May 3, 2013 I sat down with Appa today to talk cinema and memories. At 90, I reckoned, he would know Indian cinema which turns 100 today, rather intimately I have come away from that conversation a little dizzy, thinking “I’ve just been talking with a man who saw cinema take its first toddling steps, go from silent movies to talkies to color!” Right now, he is being a good sport trying to master the iPad that we got him, happy as a child at pulling up , all by himself ,MS Subbalakshmi on Youtube to regale him with “Akhilandeshwari Rakshamam” . I don’t get the impression that he welcomed cinema into his lilfe with same the wide-eyed wonder, though. ” Everyone just took to watching movies , because it was there”. Very George Mallory-usque.
I took notes as he talked, and made a rough draft of this article. I then went to Wikipedia to check for dates and names, only to find, amazingly, that his memory served him so right that I should really be checking up with him on Wikipedia!!
Appa was around ten years old when he began watching movies. He doesn’t remember the name of the first movie that he watched, but those were the days of the travelling tent cinema that brought silent movies to the edge of town, until they were nudged out by the arrival of “talkies”. and more permanent cinema houses.
I once watched that adorable movie, Mayabazar, in a tent which had come up , probably at the spot where Kamakhya theatre stands (rather precariously, considering it’s rundown state) on the Ring Road in Banashankari III Stage in Bangalore. There were benches at the back, for which you paid 50 p per head , or carpets nearer the screen for 25 p. It was hot, sweaty, and there was much smoke from beedis , all of which was ignored while Ghatotkacha’s antics stole every little heart in the hall.
The tent cinemas of 1930s had benches and carpets, too. As the hall filled up, a brassband would begin playing music. Once everyone settled in, the story teller, who said at the back under the projector, would begin narrating the story, to the accompaniment of the harmonium and table. Madanakala starring Master Vittal, was watched in a tent cinema. There were English films as well, like Tarzan. Silent films didn’t have complicated plots, and there were subtitles , which were supplemented by the story-teller’s narration.
I was chuffed to learn from my dad that there used to be ads shown too! Slides, in b/w of course, of a hotel in town, or shops selling clothes and fabric, or some local business peddling their ware. No toothpaste or soap ads, Appa said, as most of them came from England in those days!
And how were promos for films done in the era of silent movies? A bullock cart sporting posters of the film went around town in the afternoons. with a man beating a drum , tom-tomming the movie as it were, and giving out hand-bills that revealed tantalising bits of the movie , and suggesting, “see the rest on the silver screen”. A far cry from these days of “official media sponsors”, promos, premiers, ads, exciting offers , endless appeals from the stars, and ratings and film critics .
Appa remembers his Father was not very happy about patronizing tent cinemas. It was okay to go to the “real theatres” and Father in fact encouraged the children to enjoy the movies. The transition to talkies was quickly made. Appa marvels at how within ten years, the silent movie became history and talkies or “talking pictures ” that incorporated synchronized dialogue became the global phenomenon. Belgaum went from “tents and sheds” to talkies and cinema theaters . The silent movie had been on its way out by the time Appa began watching films. Once the silent movie Ben Hur came to town, reissued with background music. It featured Ramon Navarro. The original had cost $3.9 million, making it the costliest silent move. The 1931 reissue added sound effects and music by the original composers Willian Axt and David Mendoza. Navarro was quickly given an Indian name, and referred to as “Ramannavaru”!
I have been wondering how film actors and actresses were idolized in those days. The lack of film magazines that shared gossip about actors and other denizens of the industry didn’t mean people were disinterested in them. Their little whimsies and foibles, their private lives and romances or lack thereof, catching a glimpse of the stars or meeting them were desirable goals to aspire to The captivating Shanta Apte, a beauty who was also a great singer, is arguably the first femme fatale of the Indian silver screen. Everyone dreamt of seeing her in person, and she was obviously the queen of a million youthful fantasies. Appa cousin in Poona, arranged with an electrician he knew, who happened to be doing a job at Ms APte’s house, to go along as his “assistant”, and catch a glimpse of her.
I remember that in the seventies and eighties, budding actresses who got their first break had to take a stand on two things- kissing scenes (even if it was pretend kissing) and wearing bikinis. Sharmila Tagore’s swimsuit outing made much news in the sixties, but it appears a certain Ms Meenakshi Shirodkar has , way back in 1938, stunned and thrilled audiences singing “Yamuna Jali Khelu Khel” wearing a swimsuit, and sporting a two-plait style that instantly became the rage among teenage girls in the film, Brahmachari .
Appa said the film had dialogues by humorist and playwright P.K Atre, whose satire on RSS ideology brought in huge audiences. But the swimsuit song sequence ensured that the movie ran for 25 weeks in Bombay and 50 weeks in Pune. Critics had been critical of this bold sequence, but the audience, it appeared kept coming back!
It was at this point I checked with Wikipedia, and found it was quite unnecessary.
There is a little anecdote about Snehaprabha Pradhan, that Appa has told us many times. It is by way of being a family nugget, and I believe it to be true. My aunt, Appa’s sister Mangala and Ms Pradhan studied at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. I am not sure if they were classmates. Of course it was much before she became famous as an actress. Plainly, she cared very much about acting even then. And plainly she was ahead of her time as far as the college principal was concerned. Moments after the curtains went up at the College Day play, in which she was acting, the Principal’s voice, the story goes, rang out , in great panic. “Down the curtains! he thundered. The curtain came down, and backstage, it was revealed–Ms Pradhan’s sleeveless blouse, it appeared was a bit too “forward” and no Elphinstonian was to be allowed to get away with wearing revealing clothes!! I gather she changed into a more modest blouse, and the play was allowed to begin, and it must have been a most entertaining evening! My aunt apparently caught up with Ms Pradhan many years later and it turns out she was remembered.
Thus begins a journey into 100 years of cinema, as remembered by Appa. More fascinating tales follow. Watch this space.