One of the last places you want to be on a sweltering hot summer afternoon is the boiling interior of an old MTDC bus, making its way up the sunny slopes of the Western Ghats. But yearly trips from Mumbai to Mahabaleshwar with my grandparents while growing up meant being in this predicament was an annual custom for me. Stuck in the bus for over seven hours, with only a single stop for lunch to punctuate the journey, I learned how to look for silver linings. All it took was the combined powers of Paresh Rawal, Akshay Kumar, and Suneil Shetty in what is still my favourite Bollywood comedy film, Hera Pheri.
I’ve lost count of the times I have seen Hera Pheri. The first was with my parents in the theatre in 2000, the year it released. I’ve also seen it at home on TV, on afternoons where cousins and siblings were fighting over the remote before everyone agreed Hera Pheri was the unanimous choice. But my favourite viewing of the film didn’t involve a flat-screen TV or Dolby surround sound, but a grainy box TV connected to a beaten up VCD player – the whole apparatus secured to the back of the bus driver’s cabin – when I was visiting Mahabaleshwar at the age of 12.
It was 2003, and my mother had just told me that reading in a moving vehicle would worsen my eyesight, which was pretty bad already. The bus had just made its only stop for lunch, and I was too young to appreciate the value of a post-prandial snooze. Upset at having to pack away my books until we reached the destination, I was thinking about teaching my granddad how to play WWF trump cards when the TV at the front of the bus flickered to life. For the next two-and-a-half hours, I forgot I was in a hot, crowded bus on a twisting mountain road. When we reached Mahabaleshwar, I remember commending the driver, not for delivering us safely, but for his taste in movies.
The movies played in the bus quickly became my favourite part of travel. Even once the trips to Mahabaleshwar stopped, the bus journeys continued. As a broke college student with adventurous dreams but limited means, the bus became the best option to travel to Goa from Mumbai. It is affordable, and gives you the experience of a road trip even if all your friends are too young to drive, or don’t own cars. Yet, what is convenient in one way can be horribly difficult in others. There’s no denying that the buses can get uncomfortable, even if you spring for an air-conditioned one. The journey also takes longer in a big, lumbering vehicle like a bus, and by now I’ve read enough horror stories of tourist buses falling into gorges to put me off the idea of bus travel forever.
After a point, these screenings during bus journeys became my only point of contact with Bollywood films.
Now that I’ve put my bus travelling days behind me (hopefully), I’m not going to miss the feeling of putting my life in the hands of a bus driver who is definitely sleep-deprived, and may or may not be drunk. But what I miss is the fun of watching a movie with my fellow travellers on a shared journey.
I’ve enjoyed a dubbed version of The Transporter with a Hindi-speaking Jason Statham just as much as a double-header of Hungama and Hulchul on these bus rides. On one trip to Mahabaleshwar, most of the passengers fell asleep in the afternoon heat, and my cousin and I stayed up watching Karan Arjun, feeling very important, as if the movie was playing just for us. After a point, these screenings during bus journeys became my only point of contact with Bollywood films. If it wasn’t for the impeccable taste of bus drivers, I would not have been introduced to the cinematic oeuvre of one Sajid Khan. Despite my psyche still bearing the scars of surviving the horrors of Housefull, I’m thankful I had something to distract me when my iPod battery started to fail on the Mumbai-Goa highway.
Today, the lure of bus movies isn’t enough to convince me to give up the speed and comfort of a plane ride or driving in my own car. Once I was able to afford methods of travel beyond the budget-friendly buses, I quickly moved away from them. Now, I wouldn’t ride in one even if they were playing the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I consider binge-watching the entire saga a day well-spent. Even so, I still look back on the memories of all the movies I watched in a rickety metal death-trap through rose-tinted glasses.
On a recent international plane journey, I plugged in my headphones and selected Rango from the in-flight movie options. All around me, people were doing the same. Some were watching Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in The Edge, others picked what looked like a bland rom-com starring Ashton Kutcher. Soon enough, every tiny, 10-inch screen in sight had become a personalised, private space. As our plane soared through the lonely night sky, each passenger was an island. A morbid thought crossed my mind – if the plane were to go down, we’d all perish as total strangers. And then, a warmer memory supplanted that bleak idea – a memory of how an entire bus full of people had come together, laughing and laughing some more over Hera Pheri all those years ago.