The movie buff and the gentlemen of Kolkata

Tapan Misra

Today’s young men, like my son, will not understand the thrill of watching movies in dilapidated movie theaters, called Cinema Halls, in all our teen hood, school and college days spent in the 70s and 80s. Nowadays they watch movies on OTT platforms in the comfort of home or in swanky multiplexes chewing popcorn and drinking coke. In our days, movie watching was considered a taboo, especially Hindi movies, by “Bhadra Loks” (Gentry) of Kolkata. They were considered blasphemous because of blatant display of romantic contents, though censored mercilessly by custodians of socialist state.

My first movie was the 1966 Bengali classic “Subhas Chandra”. Still the tunes of “Ekbar biday de Ma ghure ashi” (“Bid me goodbye Mother”) by Lata Mangeskar, haunts me. All of our family watched in Meena Cinema in suburban locality of Sodepur. Next family viewing was Satyajit Ray’s 1969 classic “Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen”. I watched it many more times. In different ages, the movie appeared to render different connotations and interpretations.

Another 1967 Uttam Kumar classic “Antony Firingi” I remember entirely for different reasons. It was a blockbuster in those days running in theaters for months together with “Housefull” signs hanging outside. It appears that my college going uncle and my school going sister went to watch the movie in Meena Cinema. Uncle, bunked the classes and sister went with her classmates, without the knowledge of their families. Both ducked spotting each other. In the afternoon, a big row broke out between them, each threatening to complain against each other to my stern father!!

My first brush with tabooed Hindi cinema was in 1972, on the occasion of my sister’s marriage. My wealthy youngest maternal uncle sponsored the Devanand and Zeenat Aman starrer 1971 classic “ Hare Rama Hare Krishna”. We all siblings from all different relations, including algebraic ones, went to watch in Sandhya theatre, near our house at Khardah. Almost two coveted back rows, with torn cushions, costing princely 2 Rs 25 Paise, were booked. Most of us were wearing fashionable yellow cotton shirts with “Hare Ram Rare Krishna” printed in Hindi. “Dum Maro Dum” song stuck to my brain, even till today.

When we reached teens, we started our rendezvous with Hindi films with our classmates. Those days, even now, movies used to be released on Fridays. I used to go every Thursday afternoon to Prafulla Cinema when giant posters on canvas of upcoming movies, used to be painted by dreary looking wizened artists. I used to be amazed how simple white chalk sketches metamorphosed into our favourite stars and heroines with strokes of rough brushes, dipped in paints, mixed on earthen pots of a variety of shapes.

We all friends belonged to the lower middle class, growing up with shortages of affluence. Pocket money was scarce and far between. We used to accumulate those precious pocket money to spend on our favourite film stars in opportune times.

We could afford only the front few wooden rows of the theatres costing 90 paise per seat. They were earlier 65 paise. But we used to rue the increase in our time. The ticket prices were fixed by the Government. We used to curse the Marxist Government for the misfortune which descended on us. You have to stand in a suffocating queue, pressed by rusted cast iron railings, swayed by the pressure of the crowd. Just 15 minute before the show time, the counter would open. You had to tender exact changes for the ticket. Maximum one to four tickets were allowed, depending upon box office success. If you delay in removing the hand, you will be caned by a burly fellow standing beside to discipline the queue. Every time, it was a survival from near stampede one.

We got hooked to Tequila, Ventures and Come September tunes, played invariably in all theaters, before the start of the movie.

There used to be Royal seats too, costing very much affordable 25 paise or “Char Ana”. You can pay the sum to the light man at the interval time to watch only second half. He will allow you to sit on the narrow floor on the ground, just in front of the first row. The strain on the neck was worth the main action being played in the second half. Most of us watched the beautiful song “dafli wale dafli baja” ( featuring Jayaprada and Rishi Kapoor in the 1979 classic “Sargam”) many a time by paying for Royal seat. Sometimes the light man will throw coins at the screen, like in romantic classic “Satyam Sivam Sundaram”, which will be followed by in copycat manner by the audience. After the show, the light man will collect the accumulated coins happily.

Many of us were influenced greatly by the characters in the movies. Some of us, after watching “Sholay”, all time hit, started behaving thug like, a la Amzad Khan. After getting influenced by the Amitabh Bachchan classic, “Yarana”, one of my classmate decorated his brand new shirt, with copycat dog collar, gifted to him for Durga Puja celebration, with a lining of flickering LED bulbs. Mithunda’s “Disco Dancer” movie influenced my friend so much that he became sought after street dancer in immersion processions of Goddess Durga, for many many years.

I never had the fate to watch romantic movies comfortably. I went to watch a rerun of the romantic classic “Julie” in Priya theatre in Ballygunge. The chairs were full of bedbugs (or chair bugs?), half the fans were not working. The stuffiness was unbearable, forcing us to occupy the windows and watch movies with windows open.Priya is the only theatre which boasted a series of windows. I went to watch a rerun of another classic “Bobby” in a theater in Tollygunge. Fifteen minutes into the movie, the high tide of the Hoogly River, flowing by, flooded the hall and we had to watch the movie virtually standing on the seat.

I cherish my days in Narendrapur Ramakrishna Mission. It was a very strict residential campus, needed a lot of paperwork and convincing the hostel super to go out of campus. Movie going students devised the gate number 2.5, on the wall somewhere between gate numbers 2 and 3. Enterprising students created soil mounds on both sides of the wall, making it easier to jump over the wall to freedom. Strict omerta was clamped to maintain secrecy.

Mostly we were nocturnal animals, preferring night shows as it was easier to get tickets. Only disadvantage was that when you return to the hostel, the gate will be closed. We have found a way of removing the vertical rods in the windows in the ground floor and entering. We nicknamed those gates as 11 (eleven) no. gate.

I remember, we were returning from the night show after watching Sandhya Roy starrer Bengali blockbuster “Ganadevata”. Narendrapur had 25% students who were visually handicapped. One such student went to watch the movie along with us. While returning, in the Garia bus stop, that blind gentleman had an urge to smoke. But he forgot the vital accessory- match box. He asked for one matchbox from the gentleman, waiting at the bus stop. He politely lit the match. Both the faces got illuminated briefly. To our horror, that gentleman was none other than our Bengali language professor and a tough one. By coincidence, all the members of the group started scoring pathetically afterwards in his examinations.

I got bored by seeing all studious boys preparing the previous day of the tough mathematics examination in the Higher secondary board. I went alone for the night show for the rerun of the Bachchan-Rajesh Khanna classic “Anand”. On my return, I safely negotiated both the gate nos. 2.5 and 11. When I was entering my room, I was caught by Hostel Super and it will be an understatement, if I say, I was given an earful. No wonder, higher degrees eluded me.

If I look back, those days, teens in Kolkata schools and colleges were broadly classified in two groups. A small group, known for passion for movies, especially Hindi ones. They never hesitated to bunk classes to pursue their passion. The dominant rest were generally obedient and innocent. The first group became bankers, scientists, politicians, real estate tycoons, entrepreneurs, CEOs, VPs, MNC honchos, celebrated medical professionals, top engineers, innovators, IIT Directors, space scientists, historians, philosophers, authors, poets, Naxalites, MLAs, Ministers, well known thugs etc. etc. And the second type became “Bhadralok (Gentlemen)”, maintaining Kolkata’s glorious traditions and ethos.

Tapan Misra is a world renowned distinguished scientist. He is ex-Director Space Application Centre and Advisor Department of Space, Government of India.

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