Twenty years after the first movie had been shown to great applause in Mumbai, none of us, living mostly in small towns and villages had any idea what it was all about. We had seen some pictures in newspapers and heard some songs, but that’s about it. I personally did not see a real movie until I was eight.
Until, that is, my grandmother took pity on us and arranged a show for us. She got one of her friends to put up a compound – a thatched affair – in the town and took us all there in a couple of bullock carts, mostly children but also some adults, and we found ourselves sitting in upholstered chairs and sofas right in front of a screen, waiting for the light to go up.
The theatre was more a kind of stockade in western film, not the kind Romans would have preferred. But we were too small at the time to notice the difference. What we did notice was a lion at the gate, a real, mangy lion, lying apparently in wait for a juicy joint. A lion? What was a lion doing in the cinema? We thought we had been brought to a wrong place but the grandmother assured us it was all right, and the lion was just an added attraction. It was not a good start.
There was some kind of a song and dance going on in front of the screen, but that was supposed to be a warmer, not the main act. The screen was suddenly filled with a strange glow as one character after another made their appearance, gesticulating all the time, as they did in village plays, though not a pip was heard. It was all very quiet, as if the actors were afraid of us and dare not make any noise. We had no idea where the actors were coming from, not even whether they were actors or real men of flesh and blood, but I held tightly to grandmother’s hand and prayed for the best.
As I said, the screen was filled with the strangest characters, some of whom were rather familiar. One fellow was busy chasing people with a shiny sword, a real sword as it turned out, for it promptly chopped off the man’s nose as he ran for his life into the crowd.
All this was happening right in front of our eyes and there was little we could do. I was so petrified that I could not even shout, though some of my cousins did try to do so. The picture was “Agni Kankan” or “Bangle of Fire” and there were flames everywhere. Suddenly two warriors appeared on the screen and one of them pushed the other almost out of the screen, right into a tank full of water, and as he fell, the spray hit us. Actually, there was no real spray, but as one big glob of water hit me or I thought had hit me, I ran from my seat as fast as I could, until I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the sleeping lion at the gate, who was now wide awake and ready to pounce, and would have perhaps torn me to pieces. But the lion too turned out to be fake, like everything else on the screen that night.
That was not, of course, the end of it; it was actually only the start. There is something about pictures – call them films or flicks or cinema or what have you – that gets into your bones and stays there. In London, years later, there was a time when a friend of mine and I used to go on a cinema binge, one picture after another, until we limped from one theatre to another like bats. We saw them all, one after another, French, German, Swedish, Italian, and yes, the gorgeous Russian, and tottered home on the last tube, like two drunkards. My friend later become the Chief Justice of India and actually died in London, may be as he watched his last foreign film in a smoky, smelly theatre, just as he had done thirty or forty years earlier.
And what happened to the man who had plunged, right before the eyes of an eight-year-old, into a seething cauldron of foam in “Agni Kankan”? I saw the film again in Regent Street in London a few years ago, and the man who jumped for life, Master Vinayak, is now as famous as Laurence Olivier !