April 22, 2013

#3: Maiden Foreign 'Trip'

“The movie never changes. It can't change. But every time you see it, it seems different because you're different.” - Terry Gilliam's 'Twelve Monkeys' (1995)

Every time I think of the single screen theatres of my hometown, every time I go into my memories of them, there are certain images that never fail to turn up. Today, in the world dominated by multiplexes with top quality seating, projection, and acoustics, those images seem to be from a different world, or a past life. Those screens were huge, and the capacity several times more than that of the largest multiplex theatre near me. Green-yellow walls loomed over us, decorated with coloured glasses, as we rose up the wide, paan-stained staircase to enter the movie hall. There was no air-conditioning but several noisy, and habitually inefficient fans lined the edges of the walls, adding to the humdrum of the excited, rowdy crowd. Once it went dark, the little doors with 'Exit' sign above them fascinated me. Why it is important to mention that these doors take you out - I never knew! The movies were always preceded by the timeless ads for Vicco products, and during the intermission, hand-written transparencies were projected in a slide-show, advertisements for the local sari shops and gift stores. Several minutes before the 'Intermission' titles appeared on the screen, it was 'announced' by the uninhibited entry of vendors, selling soft-drinks, Uncle Chips, and pop-corn of the most pathetic order. The soft-drink wallahs had their bottle openers using which they made an irritating but inviting sound on the glass bottles. Gold Spot and Limca were our favourites, occasionally Thumbs Up. Pepsi and Coke were unheard names. I remember, asking Mom for these or other eatables was not easy - she was strict with what we ate outside the house, even though all of us were out on a 'forbidden' trip to the movies. I also remember that during the Intermission, all the people around me looked like midgets, and especially their faces appeared shrunk. Possibly it was the after effect of watching the giant images on the screen that the real people suddenly appeared tiny. Possibly, it was only in my head. But that sight was not pleasant - tiny faces look evil - was my observation. Even my Mom looked strange, and it was particularly discomforting. I also remember the echo of the dialogues in the hall - it required sincere effort and imagination to understand the lines. And I remember the bed-bug ridden seats - that completed our movie experience.

The creatures and the faces and the sounds and the energy among the audience - all was to adopt a different meaning one morning as our school - an orthodox Christian school that punished us if we were caught talking in Hindi - took all students to the Konark Talkies for a movie. It was Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), possibly the first international film to reach every small town of this country, and definitely the first Hollywood film that grossed more from overseas than the American market. That was one unforgettable day. All lectures were cancelled and it was amazing to see the entire hall crowded with us kids - in white shirts and navy blue shorts (for boys) and red skirts (for girls). That was my first taste of American or non-Indian cinema, of a master film-maker, of a film without songs, and of the breathtaking spectacle that cinema can be. I still remember how little quirks in the film impressed me, as I had never seen them in our 'own' films - like Sam Neil clumsily tying the seat-belt when he is unable to figure out how to lock it as the helicopter descends down on the island with a waterfall in the background and a mesmerising background score playing on the sound-track. That I loved the film would be an under-statement. And the setting - with all friends and school-mates together, made it unforgettable. To think of it now, it was to be the only film I watched with my earliest friends.

On returning home, I shared the story with my Mom, excitedly. After listening to me, she said, "Imagine how this film would look in 3D". "What's that?" - I asked and she explained to me what 3D was. A middle-class housewife from a small Indian town talking about 3D in the early 90s! I didn't know then what it meant. For me, she was my Mom, who knew 'everything', sharing her knowledge and awareness of the world with me, as we let our imaginations loose about what 'Jurassic Park' in 3D would look like!

Last week, that twenty-year old imagination came alive, as I watched the movie again, re-released globally in 3D. And all those memories came rushing back to me - of those movie halls and my school friends and that conversation with my Mom. 'Jurassic Park' was my first, and deservingly so, entry into the amazing world of international cinema. I hardly knew back then, that the beginning made that day will turn my world into an amusement park of movies and turn me into a kid refusing to grow up. Today, I see the flaws in that film, which is rightfully considered an inferior film in the filmography of Spielberg. But for reasons mentioned above, and those that can perhaps never be expressed but only felt and cherished - 'Jurassic Park' remains, and will remain, one of the very favourite films of mine.

April 17, 2013

Must Watch Before You Die #34: Late Spring (1949)

It has been close to four months since I made a recommendation in this column. During this period, I have watched close to 50 good films, some even great, but I was waiting for one that would qualify as a 'must watch' beyond any doubt. And finally, I found this - one of the most beautiful films you're going to watch - Yasujiro Ozu's 'Late Spring'.

I haven't had the fortune of observing a father-daughter relationship from a close distance. Have only heard of it, and have vaguely felt it in the bond that my Mom shared with her Dad, my Nanaji. There have been a few female friends, who are close to me, and who talk fondly about their fathers. Some of them evoke such tenderness within me that I start longing for a daughter! People who know me would understand what a big 'shift' it is from my priorities and preferences, if I start talking about having a child, and a family. But this is what happens to me, when such conversations come up, of the magically beautiful relationship some daughters have with their fathers.

