The Life and Times of a Porn Theatre Usher

People

The Life and Times of a Porn Theatre Usher

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

t’s another sunny day in Mumbai, and I’m at the hospital with Shrivastav, who is seeking treatment for his recent tango with tuberculosis. I’m hanging with the 67-year-old not because of any academic interest in TB – I just got to know that he was an usher at a theatre that screened pornography in Mumbai.

“Aspatalon me bachi hui jaan bhi khatam ho jati hai,” he rasps. I nod in agreement, looking around what looks like the set of a Victorian-era horror/snuff film. Straight-faced Shrivastav finally smiles, “Aslam naam ka picture hai, Hindi mein uska naam pada Maut Ke Mareez; Chini logon ka picture tha.” He’s talking about a C-Grade Asian horror-cum-soft porn movie called Asylum that was screened at Imperial Cinema, where Shrivastav worked before the tuberculosis did him in.

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For a Mumbaikar, Imperial conjures many connotations. Located in a shady gully on Lamington Road in the city’s Girgaon area, Imperial wears a veneer of sleaze – as much on the outside as on the inside. It’s one of the last single-screen theatres in the city, and the venue for the kind of films you can’t watch with the family. It’s also a cruising spot for gay men. For Shrivastav though, it has been his place of work for the last 20 years, ushering folks who want to pleasure themselves to the privacy of a humid, musty room while watching some truly appalling pornography shot with the aesthetic of a student film.

Shrivastav came to Mumbai in the 1960s, aged 15 after watching Mughal-e-Azam in his hometown Aligarh, hoping for a job in the film industry. “Suna tha jab picture idhar nikli thi, Dilip Kumar ghode pe aaye the pehla show dekhne Maratha Mandir mein.” He tells me this tall tale of Kumar riding a horse through the streets of Mumbai to catch the first show of Mughal-e-Azam with a matter-of-fact expression. It is clear to me that the beast that is Bollywood needs to be fed the dreams of many to add to the allure of the few. Shrivastav’s dream became fodder and he took up the job of an usher at Rippon Theatre and from there, to Imperial Cinema.

His job was simple. Checking tickets, keeping the place clean, spraying bug medicine (bedbugs in seats continue to be a real problem), and then eventually, running to Andheri to pick up the doctored reels that made Imperial its money. These doctored reels were the reason theatres like Imperial survived.

Ask him how much porn he’d watch, and he coyly brushes off the question with, “Thode der ke baad kuch mehsoos nahi hota tha, pehle-pehle mann machalta tha.”

In the ’80s, as VHS tapes were sliding into cassette players, people were slowly shuffling out of cinemas. By the ’90s, Star outshone DD and watching movies at home on Sunday afternoons became acceptable. The now-vacant seats in theatres gradually filled with men of the night, or those looking for the absence of light only cinemas could afford. No wonder then that the single-screen cinema game became cutthroat: You did whatever you could to retain your old audience, whether that meant introducing flavoured popcorn, air conditioning, or digital projection. Or in the case of movie halls like Imperial, you catered to a new shady clientele and their risqué appetites. First course, doctored films.

A doctored film is basically cinematic inception, meant to titillate. This was done by splicing hardcore pornography into an existing reel or simply switching reels midway through a movie. Shrivastav tells me how a mini cabal of studios in Andheri West would splice porn into everything from Jai Santoshi Maa to Hatim Tai to Coolie. Take the scene in Sholay for instance, the one where Dharmendra climbs the village water tower to drunkenly profess his love for Hema Malini. His cries of suicide gave way to accented moaning as four to ten minutes of gratuitous hardcore porn would come on. Sholay was but a metaphor, the real fire was in these actors’ loins.

The only time I see Shrivastav’s craggy, leathery face light up is when he recounts how a tourist family adamantly decided to attend the matinee screening of Sholay despite his protests. The minute the reel switched, the family was surrounded by hoots, whistles, and cheers, followed by heavy breathing. Obviously, they had to leave.

As Shrivastav puts it, by the mid-’80s, their clientele was primarily taxi drivers, pimps from nearby Kamathipura, migrant labourers, and men who were either looking for inspiration before visiting prostitutes (or seeking solace after visiting them). He’d occasionally catch a patron playing with himself while watching the porno bits and have to tell them to stop. But Shrivastav couldn’t catch ’em all. “Theatre ko phenyl se saaf karna padta show ke baad,” he tells me about having to sanitise the hall after a show. “Main ek baar phisal kar ghir bhi gaya.”

This was just one of the many things being an usher in a seedy movie hall entailed. Aside from the usual ticket checking and assigning of seats, Shrivastav would also do other jobs such as making sure the posters outside the theatre were regularly changed. This was made easier by the fact that they’d be pulled down as soon as they were put up – mostly by randy passers-by, but often by people who thought them offensive. There were routine requests to source knick-knacks like soda, chakna, and condoms from richer patrons who often came with drinks and hard-ons, both tucked neatly into their pants.

At the time of his retirement he was paid about ₹5,000 a month, for about 12 hours of work. He had a family to support and kids to marry off, so he kept his head down and stuck with it. Ask him how much porn he’d watch, and he coyly brushes off the question with, “Thode der ke baad kuch mehsoos nahi hota tha, pehle-pehle mann machalta tha.”

With the rise of multiplexes and digital projection, Shrivastav’s spliced reels couldn’t cut it anymore. Not when you could ditch the mainstream cinema, which was the bread in this porno sandwich, and get straight to the meat. Dingy rooms and homes equipped with large-screen TVs and DVD players sprung up in and around Kamathipura and Grant Road, where you could watch gratuitous hardcore pornography without waiting for Dharmendra to threaten suicide. For ₹20 a ticket, there were more takers than there were for Imperial.

In a bid to restore its image, Imperial began screening dubbed B- and C-grade movies from Bollywood and Hollywood. These had a mix of mindless action, heroines with deep cleavage, and gyrating dancers with conical bra cups – but no pornography. The theatre never really recovered, and along with the venue, Shrivastav too began to wither. He attributes the TB to the dank, dingy confines of the movie hall he patrolled, asking patrons not to jerk off.

I ask him about his sex life, and whether watching all that porn desensitised him to sex? “Patni hai humari,” is all he will say, before brushing off the question. This answer makes me think that all that porn has turned Shrivastav celibate, until I catch a naughty glint in his eye.

Imperial Cinema still stands – barely. When I’d visited it earlier for another story, the stench of decay and various bodily fluids hung thick in the air. If STDs ever became airborne, this would definitely be ground zero. It still screens B- and C-grade films, but the action now is both on screen and off it. You’ll find the occasional hand job in progress in the last row or sex in the stalls.

The hall is a reminder of a bygone era, when Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone voice would be cut mid-sentence by the moaning of a buxom blonde, and eager boners would abound all around.  An era when Shirvastav watched people get blown away by the grandiosity and spectacle of cinema. As compared to today, when they’re just getting blown.

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