Monday, January 25, 2016

Saturday Night at the Movies, in India.


One of my most favorite hobbies, as attested to in many of my Blogs, is to go to the movies. Perhaps I’m escaping into infantile regression, the eternal womb where one may dream of love, peace and paradise? I certainly appreciate the multi-disciplines of script, photography, acting, lighting, music, costumes, sets, make-up, special-effects, production design, stunts, sound and editing, so much to give the aesthete a cultural orgasm.

I’ve been this way since early childhood; whenever I was missing from home, if I wasn’t seven suburbs away exploring new territory on my pushbike, I was at the cinema, in awe of pirates, space ships and Tarzan swinging through the treetops. 


And for all its exotic landscapes, historical sites and spiritual endeavors, India is one of the most exciting countries to go to the movies, for Indians are crazy for the medium, thus the commercial success and social influence of Bollywood. Take last night for example, as I sang "Saturday Night at the Movies" to my amused friends, we went to the cinema hall in Shangri-la, the Rama Palace, to see the latest Hindi blockbuster, “Airlift”.  

In towns and cities India still has stand alone halls, not cine-plexes, as big as air-craft hangars with giant 70mm screens, (Tarantino eat your heart out.) (One of my most beloved is The Regal in Mumbai, the Parsi owner has long refused to turn it into a multi-plex, determined to keep up a cinematic tradition of a giant single screen.)

The Rama- Palace house was full for word was out that "Airlift" was an action, heartfelt masterpiece. These days Bollywood is eschewing the repetitive age old formula of boy wins girl, (after stalking her mercilessly then capturing her with much singing and dancing), they are trying interesting and engrossing narratives.


My favorites of the last several years are “Bombay Boys”, “Page 13”. “Nobody Killed Jessica”, “The Dirty Picture” and "Bhopal". (I cannot of course ignore the early masterpieces of Satyajit Ray, such as "Pather Panchali", 1955, Bengali cinema, which cinephiles like me can view over and over again without ever tiring of them.) With the expertise that directors and crew have learned in all the years, Bollywood can make magnificent world-class cinema and “Airlift” is a great example.


“Airlift” is set at the time of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait when over 100,000 Indian workers are left helplessly stranded and in fear of their lives as the Iraquis loot, bomb and murder everyone in their path. The lead actor, Akshay Kumar, sets about getting them rescued and the action thriller has one’s heart in one’s mouth throughout.

The ending is somewhat jingoist with a lot of national flag waving but you can't blame India for Her strong national sentiment as She's had a long, tough history and is surrounded by enemies determined to see Her fail, and to watch Her win is quite affecting. The crowd scene of the variegated Indian faces as they're being finally rescued, their eyes beaming, couldn't help but bring tears to my own eyes, and the audience I was with gave the loudest cheer of the night at this point.

What I love with Indian audiences is that they respond with abandon, cheering, screaming, whistling, catcalling, they bring the roof down when they enjoy a film. I went with some friends who were the rowdiest of the lot, which is really saying something, yelling comments and obscenities till the old mum and dad in front of us had to move their seats in shocked annoyance and the ushers had to come and shine flashlights in our eyes.


The first song and dance sequence was a knock-out, Akshay dancing with seven belly-dancers, extremely erotic, funny, foot-tapping, I couldn't help but sway my hips to the rhythm. This Bollywood dancing is what we all hang-out for, the audience went nuts, whistling and catcalling, fuck I loved it,and on the giant 70mm screen, those belly-dancers were in my lap.

At intermission they played, very loud, a song from a movie coming soon, "Sanam Re": what a song, the back-track to my sojourn here, like being in heaven, the voice of an angel with electric-guitar and bongos  as support, I was thrown into Nirvana.


I was reminded of the old days when I was a kid in the ‘Fifties and ’Sixties when we also flipped out en masse at the movies, cheering, screaming, stomping our feet, near rioting till the usher would have to come and threaten us with a beating from his flash-light. Nowadays most audiences in the West sit polite and quiet and rarely respond unless it’s the most outrageous of comedies or terrifying of horror films.

I was also reminded of the time, a few years ago in Mumbai, when I saw “The Dirty Picture” at the Eros Cinema. Vidya Balan, as the soft-porn actress Silk, was being given a hard-time by a bigoted old Hindu matron with a huge red-spot on her forehead. I was with a drunken friend and every time the old biddy’s querulous face appeared on the giant screen, which was quite often, he would yell out in Hindi, “Cock-sucker!” The old couple in front of us were scandalized and moved their seats but no matter how much I hissed, “Chup! Chup! (Shut-up!") it was to no avail, he kept at it. It was so embarrassing.


I will go hundreds of kilometers to discover a quaint cinema, from cities to backwoods towns. Recently I drove a hundred K along a narrow Himalayan mountain ridge to the tiny town of Lansdowne, an Indian army encampment originally constructed by the British Raj. The cinema hall looked more like a wooden Swiss chalet, it was showing a soft-porn pot-boiler called “Hate Story” which I wasn’t in the mood for, nor did we have the time to see it as we had to make it back down the mountain before it got too dark and cold but one day I will return just to see the decor inside and watch some klunker to satisfy my curiosity.

