Saturday, June 03, 2006

My Own Cinema Paradiso

It’s not the years I spent playing antakshari and cheating with great seriousness that did it. If I had to think of a time when films became an important part of my life, I’d have to say, boarding school.

Saturday evenings, the old 16mm projector used to be set up in the semi-open auditorium. We waited for dinner to be over so the film could begin. During the day, by mysterious processes, the film would have arrived at school—someone would have taken the matador van and gone to the railway station where a square steel trunk sent from the Film Archives in Pune would be waiting in the station master’s office for verifications and signatures. But we didn’t know all of this when we changed into our pyjamas and, armed with pillows, we walked to the auditorium. The young ones would lie down on dhurries that had been laid out; the older ones, more careful of their dignity, would take the wooden benches.

With a flickery whirr the projector would start and (mostly) black and white images would magically appear on the wall. We saw unsubtitled Ray—Pather Panchali, Goopy Gyne, and god knows what other gems of Indian Cinema. When we found someone who spoke the language, they had their hour of fame doing impromptu and quite likely inaccurate translations. Otherwise we slept, lulled by the soothing sounds we did not understand, the cool breeze pouring in through the open portions of the auditorium and by the warmth of surrounding bodies. When we were older, we pretended disdain and left early, so we could snatch an undisturbed period of time with the current heartthrob.

In later years, when the school got itself a VCR and TV, film viewing was less communal and more concentrated. We saw some of the best Hollywood films during this time though offhand I can’t remember a single one that I’m not confusing with a later time when I rented three films a day from the nearest video library (these films I bought off the library when they were selling up. I still have the tapes but they’re fungused out of their magnetic brains – Hitchcock, Howard Hawks Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers and many, many more. But I’ll never be able to watch them on tape again).

But it wasn’t until I was in class nine and towards the end of the year when we had one entire week off to do a project on whatever we liked, that I started my long obsession with cinema. There was the thrill of the insanely unusual—even in a school with no exams, one whole week where you could hook off and take photographs and mess around in the dark room, or whatever else it was that was offered, seemed incredibly radical.

One of the projects offered—we had guides—was film. There were three of us, and one very brilliant teacher that everyone, regardless of gender, was in love with. For one week, I devoured all the available books in the library. We saw about five films, but each one more than once. Some scenes we saw again and again. It seemed unbelievable that we had been watching films for all these years and never realised how many things went into it.

A couple of years later, another enthusiastic and charismatic teacher did film appreciation with us. We wrote out scenarios, we critiqued the films we watched each weekend; somehow the experience of viewing was changed forever. For the first time, I went to a screening with pen and paper and made notes in the dark. The next day, I discovered that the words had inevitably run into each other, but the very act of putting a line of dialogue down, or a particularly clever shot or juxtaposition (yes, the vocabulary was getting precise) made it stick in the head.

Once, a classmate’s parent who was a film director, came and spoke to us about cinema. He asked everyone present which was the first film ever made (this was before Project Week). After a tense silence when everybody pretended they were just not in the room, his son finally piped up, ‘Train Entering A Station.’ We were shocked. This guy knew the answer to that question? We looked at him with a new respect.

One time, P. K. Nair from the NFAI came to do an FA workshop. At that time, not knowing the scale of his contribution to the acquisition and preservation of films in this country, we groaned at his low mumble and at the lines he drew on a blackboard but we watched the films eagerly. We saw An Incident At Owl Creek, Anniversary, 23 Skidoo, Big City Blues (or maybe not; we were in school and younger kids were around), McLaren’s Lines, Hanstra’s Zoo and Glass, and very likely many more films.

In college, when the film club had invited him to do the same course, Nair asked me if I was going to be around. I was busy and I said, ‘But I’ve seen all these films many times.’ Big mistake. I got a gentle but disapproving lecture on how one can never see a film enough times. I stayed and watched every one of those films again.

At the Institute, the excitement deepened and sharpened. All around you, there was not only evidence of film history—the props you used in your films were very likely the same ones you saw in Duniya Na Mane—you were breathing in the smell of celluloid. You sat under a tree discussing the evening’s film and around you there would be rusting film cans, or a twirl of discarded sound negative. In the editing room, we hung garlands of film around us. The marks you made with the glass marking pencil magically did a dance when you went in to view the film on the Steenbeck.

Every Holi, someone would go across to the Archives and choose a string of songs that would be endlessly projected and we would dance to R. D. Burman all night long. Rumour had it that when almost everyone had called it a night and gone to bed, the real fun would begin. East European Cinema was the euphemism.

So when did watching or talking cinema become a chore? When did the headiness turn to indifference?

Hard to say. It’s not that I don’t like watching films, oh no. It’s just that every time it comes with another choice, the other option seems more attractive, and the film less necessary.

And this photo is a signpost to something that no longer exists. The building in the background is the old sound studio at the Institute. I’m not sure what’s there now, but it most certainly isn’t any of the things in this photograph.


equivocal said...

Dear Space,

I like this piece! Though with a tinge of jealousy since, growing up in a small African nation I was far away from art galleries and auteurs; and until I was into my second year of college, my idea of an art film was Children of a Lesser God, or Kramer vs. Kramer.

Anyway, it would be useful for us if you could give us categorised archive links on the sidebar (memoir? film? fiction? etc) to be able to see similar pieces in the same context and read against the purely day-to-day aspect of blognition.

Space Bar said...

Equivocal: Thanks! Yes, I have to get the sidebar in order in more ways than one. I haven't a clue how to do it yet, but I'll figure it out.

Jugal said...

did you know cinema paradiso had a hindi remake too?

a telefilm on DD called Jannat Talkies - with that kid who was the protag's friend in Just Mohabbat as Toto and Milind Soman as Salvatore and a popular bawa actor as Alfredo :) I saw that and was so impressed by that film a long time ago - didn't know there was something called Cinema Paradiso that was the original :) Saw Cinema Paradiso recently and WOW :)

the mad momma said...

loved this piece.... its so you....

hemant aiya . goa said...