it was going, and he’d tell you to watch a certain part of the frame. And then the entire room would just erupt. It was not official then; it has this sense of secrecy, so it was all the more exciting. It was essentially a communal experience – it couldn’t be enjoyed by a few people in a room. It had to be a full house.”

Also read:

120 years of watching movies: The solitary and the communal viewer

120 years of watching movies: The first picture show

Manoj Desai, executive director, Gaiety Galaxy and Maratha Mandir

As a cinema hall owner, I have seen many directors and stars attend the shows on the first day to gauge audience reaction. The matinee show is usually a good indicator if the audience is going to like the film or not. One particular instance stands out. It was 1989, the day of the release of JP Dutta’s Hathyar. Both JP and the film’s lead actor, Sanjay Dutt, visited Gaiety. JP in particular was very excited. “I’ve made a very emotional film. Look out for certain scenes,” he told me. On his insistence, I accompanied them to the balcony section. At one point in the film, Sanjay is carrying the body of his dead father to their home and his mother is just not able to accept that it is her husband’s body. “Whose body do you think you are getting into this house?” she says. “Your father won’t be very pleased to see this.” The scene went on and on and, suddenly, someone from the audience got up and said,”Abey kaiko itna kheenchta hai? Uska photo deewar par tanga aur uspe mala chadhha de, bas. Samajh mein aa jaayega ki kaun mar gaya hai.” (Why are you dragging the scene? Put a garland over the photo. We will know who has died on our own). JP was furious and he vented at me. “How can you allow such taporis (rowdies) to get in? I’m never going to let my movies play in your theatre.” He stormed out, while Sanjay tried to mediate. The film turned out to be a flop. JP and I made up, of course, and we played some of his films in the future.

Sriram Raghavan, director of ‘Johnny Gaddar’& ‘Badlapur’

Poona. 1980. No satellite TV or even VHS. But there were the matinee shows at reduced rates. Often an obscure classic would turn up in an equally obscure hall. This happened to a friend of mine, though sometimes I wish it had happened to me.

He was a student from Mauritius and a huge fan of Dev Anand, which is why I guess we became friends. One Friday morning he excitedly told me that Solva Saal was showing at Shri Krishna Talkies, noon show.

I’d already seen the 1958 Raj Khosla-directed romantic thriller, which takes place over the course of one night. I gave him directions to Shri Krishna Talkies and warned him that it’s a shady cinema in the red light district of the city. Mostly frequented by the working girls from the area.

Distance or a decrepit hall won’t stop a Dev Anand fan. He got a balcony seat and looked around. Yes, there were many garish ladies around. Just as the newsreel got over and the theatre went dark, he saw a pretty woman enter the hall. She entered his row…and sat down right next to him. He got a whiff of her perfume. The movie began….

Hai apna dil to awara…. Dev Anand singing in a local train. (RD Burman played the mouth organ for the Hemant Kumar number). My friend was hooked on the film but equally distracted by the girl sitting next to him. Their elbows touched on the arm rest. She removed her hand first.

A dramatic scene with a black-and white Waheeda Rehman ….And then he felt her hand on his thigh. He very casually glanced at her but her eyes were focused on the screen. And then she started moving her hand up his thigh. Hell, she was feeling him up. Or was it heaven? He sat frozen. Should he reciprocate? Would she demand money later? His mind was a whirl and the movie a blur as she slowly settled her hand on his crotch.

Interval. The lights came on. He looks at her. She was beautiful. And then without even a glance at him she got up and out.

But her hand was still on his crotch.

And then he looked down. There was a large rat sleeping on his corduroy trousers.

Paromita Vohra, writer and film-maker

It was 1998. At the end of a long shoot I wanted to go see something escapist - Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya. My friend wanted to see a Govinda movie, and a third friend was agnostic. We were arguing even while in the auto - and trying to have our way, we’d keep giving the autowallah competing instructions - “Bhaiyya Goregaon jao”, “Nahin, Andheri jao.” Finally he got sick of us and said, “If you don’t mind can I make a suggestion? Sholay is playing at Sangam Talkies. Why not see that?” The agnostic friend said - let’s na. And we happily agreed. “Good” said the auto-wallah. “I’ll also come with you.” I’d never seen Sholay in a hall but imagined it would be raucous with dialogue repeating and seetis.It was all men, mostly working class. They were rapt and quiet, all worshipful attention. Towards the end, my friend Sunita [referring to Amitabh Bachchan’s Jai] said, “Chalo, now he’ll die.” I’d forgotten the end and was deeply involved so I was shocked! “What?! He dies? No, how can he!” That’s the only time that everyone around us started laughing,maybe thinking, who’s this girl who doesn’t know the ending of Sholay.

