Variety

Smelly, dank cinema paradiso

| Updated on: Jun 06, 2013
cinema hall.jpg

cinema hall.jpg

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Movie magic unspooling in dark hell holes… the unlamented movie halls of yore.

Soon after I became a journalist in 1980 — after having quit the infinitely more respectable trade of academic publishing — my highly disappointed father asked me what exactly my job was.

I am a movie critic, I said. I will not forget the look of pain on his face. For a moment or two, to make him feel better, I thought I would tell him that I went to very spiffy little theatres for special showings at ten in the morning. But as he hardly went to the films it would have made no difference to his then view of me.

But those little theatres were a revelation to me. Indian movie halls until the multiplexes came along were, with only a few exceptions, nothing more than smelly hell holes. So those six months when I reviewed movies — the editor could find nothing else for me to do — were absolutely wonderful.

It is a measure of how terrible those halls used to be that they evoke no nostalgia at all. The act of going to a movie was fun; the price of a ticket was comfortingly affordable; the cheap thrills inside were worth all the trouble. But the theatre hall itself?

It was a dump and no two views about it, even though sometimes, as in Calcutta, there were bars attached to theatres and you could have a beer during the interval. Little wonder then, when an alternative came along, first in the form of videos and then TV, the theatres all over India went into steep decline.

Yet we went.

The trick, in those days, was to look steadfastly up at the screen, and never down. 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 underclothes.

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. His only warning to the boy: squatting, not standing up. We left, thereupon.

But this was nothing compared to the Empire theatre in Jabalpur. By the mid-1960s it had lost all its imperial glory. Tacky in the extreme, its bathrooms were rudimentary and unlit.

In Madras, says a colleague, there was the Star Theatre in Triplicane where women would sit in a small section. Once the lights came on, a black curtain would be drawn so that the females were segregated. You could, of course, refuse to sit in that section and argue with the doorman to allow you in the general section. He would reluctantly oblige, with a stern and disapproving look on his face.

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.

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, from the top and the bottom.

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.

It’s the economics, stupid

Cinema halls used to be what economists call a natural monopoly. Only one of them — out of maybe a dozen halls in towns other than Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras — would show the film you wanted to see.

Demand being perfectly inelastic, the exhibitors could have charged what they liked and done up their halls as indeed they have done now. But 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 like Regal in Delhi’s Connaught Place, the boxes — about which more anon.

So the number of seats being constant and demand being inelastic, the owner fixed the quality at the lowest possible. And yet we went, week after week, year after year, first for fun and later for romance which, as always, was in short supply. In Delhi’s Odeon — cinema halls with Indian names came up only in the later 1960s — there was a row with 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.

It was perhaps to get around the time constraint that a theatre owner in Madras (as it was then) came up with a brilliant idea — buy a ticket and stay for the whole day. It was part of the three-theatre complex and, if I recall rightly, there were no ushers with intrusive torches.

Having introduced what can be called continuous functions, the theatre did spectacularly well for many years. But sadly it closed down in the mid-1970s. Folklore is that the theatre complex either came up on what was once a graveyard or overlooked one.

The truth was perhaps different. A family of diamond merchants owned it. They were in straitened circumstances and had to sell the land and building. The advent of cheap videos and video parlours also played a major role.

Now most of the old movie halls have been knocked down, giving way to offices, malls and hotels. No one has mourned their passing.

After all, if the whiskey is good, who cares how the bottle looks?

Published on March 10, 2018

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