Even today, I cannot keep awake through a whole movie – perhaps a throwback to the nap I had in my first movie experience!
That was in 1953 in Cannanore.
Urchins would chase the cart, begging for the ‘cinema notice’ which would have pictures of the hero and the heroine, and sometimes the villain. On the other face of the bill, the synopsis of the movie would be printed (for some curious reason, entirely in present tense). There was a catch, though: at a critical point of the storyline (Like, ‘Justice Shekhar and his wife die in a car accident’ or ‘After many years, Asha runs into Kumar at the railway station in Bombay’) it would snap, followed by the phrase ‘Rest on the Silver screen’.
As I had been prohibited by my the seniors in my family from running after the bullock cart (‘like those urchins’), I never got a cinema notice for myself for a long time, though some kind-hearted classmates used to allow me to look at the pictures and read the story. The first ‘cinema notice’ that came into my possession was that of Laila-Majnu. To acquire the coveted green bill, I had exchanged a valued collector’s item of mine: the gold-and-silver foil with the picture of Mahalakshmi stuck to my grandfather’s dhoti when it was new. I folded the new acquisition into four and kept in my Civics text book.
Having acquired it, I was in a flap: it had the picture of Nageswara Rao and B S Saroja (Or was it Anjali Devi?) locked in an embrace. In the 1950’s, in the milieu that I lived in, this pose was the equivalent of a Playboy pin-up, if not outright pornography. I was scared I might be caught, but did not have the heart to throw it away.
A distant uncle of mine, a veteran of the First World War was the first who had seen a movie in the circle that I knew. The term he used for movies was ‘bioscope’. The first bioscope show he had seen was in a German town. It consisted of two parts and lasted all of five minutes! One showed a horse carriage on a lonely road leading to a mansion. The other was of two men in animated conversation (There, of course, was no sound!) This uncle used to explain how the soldiers from different countries were entranced by the images that enlivened the screen.
It was another younger uncle who took me for the first movie that I saw. I was so overwhelmed by the outing that to this day, I cannot recall the name of the movie or its contents. All I remember is that it was a Tamil movie and that we saw it sitting on a bench, that it had a lot of fights and ended in a marriage.
After an early lunch, we got into a bus bound for the town. It was a rickety contraption which ran on coal. Mattresses filled with coir, placed on wooden planks resting on iron strips welded to the running board served as seats with wooden backrests. An ex-serviceman with a handle-bar moustache (so called because its twirl resembled the handle-bar of a bicycle) regarded the rest of the world with absolute disdain, sitting regally in the driver’s seat.
The conductor sat at the entrance and collected the fare from the passengers and issued tickets. The cleaner, who himself could do with some cleaning, as his clothes, face and limbs were covered in soot stood, stoking the coal in the ‘barrel’. I was issued a half ticket, saving my uncle a princely sum of two annas (Today’s 12 paise); I had to sit on his lap in the crowded bus.
The bus coursed its way through the apology for a road bounded on either side by the green foliage of the typical rainforest, densely populated by trees whose canopy of leaves did not allow sunrays to penetrate.
As we walked from the bus stand to the hall, we could hear the devotional ‘Jnaanappazhatthai pizhunthu…’ being belted out by K B Sundarambal. My uncle, knowledgeable from earlier visits to the cinema-hall, informed me that this was the first song to be played everyday. This was followed by a romantic song and then a comic-sounding one.
By then, we had purchased the tickets (five annas for my uncle and half of that for me) and got in. Seated on the sand-strewn floor were those who had paid only two annas for entry, booing, shouting and clapping. The ‘silver screen’ immortalised through the cinema notice was there, tantalisingly, before us. (Unlike the present days, it was not behind a curtain that went up – or parted – to the accompaniment of soft music and tiny star-like lights that blinked and shone while the lights in the hall dimmed and darkened.)
Suddenly, the loud song came to a close and the booing and the claps stopped. Silence fell. The lights went out, plunging the hall into total darkness. The viewers waited, but nothing happened. And the booing gained fresh impetus, only to die down as some white stars, plus signs, random numbers and marks of punctuation flickered on the screen.
Horses and soldiers, camels and deserts, kings and queens, rains and lightning, winds and dust, scenes changed in quick succession. The dialogues were in Tamil and I could not make out a thing. I enjoyed the song sequences and the sword-fights. Those in the stalls too shared my taste, for, they clapped and whistled when these scenes appeared.
Soon, or soon it seemed, there was darkness and momentary silence broken by hooting, whistling and clapping. These interruptions were because the cinema operator had to change the reels. The pandemonium would stop when the screen came alive again. This kept happening every ten minutes or twelve.
The lights came on again. Loud music blared both inside and outside the theatre. I thought it was all over and got up. My uncle said there was more to come: it was only the interval. Several people got up and went out for a smoke, though there was no need to do that: even more had been enjoying the weed while the movie was on. My uncle said we would stay put where we were, lest someone else come and occupy our seats. (Refinements like the tickets being assigned seat numbers were obviously a later development.)
During the interval, my uncle spent half an anna on a ‘songbook’ containing, apart from the lyrics of the songs in the movie, details about the cast, director, script-writer, lyricist, music director, playback singers and the others behind the venture. (I recall the expression on his face the next morning when he discovered that the whole thing was printed in Tamil – a language he did not know!) He bought peanuts and orange and lemon drops for a quarter each, too.
One more round of lights-out-silence-booing-and-clapping-silence-movie routine and we were into the second half. To this date, I have not forgiven myself for having slept soon after the second reel change in the latter half. But the practice continues.