Going to the movies in the late sixties and early seventies was a vastly different experience from the sanitised one nowadays. Living in the suburbs (which was practically meant village in those days in India), our options were severely limited. My home town of Tripunithura in Kerala had exactly three theatres: none of them air-conditioned and only one provided with a balcony. You sat on cushioned chairs only if you had a balcony ticket. The first and second class had wooden or cane chairs (in one theatre, the second class was benches with backrest): after that there was the “bench” (without the backrest) then the infamous തറ (thara, “the floor”), where you squatted or sat cross-legged on the floor (even now, calling somebody തറ is derogatory in Kerala).
You paid the lordly sum of two rupees for a balcony ticket. First class was Rs. 1.50, second class one rupee, benches fifty paise and “thara”, 25 paise. As you moved down and down the hierarchy of classes, you moved nearer and nearer to the screen – with the consequence that the images got bigger and less clear (becoming virtual patterns of light for those at the very front), and you got a crick in the neck by the time the movie ended, as a consequence of staring upward.
The theatre would be usually filled with cigarette smoke. At the beginning of the show, the mandatory warning would be flashed on the screen: “Smoking inside the theatre is punishable under law.” This was the signal for all and sundry to light up. Soon, you could see the smoke swirling in the beam from the projector, creating interesting shapes (I used to amuse myself watching these if the movie was boring). The smell of the cigarettes would be mixed with the faint smell of ammonia from the urinals outside: even now, my recollection of old movies is invariably tied up with this smell.
The seats, especially the cane chairs, were breeding grounds for bed-bugs. They would start feasting on you the moment you sat down. Twisting, squirming and scratching your bottom was all part of the movie experience. After some time, you learned to take it in your stride, and the bugs never bothered you. (Once, I was even attacked by an army of really savage ants!)
The screen used to have lot of stains on it: it would be patched up in many places, and sometimes, there would even be holes. Thus, the drama played out on it would creatively enhanced by a sudden patch appearing on the leading lady’s nose, or the hero’s eyes disappearing into a hole.
But in spite of all these difficulties (which were never perceived as such in those days), movie-going was an adventure. In a world devoid of TV, computer and social media, it was the main source of entertainment for the community. It was a weekly ritual akin to a visit to the temple.
In the days before TV, we got to know about movies through (1) newspaper advertisements (2) posters plastered on walls and (3) cinema notices. The last page of all our local dailies was reserved for films, where each Friday the new releases enticed us to the theatres. Much before that, posters would start appearing on the walls; smiling heroes, frowning villains and pouting vamps – with the tantalising caption “coming soon!” (This culture is still alive and kicking today.) But the most exciting was the cinema notice, distributed from cars fitted with loudspeakers, blaring announcements about the film in-between song bits. The notice would contain half the story, and leave it hanging at a crucial point with the statement “watch the remaining tense scenes on the silver screen”.
There would usually be three shows initially: the matinee at 3:00 P.M., the first show at 6:30 P.M. and the second show at 9.30 P.M. As kids, we were allowed to go alone only for the matinees. The first shows were for the family. The second shows were to be abhorred, only for bachelors as the theatres were likely to be populated by drunkards, women of loose morals and similar denizens of the night.
The shows were announced by music through the loudspeakers at the theatre, usually ninety minutes before the show – these would be switched off, and the music played only inside the movie hall, exactly half an hour before the start (this was the signal for stragglers to get to the theatre).
On opening days of popular films, there would be a mad rush for tickets: queues were at the best rudimentary, and the strong muscled in from anywhere and everywhere. (One of the theatres in Thripunithura was owned by a relative, and a family friend operated the ticket booth in the other, so I did not face much of a problem in obtaining entrance.) Even when the available tickets were sold out, the theatre owners often obliged by pushing in extra chairs in the vacant spaces, and I have even seen people standing and watching the movie once! Many a time, the show started late while these arrangements were in progress. People didn’t mind much, in those days.
There were some pre-show rituals – vendors would circulate selling roasted peanuts in conical newspaper packets, the iconic “goli soda” (the soda bottle stoppered with a glass marble) and the പാട്ടുപുസ്തകം (“pattupusthakam”, song book): a small booklet containing all the songs from the movie. (I had a big collection of these books. I used to learn the songs by heart and sing them – mostly off-key – in the bathroom). These vendors made their rounds again during the interval (the mandatory 10-minute break for all Indian movies).
Before the movie started, there would be ad films and then, the news reel. In the pre-TV era, this was our only exposure to news via the visual media. Sometimes, small documentaries created by the Films Division of the Indian Government would also be screened before the movie proper (some of these documentaries were excellent).
Then after all these preliminaries were done, the film proper would start – sometimes welcomed by claps from the audience.
Our film-going experience was not without its hardships. Many a time, the power would fail, and the movie projector would be powered by a diesel generator. This would entail switching off all the fans in the theatre, making it swelteringly hot in the summer. The film sometimes got cut: then we had to wait till it was spliced together. Once, I remember the projector striking work in the middle and the show was cancelled – audience were given tickets to see it at a later date.
But we did not care about these. In a life largely devoid of luxuries as we know it today, these were all minor irritants in the magic ritual of “going to the movies”. Hardships were naturally to be endured when one awaited the favour of such a magnificent deity – the Goddess of the Silver Screen.