By Preeti Vangani Jul. 07, 2017
The routine abrasiveness of our family life dissolved in darkened cinema halls. We’ve cried together in the saddest pits of Kal Ho Naa Ho and laughed like close friends during Hera Pheri.
“Tfhe cheapest way to get air-conditioned entertainment for a middle-class family,” is how my father defines going to the movies. But this sweet little joke is only a whittled-down version of what cinema has meant to us as a familial unit.
We have lived together in the same house for over two decades, but the closest we have been to each other physically is in an artificial gold family tree photo frame: Three awkward headshots hanging next to each other. We cry in our separate favourite corners; venting is a personal affair executed by smoking or making hushed phone calls or simply locking doors. One of the only things that has brought us together is the forced silence birthed in a cinema hall. In that induced darkness, we are three silhouettes sitting next to each other. Suddenly everything is allowed, and all our guards are down. We have cried together in the saddest pits of Kal Ho Naa Ho, felt awkward at the nakedness in Titanic, and laughed effortlessly like close friends during Hera Pheri.
The routine abrasiveness of our family life dissolved in these darkened halls. What comes before and after, remains the same. My parents’ married life, much like my mum’s old Ambassador, often broke down under the squabbling weight of family politics and an inherently stubborn, irritable daughter.
Even before we became a family, my folks were cinema devotees. In 1976, my father and his cousins would often be found waiting outside a cinema hall in Bhopal for their fifth viewing of Deewar. The gang, having concluded that the first half of the film was a giant drag, would discreetly await the intermission bell – their cue to mingle among the audience and quietly find their way into balcony seats while the ticket checker was busy napping in the upper stall.
My mother on the other hand, pursued her love for cinema solitarily. On many evenings in 1980, she’d sneak out of the house in her brother’s white Ambassador to go watch Khubsoorat at Ahmedabad’s drive-in cinema – car keys swirling around her fingers, “Sare niyam tod do” on her lips.
Stepping inside a movie hall was like a bhool bhulaiya that must have compelled these film-addicts-turned-parents to make me bunk school for a film when I was five years old. During that year’s first rain, I saw Ramgad Ke Sholay, my first-ever, first-day-first-show in a hall. This would become our routine every week. My father ensuring he sat next to the male stranger, getting ready minutes before the interval, tiptoeing through rectangular aisles to make sure we get the hottest samosas and machine coffee.
There may rarely be another space like a cinema hall that gives me the balanced feeling of being together and solitary at the same time.
What can I blame but genetics for my itch to go to the theatres compulsively? Once in 1994, I locked myself in a bathroom, and wailed for hours on a wet floor because I had a history exam the following day and my dad refused to take me to watch 1942: A Love Story. (Eventually, a song from that film would become my textbook reference for what a simile is.)
Our Bollywood trivia as a family rests not on what the plot was or who killed the villain, but which theatre we watched the film in. We picked our favourite screens in Mumbai for several colourful reasons: Gaiety Galaxy for the Hoggers’ Park popcorn, Roopam (Cinemax Sion) for its Guru Kripa samosa, Aurora for the cheapest black tickets. While girls in my school bragged about their Mauritius or Singapore summer trips, I prided myself in seeing all the films first day and held special respect for my cousin brothers and uncles who (until today) had phone numbers of black-ticket sellers like Guddu Bhai and Altaf Uncle.
Our craziness for Bollywood walked out of the halls and went straight into our living room. Dad and I recorded songs on our Sony Karaoke twin-player – two faces glued to a mic singing “Pak chik pak raja babu” down to its third stanza. At last count we had 360 audio tapes alphabetically arranged in my parents’ room, all sold during one fateful Diwali cleaning for ₹3 apiece.
And then there was the Bollywood paraphernalia. My father regularly updates the stock at his sari shop with Madhuri’s purple Hum Aapke Hain Koun!! sari to Priyanka Chopra’s grey number from “Desi Girl”. Growing up, I have sported the Kool chain, the Lungi Dance sari and Divya Bharti’s four-piece outfit from “Aisi Deewangi”. But nothing is as treasured to us, as the times we’ve met the actual stars. One dandiya evening, among a 1,500-strong crowd, my mother held a chubby 10-year-old me on her shoulders so I could get a look at the chief guest of the evening, Amitabh Bachchan. Jugal Hansraj shook my hand at a wedding once and I obviously refused to wash my hands for a day. But my most special collectible is a tiny heart-shaped autograph book signed by Kajol, Akshay Kumar, and Saif Ali Khan from the evening my maternal uncle surprised us with a premiere show of Yeh Dillagi.
There may rarely be another space like a cinema hall that gives me the balanced feeling of being together and solitary at the same time. My love for film festivals was born not out of an intense passion for world cinema, but a phase in my life when I was very alone (by circumstance and design) and chose the hall as my tried-and-tested respite to jump back to being buoyant. The first few times that I went to the movies alone, I’d pretend as if I were waiting for my company to arrive. But as the lights dimmed, I’d slouch and find my most comfortable self, lost in the worries of another’s story, slipping into the only real way I’d mastered to counter loneliness.
All that’s in the past. Somewhere along the way, we lost my maama and mum. We are now armed with Netflix, a Chromecast, and the convenience of torrents. My dad is at an age where he can barely stay fully awake through the runtime of a film.
Yet, the only question that keeps us together is, “Dekhna, picture kaun si lagi hai?”
Preeti Vangani is a writer, poet and spoken word artist. Fuelled by films and chai, she is currently an MFA (Poetry) student at the University of San Francisco.