Going to the pictures in the 1950s was almost like a religious ceremonial undertaking. It was the pastime of those years, to which we children would look forward with relish
The impression that dad played on our tender mind when “Boot Polish” was the talk of town cannot be downplayed. He took us to watch the picture in Rose Hill at the Royal Theatre. That lifted our mind for years to a higher level of dreaming and wishful thinking.
The Family Outing
My paternal grandmother, an addict of ‘Cinema Indien’, would be a regular visitor to the local theatre Roxy on most Saturday nights; her absence at the show would be the talk of the house.
On the rare occasions that my dad went to a picture he would doze off half way through. Getting up at 05.30 am to go to work, followed by a late night show would naturally take a heavy toll on him; after all he was more interested in politics and the pragmatism of life than in ephemeral pastimes.
Earlier in the day my maternal spinster aunty would have been cajoled, and tutored into the plot of the coming movie by my grandmother’s hearsay.
Like mother like son — my paternal uncle was another fan; his young wife would have liked to emulate him, but daughters-in-law in the 50s must definitely deserve this weekly outing. Fancy the scene at home if she was promised to be taken to picture and, after ironing her colourful sari with so much anticipation, the plan petered out. The uncle coming late from work would rather miss dinner than the beginning of the picture, so waiting for the wife to go through the
rigmarole of dressing up was out of question. There would be tearful grumblings, frustration, deception, and runny nose. Followed by a Sunday loaded with moroseness.
Now, looking back, all these feverish activities had made those Saturday nights most poignant and memorable.
Our Saturday Night Fever
After a tough time at school and private tuition we children looked forward to a treat during the weekend. After our mind having been fired by bits and pieces of the wonderful picture being projected in Roxy, the mere idea of being part of the impending adventure threw us into a spate of excitement.
But lo, in those days we children had no rights but only our duty to attend to — our studies, for which the parents, we were admonished ad nauseum were sacrificing a lot. We were careful not to air our wish and fancy too loudly, for fear that one of the el-ders would, in a Machiavellian twist of mind, remind us of that sacred duty, thereby killing any meagre chance of tipping the rolling dice in our favour.
As early as 6 pm my sisters and I would approach mum directly for succour in our plot – all the while being aware that she was not the final authority, which dad was. Keeping our fingers crossed and peeping on the road to look for any sign of his coming “camionette”, we silently prayed that dad were in a merry mood, after a peg or two. And fancy our relief and joy if he came home well before 7 pm, all smiling. Should he be sober, then we children would experience a sinking feeling at the pit of our stomach.
Far from us children to venture and try a direct approach; the aunties, grandmother or mother would, on our behalf, hint obliquely to the smiling dad that the children had expressed a wish to accompany them to the cinema.
Sometimes my father would have had encouraging news from his friends about the high moral themes in such and such picture – and that would be our luck. The green flag would be out.
In no time grandmother, aunties, sisters and I would quickly take off by foot, for the one and only theatre in town – Roxy. We hurried to secure a comfortable, decent seat in the first class at that much coveted palace, full of relief and expectation. No question of feeling guilty about unfinished homework; dad’s stamp of approval had dissipated all doubts.
And that was how we children had a wonderful time, watching “Film Indien” of all hues, colours and scenarios – with tearful eyes, at the hard life of poor children and unfortunate, docile daughters-in-law; we would hear unforgettable songs and music by famous directors and the voice of Lata, rendering sad, undying romantic songs – all becoming imprinted forever in our memory. There were the famous actors like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Vijayantimala, Meena Kumari, Madhubala; and those despicable villains like Pran, Ajit and KN Singh, or Lalita Pawar, that hateful, unbearable mother-in-law. Many a time the appearance of a hero or heroine on the screen would elicit overenthusiastic applauses or wolfish whistles from some diehard fans.
We looked on though we did not understand the language, for we had become experts at guessing the impending scenario. Boy meets girl would necessarily lead to a song around trees, parental disapproval and followed yet again by a final happy wedding.
Decades later, this wonderful movie “Cinema Paradiso” would be reminiscent of my childhood days at Cinema Roxy.
How would one ‘tonton’ be a sort of a hero for that night show? Late from work he would sneak in at the last minute in the second class U shaped balcony, nearest to the screen. We could hear someone in the audience murmuring “Ala linn vini, ala linn vini” while some of his cronies would be more boisterous and cry out “Marday, Marday” — as if without him the whole show would be incomplete. Decades of loyal patronage had made him part of the ‘decor’.
No need to say, the audience was made up of almost the same cinema-goers week after week, year after year, which always lent an air of a huge family gathering to the atmosphere. We could hear some young male commenting about the day’s events, a strategy to attract the attention of one of the belles in the audience, while some nearby middle-aged ladies would have a running commentary, in a hushed voice, about someone sitting some seats away, about her private life, her domestic embroilment with her in-laws. There would be comments on the dress of
others or the love affair of so and so.
During the show it was not rare to hear, in a mix of Bhojpuri and Creole, some old ladies expressing their disgust at the villain’s dirty manoeuvres to cut the grass under the hero’s feet, going to the extent of raising their voice, with the hope of recruiting some sympathetic support from the audience. And as poetic justice would finally catch up with those villains, the same voice would be heard expressing their relief by uttering “Donne li so zafaire” or “Li bon pou li – ‘badtamize’, sa nimakaram la”.
But the anticlimax to all that fun would be when the next reel of film was late to come from the Rose Hill theatres: we would be shaken out of our pleasant reverie by a sudden break in the film while the light would go on; the audience became restless and irritated; some young men would shout, whistle and called the projectionist “Chartier, Chartier”, or someone from the deep recess of the third class would raucously claim: “Rande moi mo 50 sous – rande moi mo l’argent”. But soon the show would resume.
Maybe it was this atmosphere of make-believe, of exotic adventure which lured us children to Roxy on Saturday nights… father permitting.
How did we manage to watch two Hindi pictures at one go, always full of high strung drama, moral rendition and punctuated by a dozen songs? At the end of the show, one’s head would be throbbing, with its veins dilated to the extreme by the suffocating atmosphere in the poorly ventilated theatre and the eyes reddish with tears, with emotions and lachrymal glands taxed to the limit.
Coming out of the theatre we were groggy and knocked out; so the cool air outside was like manna from the wilderness.
Yet we children were glad to have been to cinema, to have participated in the world of adults and in a make-believe world. Soon we would walk back home lazily in the cool light breeze of the early morning of a new Sunday.
* Published in print edition on 4 May 2018