My mother always made it a point to tell me how she hardly watched films. After all, respectability lay in books. But over the years, her fib unravelled as we watched movies on TV and she told me about going to watch Guddi with Kala, Abhimaan with Satyan, Yaadon ki Baraat with Manju and Parvati, and so on. It seemed that she had hardly left any films unwatched. There were interesting stories about how she ended up watching some of these movies: skipping class, begging her brother for money, sneaking out before my grandmother could ask questions. Of course, these were the years when several people could actually go to the cinema a few times a year without slipping into penury. Snacks could be bought and enjoyed without making a big dent in the monthly food budget. However, this was also a time when people queued up for tickets or bought them “in black” — therefore, you could go to the cinema, but there was no guarantee that you would actually watch the movie.
Now that we have established that my mother, her siblings, and her friends were up-to-date on the hit films, it is evident that she and her family wanted to watch Sholay while it was all the rage in the country. So, one afternoon, my mother, two of her brothers, their sister M, and M’s husband set off to watch the film at Ramakrishna Theatre in Hyderabad.
A large crowd seethed around Ramakrishna. By the time they got there, the gates were closed to prevent more people from joining the fun. The ticket counters were absorbed in the melee; black marketers ran a brisk trade. Unwilling to be defeated in their quest, my intrepid family helped M up the walls, her husband taking the lead in this uncharacteristic act. What made them send M there, instead of one of the men (they were usually quite particular about gender roles), I do not know — they probably hoped that there was a separate queue for women or that she could use some of her feminine charm/wiles to secure five tickets. My mother, much younger than her, was still a student.
Anxious and excited at once, the family waited outside the compound, hoping for some good news. They dreamed of watching the film and, importantly, showing off in front of neighbours and friends who hadn’t watched it yet. They counted the minutes — M had probably found someone willing to sell her some tickets and was in negotiation with them. But what if she didn’t manage to get five tickets? Different permutations were drawn up. Who had been mean to her recently, who was in her good books?
However, as time passed, anxiety trumped excitement. They peered through the gates, tried to catch a glimpse of M through the packed mass. The crowds yielded no M. Her husband’s agitation, building up from soft grumbles, reached fever pitch.
‘My wife is missing! Why did I send her up over the walls?! What a mistake this was!’ A flood of realisation dawned on him —but it was surely not his idea? One of these cheeky siblings must have put him up to it, the originators of the devious plan. He had wanted to please them and ended up losing his wife in the bargain. Meanwhile, the siblings observed his almost comical anguish with a mixture of anticipation and dismay.
Thankfully for everyone concerned, there was to be no long drawn-out drama. Failing to obtain tickets, M had squeezed out of a different gate and made her way to the arms of her loving family.
‘No tickets, I’m afraid!’ she announced. Love turned to disappointment, the last flicker of hope dissolved by her cold words — but her husband was in a generous mood, relieved to have got his wife back. There would be no feud with the siblings. After all, losing her at his in-laws’ would have landed him in an odd predicament.
‘So what? We’ll go watch the other film running here’ — eager to please, unwilling to lose a day of fun. And the family, all dressed up to watch Sholay, ended up watching Zakhmee, tickets to which were easily available.
I asked my mother if she enjoyed it and the answer was a resounding no. ‘I was never a fan of Sunil Dutt.’
Hopefully, the samosas made up for the disappointment.
Lest you should think that only my mother’s family was capable of such antics, let me tell you a little story about my father. One day in the fifties, my grandmother gave him and his brother, both under ten, a rupee each to watch Zimbo. Since this was twenty years before Sholay, these were even simpler times: you could send two young children off to the cinema without a care in the world. Also, Zimbo was a film for kids — a homegrown Tarzan of sorts, with a chimpanzee for a companion.
Faced with the same problem of crowds, the brothers split and tried to get their own tickets. Demonstrating the street smartness he would eventually be famous for, my father bought a ticket from a black marketer for 50 paise and, not finding his brother anywhere, walked into the theatre to enjoy the movie. He spent 25 paise more on peanuts and took home the rest of the money — all in all, a good afternoon. It also never occurred to him not to watch the movie without his brother, who had unfortunately failed to procure a ticket and gone home despondently.
And my own moviegoing stories? I am the good one who barely watched films. Ask my mother.