Lansdowne Cinema Hall.
Most memorably a few Saturday nights ago I went to see a Hollywood shlock-buster at the Rama Palace called “Volcano Returns” dubbed in Hindi. I pissed myself laughing, especially as my Indian mate took it so seriously, at one point, when the ham actors went up in flames, he turned to me and said, “So sad...” Even such shlock as “Volcano Returns” was somewhat impressive on the giant 70mm screen, the volcano exploding, shooting out fire-balls and oozing lava, all in your face. They must blow the film up somehow, perhaps from Super 35mm as surely they couldn’t afford to shoot it in 70mm film.

I saw Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” at a Cineplex in Deradune, only all the “cuss words” had been silenced, Samuel L. Jackson’s obscene tale of what he did to Bruce Dern’s son bleeped out and the scene where Tatum Channing’s head is blown off was cut entirely, making a mish-mash of the film. Some old fuddy-duddy director has been made chief of the Censorship Board here and he’s very uptight about anything risqué, much to the ire of his fellow Indian filmmakers, who want freedom of expression; let’s hope they get it as otherwise Bollywood will go back to being the same old boring, formulaic shit, just when a bright new future for film art is on the horizon.


One of the best movies on my latest sojourn was a Hindi master-piece, “Bajirao Mastani”, set a couple of hundred years ago, with an awesome story, entertaining music/dance sequences and fabulous costumes, sets, jewellery and armor to match the times, it was amazing; one doesn’t need to go to museums or live concerts, (though I do of course), Indian movies such as this give you everything, as if Rajput and Mughal miniature paintings have been brought to life.

Many years ago, in the old Rama Palace, before they built the new one, we would smoke joints up in the balcony under the projection box and the fumes would waft up into the projector beams and form dancing shadows upon the screen, The seats were ancient, springs poking from the padding and sticking into one’s bum, tearing my jeans every time I stood up. Young couples would make out up the back, it was a time of freedom and anything goes, all gone now with smoking bans and keen-eyed ushers.

I saw “Titanic” on opening night in Delhi at the old Chanakya Cinema Hall, now pulled down for a shopping mall. There was a riot out the front, cars, auto-rickshaws, motor-bikes, hundreds of people piled up against the colossal concrete walls like a tidal wave swamping a ship. Search-lights sweeping the sky gave further urgency to the whole scene, as if sending out distress signals, there was even a car parked up on the steps leading into the theater.


In the middle of the turgid drama, projected upon Kate Winslett’s vast forehead, suddenly appeared a slide demanding, “Would the owner of license plate DL 35007 please remove the car from the steps of the foyer.” And yes, the audience screamed and ballyhooed as the ship went down, as if they too were sinking into the oceanic depths. When I got back to Shangri-la and was relating my cinematic experience to some hippies I was asked, “How was the movie?” “Well, if you enjoy watching a thousand people drown, you’ll love it!”

Every time I'm in Mumbai I figure that while in Bollywood what else to do but get your pants pissed in laughing at a bad movie so off we go to a classic Hindi cinema-house called the Eros at Churchgate Station to see Salmon Khan's mock-epic "Veer". He tried to do a cross between Russel Crowe and Sylvestor Stallone, only coming across as bug-eyed effete and flatulent. It got off to a good beginning with armies clashing, sword fights and train robberies but after 20 minutes it descended into hours of ludicrous poncing about Victorian London in snappy suits with white-beauties in diaphonous gowns floating, twirling and drooling upon him, (it was hard to work out the actual era as the period costumes kept chopping and changing from Victorian to '20s flapper.) It was so bad we laughed and laughed, especially when the light-skinned heroin came on with her card-board performance, an insipid, saccharine melody played as her signature tune for the rest of the movie, over and over, till I became quite bilious.


The movie churned on and on, finally ending with a tedious fight between father and son, then Salmon-face getting pierced by an arrow and dying in his pop's arms, all very Freudian but does Salmon, the writer/producer/hero actually get the symbolic meaning of the shaft sticking him? At one point early on in the film I felt a hand creep thru the seat and grab my left tit and then a voice say, "Uncle, please sit more down in your seat." I looked behind and there was this hick slouched low and he wanted me to also slouch so he could see better. "No!" I spat imperiously. Next I felt two hands pressing down on my shoulders trying to force me down into my seat against which I wriggled and pushed, up and down, up and down like a yo-yo, me finally yelling, "Fuck off!" and he desisted, moving to the next seat where nobody blocked his lazy view.

The next piece of drama was in the same boring movie, an ugly old red-faced British bureacrat came on screen spitting chips, "You horrid Indians! You're dirty, lazy, ugly, stupid creatures with your cows, dogs, pigs, monkeys walking in and out of your huts. You are all disgusting!" The theatre went dead silent. Then fish-faced Salmon Khan got up and heroically spewed a tirade, " You call us Indians dirty, lazy, ugly, stupid with our cows, dogs, pigs, monkeys! Bloody bastards! If we are so bad what the fuck have you British been doing in India for 150 years, cleaning it up?" The hall broke into an uproar, cheers, whistles, stamping of feet, clapping of hands and cat-calls of "Kill all firangis! Bloody bastards! Down with whities!" Now I really cringed in my seat, and slid down out of view, it was all my nightmares come true, I whispered to M. that I dare not go out during interval as the crowd might tear me to pieces, the only foreigner in the place. But when I did sneak out for some popcorn the film-lovers all laughed with me, we all got the joke, it's just movie fantasy.

 Whew! A lucky cinematic escape if ever there was one.

(See my earlier Blog, “Of Big Babas and Grand Cinemas” for my full experiences of going to the movies in India in the ‘70s.)





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