Shyam Benegal, director of ‘Ankur’, ‘Nishant’ and ‘Bhumika’

There was a theatre called Dreamland close to my school in Sikanderabad, Hyderabad, which generally showed American movies. I was finishing high school when I came to know one day that they were playing some Italian neorealist films. I used to read everything about films I could possibly get my hands on and I had known about Italian neorealism from the Penguin Film Review magazines. My brother in Calcutta used to subscribe to it and would send them over to me when he was done. It was perhaps the first time that those movies were being played in India and I decided to bunk school to catch the Friday matinee show of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, like I used to do quite often. When I entered Dreamland I found there wasn’t a soul inside. The projectionist was sitting there smoking a cigarette. He would have to shut shop if more people didn’t turn up. I asked him how many people he would need to show the film. He said they had to cover the cost of electricity, which would be the equivalent of 6 tickets. I went back to school and tried to get some people to watch the film. Many were reluctant. Some told me, “Why are you forcing us?”. I didn’t really care as long as I got to watch the film. I managed to get 3 people. Two adults came in and we made up 6. It helped that the tickets were really cheap at 50 paise. I became a fan of the Italian neorealist cinema. And I have never experienced anything like that in my life.

Sanjna Kapoor, theatre actor and director

I had the extraordinarily magical experience of watching Deewar in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). I think it was late ‘80s and I used to go to FTII quite often to act in a lot of diploma films. In that particular screening, there were these highly intellectual people who would become directors, cinematographers and editors, and they were mouthing every single line of the film. The only thing left was chillar being flung at the screen. Every moment was so huge that it could cut ice. There was a sense of thrill and joy and being one with the film. And it felt like sitting in the stall of a tier-two single screen. It was beautiful.

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On the Move

The film-makers who chronicled the travelling cinemas of Maharashtra on gender boundaries and accidents while watching film under the open sky

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travellers had its India premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival last month. Their documentary is an evocative tribute to the travelling cinemas of rural Maharashtra and the tradition of communal movie-watching in this country. Here, the directors recount some of their experiences from the making of the film.

Amit Madheshiya: “While photographing travelling cinemas for two years, I wanted to do a series on people watching films. At night, the experience would become intimate and magical, for they would open the flaps of the tent. I needed to sit opposite the audience, which was very close to the screen, as I wouldn’t have enough light otherwise. I found it a unique experience and an inversion of the world of movie-going that we are so used to. Instead of following the ritual of arriving at the place, finding a seat and watching the film, here I was looking at people’s faces lit by the screen and various emotions running through them. I would spend 3 hours focusing on one person to get one good picture where the lighting and the expression were in alignment. Also, I didn’t want to intrude on their experience of watching and would move slowly and carefully.

Once, despite my best efforts, a boy got so distracted by my presence that he started watching me more than the movie. He came up to me and I explained why I didn’t want him to look at me. I showed him some of the photos on my digital camera. He suggested I photograph his friends, who were sitting on the other side of the screen—travelling cinemas are viewed from both sides of the screen. He led me to this gang of boys who had found themselves comfortable seating in a haystack. They were smoking and drinking and having a great time, mouthing lines of Tujhe Meri Kasam, a movie they had seen many times, and getting emotional when Genelia D’Souza leaves Riteish Deshmukh. In the light of the screen, the hay was glittering like gold. It was an amazing image and what struck me was the boys assimilating into that setting and creating a leisurely, private space for themselves. It was like the cinema boxes you could hire in the old days, except that they were not caged in a box.

There were many myths that we were told while making The Cinema Travellers. The weirdest of all was that of a mother who got so engrossed while watching a movie that she smothered her weeping child to death. There are many versions of the story. One of them has the many women in the audience fighting amongst themselves for a place to sit. In all the versions, the child dies in the end.”

Shirley Abraham: I have spent a lot of time with the travelling cinemas, and its a man’s world. Women are only there in the audience, and you’re very aware of whether you are speaking to a man or a woman.

Having spent so much time with the people in these places, I have made friends with them. But one incident freaked me out. It was a screening in a village in the jungle. These areas are quiet for most of the year, except when a fair pops up and they spring to life. In one of those screenings, Mohammed, a travelling cinema owner and one of the main characters of our film, was being a little too prescriptive about where I should sit in the tent. I was told to go to the projectionist’s cabin, not look around much and hide myself there. It was a late night show, after 11, but there were no posters, announcements of a new or popular film. People started coming in, all of them men. I was curious but Mohammed wouldn’t say anything. He was probably embarrassed, as I figured later. He was roaming around, visibly worried, and the projectionist became nervous.

It’s only once he started the projection that I saw that it was a porn film. These men wait for a year to watch one. You could almost hear the sound of their anticipation and longing. And I understood why Mohammad and the projectionist were on edge. The projectionist got so nervous that he ended up playing the film upside down. It had to be shut and when he played it again, he started mixing up the reels. Things got violent when these men started beating down the projectionist’s cabin, which was made out of tin. The people barely saw me but it was only time I felt scared while working with the travelling cinemas.

As told to Sankhayan Ghosh.

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