Those Were The Days…

<My nostalgia piece written in the summer of 1996. It was published in a Telugu Association Ugadi souvenir>

“This is going to be a good movie!!” I declared with an air of confidence. After all, how could I go wrong? I had checked two movie critics on TV, read the review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and also cruised the Information Highway, via Netscape, to check their reviews. They all gave their equivalent of “two thumbs up!”. “What’s all the hoopla about?” you might say. Well, it’s like this, we haven’t watched a movie in a theater in almost two years, and since we (my wife and I) were both off from work on a Wednesday (the kids would be in school) we decided to seize the opportunity and go to a good movie.

We walked into the nearest multiplex, which housed at least 9 little theaters. It was matinee time and there was no one waiting to buy the tickets. The guy on the other side of the ticket counter was quite excited to see us! When we walked into the tiny theater, we looked around and noticed that there were a grand total of 5 people there (including us). The place itself was slightly bigger than our bedroom (no, I am not bragging about the size of our bedroom!).

Picture Palaces of the Deccan

What a great contrast this was from the massive theaters of Hyderabad, such as Maheswari, Parameswari, Farheen, Ramakrishna 70mm, Sangeet or Sangam. The word “Grand” comes to mind when you think of some of these theaters – with their spiral staircases, water fountains, elaborate tableau settings for the new movies, and giant size cutouts of the stars (with huge garlands, of course). The only tiny movie theater in Hyderabad back then was Lighthouse, near the Fatehmaidan/GunFoundry area. We saw “Dr. No” (James Bond) in Lighthouse (in my 5th grade), and were surprised by the tiny hall. Later Lighthouse specialized in showing “A” rated Malayalam movies.

There were of course older theaters, which suffered competition from these new ones, but they used to have a niche market, in the form of Morning Shows – of old, popular Black and White movies for which there was always a market. Theaters like – Regal (Khairatabad), Rahat Mahal (Musheerabad), Lata (Nampally) and Tasveer Mahal (Langar House) used to be in this category. I heard that the owner of Tasveer Mahal used to hang lungis on both sides of the screen when he had to show a Cinemascope or 70mm movie 😊. I have a feeling that most of these don’t exist anymore, probably having made way for more lucrative shopping centers or high-rise apartments.

Shanti Theater – Narayanguda, Hyderabad

Sangeet – Secunderabad

Uncle took us all to Dr. No in Ligthhouse (circa 1971)

Even the process of buying the tickets had a whole different charm to it back then. One had to go and wait in queue hours in advance (especially if it was a new release). After all the pushing and shoving, there was no guarantee that you would get the tickets. There were separate queues for women, which used to be considerably shorter than men’s queues. As the situation got desperate you would see some quick thinking men try to convince some women to buy the tickets for them. Most of the time this approach never worked. But, once in a while one of those women would take pity on the poor soul and oblige. Another common tactic was to approach the front of the queue and just barge in. Now, this only worked if you had the appropriate “look” – such as muscular build, partly unbuttoned short, a hairy chest and an arrogant expression which said “So, what are you going to do about it?”. You won’t understand the thrill of actually getting those tickets in your hand, unless you had ever experienced the disappointment of facing the “Housefull” sign at the ticket counter after going through the ordeal. Of course, you could always locate the “black wallah”, (scalper) who would be wandering around muttering “paanch ka dus, paanch ka dus” (Rs. 10 for the Rs. 5 ticket).

Waiting in the queue wasn’t always boring. Sometimes we made new friends and bonded, while we planned to foil those “goonda type” guys standing over there, from crashing the queue. In the end we would get philosophical when we realized the futility of trying to stop these goons, and start saying things like “Where is this country headed.. What is happening to morality, humanity.. ?”

Grand Experiences to Cherish

Once inside, there used to be quite a preamble before the actual movie started, in the form of advertisements, trailers, documentaries and Indian News Review. Growing up, there were no televisions and no commercials on radio (remember, we just had the basic AIR station. Vividh Bharati, with commercials came much later), so the ads in the movie theaters were the only effective way companies could actually impress the people to buy their stuff. There were the popular sports figures of those days – Ramnath Krishnan, Sunil Gavaskar, Farrokh Engineer etc. lending their weight to coffee, Brylcreem etc. Remember “Suchitra” trying to sell the merits of Horlicks (or was it Bournvita?). This is where we got our first look at the ads for Vicco Vajradanti, Charminar Cigarettes and the Liril girl doing her thing at the waterfalls.

The government did a good job educating the masses via their documentaries and News Reviews (NR). All I remember of the NRs is that most of them had the prime minister or other VIPs, meeting some foreign dignitaries or inaugurating a bridge or a dam or surveying flood damages etc. The impression I had of Bihar, from the NRs was that of a place that was constantly under flood water – every NR that I saw used to have some equivalent of “Beehaarulo varadalu” (floods in Bihar) item, with sad violin music, and helicopters dropping relief supplies to people precariously perched on rooftops.

Just before the actual movie started, it was customary (probably a requirement) to show the Censor Board’s Certificate. It was a curious habit of some in the audience to read aloud the “number of reels” from the certificate and do a quick mental calculation to determine the length of the movie. The audiences of yesteryears felt that they got their money’s worth if the movie lasted at least 3 hours. It wasn’t uncommon for the audience to throw coins at the screen to show their appreciation of the actors/dancers etc. I have seen them applaud the hero when he got out of a particularly melodramatic cliffhanger with flying colors. I am sure you heard of audiences of mythological movies which actually offered a “haraathi” right in the middle of the theater.

Movies were cheap, wholesome fun for the entire family, and we loved every minute of the process of picking and going to the movie as much as the movie itself – right from the moment we selected the movie by poring over the last 2 pages of the neighbor’s copy of that day’s Deccan Chronicle, to going to the theater hours in advance, to the pushing and shoving in order to obtain the coveted tickets.

All this is in striking contrast to the process we went through last Wednesday for our once-in-two-years visit to Eric Theater Multiplex. To add insult to injury, the much recommended movie turned out to be a dud, dull and boring – to match the dull and drab “box-like” theater. As we walked back to the car, we swore (just as we had done in the past!) that in the future we would just rent the (VHS) tape from Blockbuster and watch it at home. As far as I was concerned, that afternoon wasn’t a complete washout, because that experience gave me an opportunity to indulge in a nostalgic trip back to Hyderabad and it’s majestic movie theaters!