Years after Doctor Zhivago won a slew of Oscars, I finally got to see the film in a cinema hall in Delhi. I had read the book and could whistle “Lara’s Theme” with some dexterity, so I was waiting anxiously for the film to be screened in India. But a Hollywood or a British production would reach Delhi by the slow train and other parts of the country by a bullock cart. The 1965 film was eventually screened in a cinema hall in Delhi in the late 1970s.
I was reminded of the hardships of our young lives when I found that I could watch this year’s best picture winner on Netflix just minutes after it was heaped with awards. That generational sigh “You don’t know how difficult our lives were” irked me no end when I was a boy, but it rang in my ears when I saw a young person glued to her phone watching Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Our film-watching experiences were quite different. My first film, as a small boy in Delhi, was Tom Thumb, which I saw in a theatre called Rivoli. Years later, I realised how watching a film in small-town India was another story altogether.
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For one, the exercise came with considerable exertion back in the 1960s and 1970s. I was what was called a First-Day-First-Show enthusiast. There were many hard-core fans like me, so it meant a huge melee at the ticket counter. As the thinnest man in my group of friends studying in Meerut, I had a special role to play when we went to buy the tickets. My friends would haul me up, hold me above their shoulders, and slide me towards the counter. I would extend a long arm with the money towards the ticket-seller, and he would give me the tickets along with a rap on my hand with a stick, a curious signal symbolising the sale.
Movie halls those days were vastly different, too. Food vendors walked in and out selling tea and cold drinks, samosas and peanuts. Watching a film was like a picnic.
In some cities such as Kolkata, it was like an evening party. In fact, many of the city’s halls had bars in the lobby where one could buy a drink during the interval. Our Meerut halls were not quite so sophisticated. Cigarettes too were not taboo those days: we just had to sit in the front rows because otherwise the screen, enveloped in a thick fog of smoke, wasn’t visible from the back. If there were more people in our group than the tickets we had, we’d wrench an armrest off a seat so that three of us could fit in two seats.
If we liked a dance by Helen or a sarcastic line by Raj Kumar, we would throw our parents’ hard-earned money at the screen. The experience wasn’t very different in other cities. A friend from Chennai remembers the audience throwing coins at the screen each time Rajinikanth chucked a cigarette in the air and made it land in his mouth.
Cinema-watching in Delhi
Once I moved to Delhi, cinema-watching took on a different hue. The single-screen theatre halls here were elegant. A theatre called Racecourse, run by the Air Force, played “The Berlin Melody” as we waited for the film to be screened. Regal had box row enclosures for six or eight people. Rivoli, however, had its own distractions—a restaurant called Tee Pee O next door, from where the most glorious aromas of mutton biryani would waft into the hall at the most crucial moments.
Film-watching changed rather drastically in the 1980s. I was no longer waiting to see Hindi films on their first day of release but taking a keen interest in Hungarian and Russian cinema. The foreign cultural centres in Delhi were particularly active those days, and I saw many memorable films at the Hungarian Centre, Max Mueller Bhavan, and the House of Soviet Culture. I went on to join an esoteric film-lovers’ club called the Celluloid Film Society, which screened films largely for students and professors in Delhi University.
We watched some of the best European and Latin American films of the time—all the Wajdas, the István Szabós, the Zanussis, Tarkovskys, Herzogs, Fassbinders, Bergmans, and von Trottas. As the society’s president some years later, I was in charge of the films that were screened. Reels came from the Hungarian, Polish, German, and Russian embassies. Sometimes, the reels got mixed up, and we watched the end before the middle. Now that I am no longer the kind of world cinema snob I was in my callow youth, I must admit that in many of the films it was anyway difficult to tell the beginning from the end. I am afraid I ran the society into the ground, and the founders of the iconic film club seldom spoke to me after that.
“Almost every film I want to see is just a click away. YouTube ushered films and old detective series into the living room.”
Watching a film, clearly, is not what it used to be. I have not gone to a multiplex yet and, after a friend’s experience, don’t plan to do so. The pal, his family, and their friends had gone to see Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The friend went to park his car while the others entered the hall and waited for him. But there was no sign of him even 20 minutes after the film had begun. The family got worried and started looking for him: they checked the foyer, the washrooms, the parking area, the popcorn stall, but he was not to be found. Then, an intrepid young thing in that group went to another auditorium in the hall where the same film was being shown. She walked up and down the aisle yelling: “Raju Uncle, Raju Uncle” (name changed—for I don’t want to lose his friendship, too). She found him sitting comfortably in the wrong theatre, enjoying the film with perfect strangers.
But then I don’t really have to go to a multiplex. Almost every film I want to see is just a click away. It started with YouTube, which ushered films and old detective series into the living room. Now there are streaming platforms that offer you everything and anything that you’d like to watch—from police procedurals and comedies to whodunits, romcoms, and crime thrillers. It’s a boon, no doubt—the fact that you can watch almost any film at will. It was incredible that all those songs that gave us such joy on the radio were on the Internet somewhere. But, some years down the line, I thought I missed the thrill that came when a particular song I was yearning to hear suddenly popped up on the radio.
With cinema, too, it was the anticipation that was such fun. At least I thought so until, just some days ago, I met a friend’s 85-year-old uncle. Ashok Kaku was visiting from Kolkata and was staying with his niece in Delhi. One recent April afternoon, he sighed after a satisfying meal of pork chops and reminded his niece that Pathaan was being aired on Netflix. “Can you put it on?” he asked. Ashok Kaku, certainly, has embraced the ease of watching films. I think I, too, shall bid a fond (albeit teary) goodbye to nostalgia and check out what’s on the telly.
Rahul Verma lives in Delhi, cooks for friends and family, and writes about food.