Life, over 60-odd years, takes curious turns. When I finished school in 1967, I had no idea what I was going to do in college. It was the sheerest accident that I joined the honours course in Economics in Delhi University. Then, when I finished my Masters course there, I again had no idea what I was going to do next and took the first decent job offered to me as the economics editor of an MNC publishing company. That palled in a few years and I took the first decent job — at least according to me — that came my way. In 1980 I became a journalist. My father was very disappointed after I told him I reviewed English films for the newspaper. I will never forget the look of pain on his face. He was speechless with anger, which was just as well.
But I count those six movie critic months amongst the best in my life. I used to go to very spiffy little theatres for special showings at ten in the morning, yes 10 am. It was my version of going to office. During the interval they gave us sandwiches and beer. Those little theatres were a revelation. Until then all I had seen were the smelly hellholes that were Indian movie halls. They were dumps. Yet we went. The trick was to look steadfastly up at the screen, and never down because the floor was often full of litter and cigarette butts. On one famous occasion, my friend, who was scrabbling around for a dropped coin, found a set of female undergarments.
Another time, in the late 1960s, in Delhi’s oldest hall, we heard an old man tell his grandson who wanted to relieve himself, to do it under the seat. We left, thereupon. In Madras, there was a theatre where women would sit separately in a small section. Once the lights came on, a black curtain would be drawn so that the females were segregated. Calcutta was better. Some of its theatres had bars attached to them. Then there were the Services cinemas, at least in Delhi. They were simply large sheds with asbestos roofs and iron benches. In the Delhi heat, you got roasted, both from the top and the bottom.
In Madras, there was a theatre where women would sit separately in a small section. Calcutta was better. Some of its theatres had bars attached to them.
There was also a thriving black market. Knowing an usher was a status symbol because he could always get you in for a price. In fact, some ushers in some theatres in Delhi would let in half a dozen people without tickets and then collect the money halfway through the film.
Yet we went because the movies made up for the theatre experience, including one where you had to carry your own chair in from the lot lying outside. That was for the better tickets. For the Janata Class, there were bricks — which had to be put back on the way out.
In those days the government fixed the price of entry in three or four or five slabs — front row, middle row, rear, balcony, dress circle and, of course, in a few blessed places, the boxes where you could, if she agreed, take your girlfriend.
In one theatre in Delhi there was a row with just two seats. It always commanded a premium because the ushers would buy up those seats for every show in the not-unfulfilled hope that an amorous couple would be willing to pay three times the price. But that wasn’t why we went, week after week, year after year. Before TV there was no other entertainment and place for romance.
Now most of the old movie halls have been knocked down, giving way to offices, malls and hotels. No one has mourned their passing. In their place have come smaller but plusher halls, many of them in multiplexes, which, I must admit, are far better than those smoke-filled, hot, sweaty and smelly glorified sheds of the past. Not just that: thanks to the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, everyone has become a movie critic.