sweetkharacoffee

100 Years Of Cinema, 90 Years Of Memories Part I

Posted in Anecdotage, FrontPage by Jayasri on May 4, 2013

May 3, 2013 I sat down with Appa today to talk cinema and  memories. At 90,  I reckoned,   he would know Indian cinema which turns 100 today, rather intimately   I have come away from that conversation a little dizzy, thinking  “I’ve just  been talking with a man who saw cinema take its first toddling steps, go from silent movies to talkies to color!”   Right now, he  is being a good sport trying to master the iPad that we got him,  happy as a child  at pulling up , all by himself ,MS Subbalakshmi on Youtube to regale him with “Akhilandeshwari Rakshamam”  .  I don’t get the impression that he welcomed cinema into his lilfe  with  same the wide-eyed wonder,  though.    ” Everyone just took to watching movies ,  because it was there”.   Very  George Mallory-usque.

I took notes as he talked, and made a rough draft of  this article. I then went to Wikipedia  to  check for dates and names, only to find, amazingly,  that his memory served him so right that I should really be checking up with him on Wikipedia!!

Appa  was around ten years old when  he began watching movies. He doesn’t remember the name of the first movie that he watched, but those were  the days of the travelling tent cinema that brought silent movies to the edge of town, until they were nudged out by the arrival of “talkies”. and more permanent cinema houses.

I once watched  that adorable  movie, Mayabazar,  in a tent which had come up , probably at  the spot where Kamakhya theatre stands (rather precariously,  considering it’s rundown state) on the Ring Road in Banashankari III Stage in Bangalore.  There were benches at the back,  for which you paid 50 p per head , or  carpets  nearer the screen for 25 p. It was hot, sweaty, and  there was much smoke from beedis ,  all of which was ignored while  Ghatotkacha’s  antics stole every little heart in the hall.

The tent cinemas of 1930s  had benches and carpets, too.  As the hall filled up, a brassband would  begin playing music. Once everyone settled in, the story teller, who said at the back under the projector, would begin narrating the story, to the accompaniment of  the harmonium and table. Madanakala  starring Master Vittal, was watched in a tent cinema. There were English films as well, like Tarzan. Silent films didn’t have complicated plots, and there were subtitles , which were supplemented by the story-teller’s narration.

I was chuffed to learn from my dad that there used to be ads shown too!  Slides, in b/w of course,  of a hotel in town,  or shops selling clothes and fabric, or some local business peddling their ware. No toothpaste or soap ads, Appa said, as  most of them came from England in those days!

And how were promos for films done in the era of silent movies?  A bullock  cart sporting posters of the film  went around town in the afternoons.   with a man beating a drum ,  tom-tomming the movie as it were, and  giving out hand-bills that revealed tantalising bits of the movie , and  suggesting, “see the rest on the silver screen”.  A far cry from these days of  “official media sponsors”,  promos, premiers,  ads, exciting offers ,  endless appeals from the stars, and  ratings  and  film critics .

Appa remembers his Father was not very happy about patronizing tent cinemas.   It was okay to go to the “real theatres” and Father in fact encouraged the children to  enjoy the movies.  The transition to talkies was quickly made. Appa marvels at how within ten years, the silent movie became history and talkies or “talking pictures ” that incorporated synchronized dialogue became the global phenomenon. Belgaum went from “tents and sheds” to talkies and cinema theaters . The  silent movie had been on its way out by the time Appa began watching films.  Once the silent movie Ben Hur came to town,  reissued with background music. It featured Ramon Navarro. The original had cost $3.9 million, making it the costliest silent move. The 1931 reissue added  sound effects and music by the original composers Willian Axt and David Mendoza.   Navarro was quickly  given an Indian name, and referred to as “Ramannavaru”!

I  have been wondering  how film actors and actresses were idolized in those days.  The lack of film magazines that shared gossip about actors and other denizens of the industry didn’t mean  people were disinterested in them.  Their little whimsies and foibles,  their private lives and romances or lack thereof,  catching a glimpse of the stars or meeting them were  desirable goals to aspire to The captivating Shanta Apte, a beauty who was also a great singer,  is arguably the first  femme fatale  of the Indian silver screen.  Everyone dreamt of seeing her in person,  and  she was obviously the queen of a million youthful fantasies. Appa  cousin in Poona,  arranged with  an electrician he knew, who happened to be doing a job at Ms APte’s house, to go along as his “assistant”, and  catch a glimpse of her.