Early April in India, is very much 'late spring'. It wasn't planned, but it just happened that I watched this Ozu masterpiece during that time. After last year's 'Sight and Sound' poll of the greatest films, 'Late Spring' has suddenly climbed up the rankings and I had great expectations from it. When it ended, I had tears in my eyes, and a blissful smile on my face. There is something about this relationship that I think I already know - how the father would feel once he sends away his darling daughter off to a new family! What a terribly and helplessly mixed feeling it would be! You see it in the eyes of Anupam Kher during closing portions of the 'Samdhi Samdhan' song in 'Hum Aapke Hain Koun!'. You see it in the eyes of Ashok Kumar at the climax of 'Aashirwaad'. Now see it in the eyes of Chishu Ryu, and love this beautiful movie forever!

April 06, 2013

#2: The First Sight?

“The best films are like dreams you're never sure you've really had.” – Jim Jarmusch’s 'The Limits of Control' (2009) 

When we were kids, my brother and I had one daily ritual. Every evening, after playtime, we used to listen to stories that our Baba, Grand Dad, told us. Those were stories from mythology, from fiction he read, and from his own imagination. My Baba was my first storyteller. And my Mom always let us finish our story sessions with him before beckoning us for studies. I still have the memory of such evenings, just like the memory of the first child-magazine Mom bought for me. However, I’m not sure if what I have in my mind are bits and pieces of visual memory, or images re-imagined after I grew up. Similar is the case with my first memory of experiencing a movie in a theatre. I can never be sure whether the image I have in my mind, of watching ‘Nache Mayuri’ (1986) as a two-year old, is a memory or re-imagination.

But I remember watching ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ (1988) on VCR, and how my 18-year old Bua had fallen in love with Aamir Khan, treasuring several picture-postcards of the young heart-throb. We then watched all his films that released in a theatre near us, including duds like ‘Daulat Ki Jung’ (1992), and we watched all his films that never released in our town but were available on video, like ‘Raakh’ (1989), and ‘Love Love Love’ (1989). I also remember that once, along with one if these movies, we had watched a B-grade zombie flick called ‘Khooni Murda’ (1989) on VCR. One of my uncles had announced its name before playing the film, and I mistook it as ‘Khooni Murga’ and kept searching for the ‘killer cock’ as the ‘killer zombie’ avenged his death.

It must be mentioned here that watching movies was always an adventure. Baba never approved of it – it was indecent, according to him. Dad’s interest in movies was over by the time I was born. And it was only rarely, when Baba was out of town and Dad was out working, that we – Mom, Bua, my brother and I, went to the movies. It was always secretly planned and executed. But I guess none of such opportunity was missed. Munger had four movie theatres when we had shifted from the village, a couple of months after my brother was born. I can never forget their names – Konark, Neelam, Vijay, and Baidyanath. On our way to school, we kept looking for the movie posters and informed Mom of the latest releases. When the young Divya Bharti became the craze of the nation, we watched almost all her movies, including ‘Dil Ka Kya Kasoor’ and ‘Shola Aur Shabnam’ (both 1992). I also remember watching Ronit Roy’s debut film ‘Jaan Tere Naam’ (1992). My brother used to dance on its number – ‘First time dekha tumhe hum kho gaya’ during family functions! I think 'Maine Pyaar Kiya' (1989) was the first film I watched twice, the second time in Jamalpur's Railway Theare. One of my maternal uncles was a projectionist there and I remember its spiral iron stair-case that appealed to me more than the dingy projection room and the spools of film being projected from there. 

I also remember having gone to watch the debut film of a to-be superstar that also starred our favorite Divya Bharti. But this new kid did not appear on the screen until the first half was over. I remember deciding to take a nap, and telling my Mom to wake me up once ‘he’ arrived. When he did, with a song on a motor-bike, it was a bang. He was to rule India’s cinema consciousness for next few decades. The star was Shah Rukh Khan. The film was ‘Deewana (1992)’.

Around the same time, the fifth theatre opened in our sleepy town. It was called Siddharth and the inaugural film, ‘Saugandh’ (1991), was the debut vehicle of another to-be superstar. There is one scene in that film that always comes to my mind. The actress is unconscious, cold and wet, in an isolated hut in a jungle. Our hero, Akshay Kumar, removes all her clothes and sleeps with her to ‘save her life’ by providing the heat of his body. As a seven year old, I was intrigued by this scene. This also reminds me of one afternoon when National TV was showing several films back-to-back. During the counting of votes after the General Elections, such was the norm with Doordarshan. We were watching ‘Jab Jab Phool Khile’ (1965) and suddenly, at one point, a scene was deleted. I overheard my Mom telling my Bua – this is the scene where Shashi Kapoor (the hero) sleeps with the girl to ‘save her life’! It’s funny indeed, how cinema was also the first source of ‘knowledge’ that we never got otherwise. And it’s great that I frequently over-heard such ‘enlightening’ conversations between my Mom and Bua. More about such conversations, that along with these early movies formed the basis of my cinema consciousness, in the chapters to come!