Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Cinema Paradiso
There are many ways to map the evolution of a city, but perhaps none as meaningful as through its cinemas — those darkened temples of dreams and desires where the real and the reel and the personal and the public meld so tantalisingly.
These days, with the unceremonious ease by which we call up movies on OTT platforms, our ADHDs in full throttle as we frolic wantonly between Oscar winners, sci-fi thrillers, classic romances and run- of- the-mill new releases, does anyone recall the stately thrall with which the city’s cinemas once held us?
From the flea-infested Lido of our suburban childhood where we’d be dragged by nannies to see mythological tear jerkers, to the silk and velvet- curtained, embellished-ceilings of Metro, Eros and Regal and that Golden Triangle of peerless entertainment that was Sterling, New Empire and Excelsior (with Vithal’s Bhelpuri and Waikiki at convenient equidistance), to the post-liberalisation, polished sheen and deep pile carpets of the latter day multiplexes — watching a movie used to be a singular occasion, one which had rites and rituals all of its own.
First, one had to secure one’s entry into the promised land. In the days before internet and BookMyShow, this meant a trip to the theatre where the film was showing and yes, standing in the “advance booking” queue. This could take anything between a few minutes to an hour (the queues outside Metro during the screening of Bobby disrupted traffic at Dhobhi Talao so much that bus conductors would refer to it as the ‘Bobby’ stop), but it was a passage of time, brimming with opportunity. For here, you would be afforded an introduction to others who had the same tastes as you; plainly speaking, this meant people who were as crazy as you to wait in a long line under a hot sun to secure their three hours (counting the trailers, advertisements, Films Division newsreel and intermission) of preferred pleasure. Believe me when I say that it aced any algorithm Mark Zuckerberg could ever have invented. When released at Eros, Woodstock had been a festival of bandanas and blue jeans; Love Story at the New Empire saw a hall full of weeping girls with Ali McGraw eyebrows, and The Young Ones at Regal attracted a posse of the city’s puffs; and it would not be wrong to say many a young girl met a many a young boy in these propitious circumstances (and went on to watch many a future film together as a couple).
But even before you gained access to the movie of your choice, you had to cross the first gatepost: your inquisitor behind the box office window, pointing impatiently at his hand-drawn seating chart. This would be your moment of reckoning — the snooty Dress Circle or the plebeians stalls? The above-board, good-intentioned, middle-of-the-hall family seat or the college hooky player’s last row, or worse still, the horny teenager’s darkened corner for an afternoon of unbridled necking?
Of course, you might have been one of those whose cinema -going escapades were more spontaneous, requiring you to resort to the “current booking” queue. Here too, you’d be faced with soul-searing questions: Wait your turn and risk the horror of a “houseful” sign appearing? Or dare to descend into the dark world of the neighbourhood friendly black marketeer, ever at hand with his sideways hiss?
Nevertheless, whichever way you earned your seat, you would be undoubtedly attired in your Sunday best as you entered the cinema’s portals; and by the time you were greeted by its heady whoosh of central air-conditioning, redolent with the aroma of popcorn, sickly sweet colas and mayo-drenched chicken rolls, you’d already be transported.
And what a trip it was: The audience at the Regal screaming in faux-fright during the screening of Titanic as the ship appeared to tilt into the hall; the Eros turning in to a choir of little girls during My Fair Lady as they sang along with Audrey Hepburn; a spate of macho-moxie at the Strand where Mackenna’s Gold and the Terence Stamp Bud Spencer franchise played on for weeks.
And the food! Mutton patties at Regal; chilled cold coffee and Coca Cola from a dispensing machine at Metro; chicken Rolls and Punjabi samosas at Eros; softie ice cream at the New Empire.
If anything, the advent of multiplexes turned the cinema experience into even more of a moveable feast. Now you could pre-book your order of multigrain dahi papdi chaat and veggie stix sour cream and have it delivered to your seat as you snuggled under a fluffy blanket.
Of course, traditionalists bemoaned the fact that multiplexes lacked the art deco grandeur of standalone theatres. And yes, their assembly line proximity could be the cause of occasional hilarity. A dotty old aunt who went to see Dhoom but had mistakenly wandered into the auditorium screening Shrek 2 only realised her error during the film’s intermission; and yes, the vegetarian in urgent need of his chunky chaat often received a portion of someone else’s junglee chicken.
No matter, these were minor hazards compared with the thrill of reclining in a darkened hall, among strangers when your chosen movie began, heralded, of course, by a furious whooshing and shushing and last-minute coughing.
How thrilling to be suspended in that undiluted mass of human emotion and allow yourself to be charmed, seduced, frightened out of your wits, or to shed a silent tear, so separately and yet so concurrently.
And then, of course there was the leaving of the theatre — as singular an experience as that of entering it; walking en masse on shaky legs through the exits and down mysterious labyrinths of stairs, while your eyes slowly got accustomed to the bright lights and your mind hovered dreamily between the show reel of images and stories you’d just witnessed and the demands and duties of your post-movie day.
Indeed, there are many ways to trace the evolution of a city, but perhaps none as meaningful as through its cinemas; why is it then so hard to gauge from this journey of 70-mm screens and stereophonic sound to the 11-inch screens on our smart phones, whether our lives have been enhanced or diminished in the process?