I remember that in the seventies and eighties,  budding actresses who got their first break had to  take a stand on  two things- kissing scenes (even if  it was pretend kissing) and  wearing bikinis.  Sharmila Tagore’s swimsuit outing made much news  in the sixties, but it appears a certain Ms Meenakshi Shirodkar has , way back in 1938,  stunned and thrilled audiences singing “Yamuna Jali Khelu Khel”  wearing a swimsuit,  and sporting a two-plait  style that instantly became the rage among teenage girls in the film, Brahmachari .

Appa  said the film had dialogues by humorist and playwright P.K Atre, whose satire on  RSS ideology brought in huge audiences. But the swimsuit song sequence  ensured that the movie ran for  25 weeks in Bombay and 50 weeks in Pune. Critics had been critical of this bold sequence, but the audience, it appeared  kept coming back!

It was at this point I checked with Wikipedia, and found it was quite unnecessary.

There is a little anecdote  about Snehaprabha Pradhan, that Appa has told us many times. It is by way of being a family nugget,  and I believe it to be true. My aunt, Appa’s sister  Mangala and Ms Pradhan studied at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. I am not sure if they were classmates. Of course it was much before  she became famous as an actress.  Plainly, she cared very much about acting  even then.  And plainly she was ahead of her time as far as the college principal was concerned.  Moments after the curtains went up  at the College Day play, in which she was acting,  the Principal’s voice, the story goes,  rang out , in great panic. “Down the curtains! he thundered. The curtain came down, and backstage,  it was revealed–Ms Pradhan’s sleeveless blouse, it appeared was a bit too “forward” and  no Elphinstonian was to be allowed to get away with wearing revealing clothes!! I gather she changed into a more modest blouse, and the play was allowed to begin, and it must have been a most entertaining evening!  My aunt apparently caught up with Ms Pradhan many years later and  it turns out she was remembered.

Thus begins a journey into 100 years of cinema, as remembered by Appa.  More fascinating tales follow. Watch this space.  

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8 Responses

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  1. Krishnamurthi Balaji said, on May 4, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Jayashree, You are really fortunate to get details from Appa ! The article is super fine! It is very nostalgic for me when I read about Tents, Beedi smokes, handbills being distributed etc. About Toothpaste, the very same words my appa also has told me! You brought out some pleasant memories in me and thanks for this ! Await to see the forthcoming parts !

  2. dewworks said, on May 4, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    Jayasri, your talents are exceptional….

  3. Raghavan said, on May 5, 2013 at 1:27 am

    Couldn’t wait .. had to steal a few mins off my office routine to read this one and sure, I wasn’t disappointed !! Dozens of articles and blogs on 100 years of Indian cinema out there .. alla..diss one I’ll remember !!!

  4. Narasimha Mukund Savadatti said, on May 5, 2013 at 5:46 am

    I was expecting this from considering the rare occasion and thank you so much for bringing back many of those memories of tent movies and I have experienced many of them lols especially the beedi smoke emanating from lazy and relaxed onlookers , We had a tent movie theater in the Village called Ameengad in Bagalkot district , there used to be only two shows after 7 PM obviously because it had to get Dark and we used to be very sad in Monsoon as we theater could not run . Just before the movie starts , 10 minutes before Song : Yahoo from Kashmir Ki Kali signaling that movie could start anytime now . We used to have news reel running before movie starts . similar tow what you pointed , there were two sections one to squat on the ground and rare section with steel chairs many of them bent lols . we had free admission ! as father used to work State Government Health Department and he had to inspect with team , the conditions for cleanliness . Saw some very memorable Kannada movies like Sakshatkar which ran for 10 weeks a rare thing , many memories unfolding …… Thanks Dear

    • Jayasri said, on May 5, 2013 at 7:37 pm

      Deer Narasimha, think you so much for sharing this and spreading the word! You made it special!

  5. S.V.Nathan said, on May 5, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    Fascinating trip back to the tent-theatres and bullock-cart poster days, Thanks to your Father! Also a tip of the hat for your pain-staking research. I too have memories of my parents talking about Shanta Apte, Thyagaraja Bhagavatar,MS, but it seems they discreetly avoided talking about this Ms. Meenakshi Shirodkar! Thanks for a great reading,AJ!

    • Jayasri said, on May 8, 2013 at 5:53 am

      Nathan, do regale us with received memories of your parent! My SIL and I were tickled pink about ms Shirodkar being “unmentionable “!! Isn’t cinema truly the universal language, the great leveler?


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