Bees (+ a few) Saal Pehley…
Not all generations are lucky enough to view the future Chief Ministers of their neighboring States on the silver screens. Makkal Thilakam M G Ramachandran and Puratchi Thalaivi Jayalalitha, the inseparable duo of Tamil tinsel world of the 60s and 70s,
Devudu ( the God) Nandamoori Tharaka Rama Rao (NT Rama Rao, Lord Krishna’s celluloid avatar)…I had the privilege of seeing them all, even when I was a child in my home-town Kasaragod, both a cultural melting pot and a communal tinder box! I mean, I was familiar with their acting talents even before they extended the same into the political arena!
Kasaragod, culturally a victim of the dualism between Kannada and Malayalam, saw Tamil winning as a dark horse, in the early seventies. Of course, the fledgling Kannada and Malayalam film industry also contributed to this state of affairs. MGR-Jayalalitha starrer ‘Adimai Penn’ was a ‘Sholay’ those days and I remember my brother telling us with his eyes and mouth wide open in awe that some people had seen it thirty times. While Tamil films were our staple diet, once in a while, we were served with a Hindi, Kannada or Malayalam movie too! Whiffs of a different air!
As is the case with most fellow Indians, our schooling in languages began at the cinema theatres! Not a single evening passed without the blaring of ‘Japan, love in Tokyo’ by Mohammed Rafi, by a nearby theatre’s mike. The same theatrewaala had devised a novel strategy to herald the arrival of a new movie in his theatre almost every week. A bullock cart displaying shabby posters of the movie pasted on both sides of its top would be paraded, led by the beating of a drum, on the thoroughfares of the town. One of the ushers of the theatre doubled as the theatre’s advertiser in charge! He would be holding the hand bills (notices, in our parlance) of the movie running there, literally close to his chest! He would fire us, the kids, who ran after him, lured as we were, by those notices we would get absolutely free! For us he was the Pied Piper, undeterred by whose standard retort ‘What is it for? To lick sugar?’ we would pester him for those notices which carried half the synopsis of the movie (as if it were a new one every time !) the paper quality of which, in reality, was not a match for C grade tissue papers. Thanga Padakam (means Gold Medal in Tamil, a Shivaji Ganeshan starrer, re-made as Shakti in Hindi), Kudiyirundha Koyil, Naan (a Shaan of those days, skin-headed villain Ashokan hiding in a Bond-villain-like- den,), Vasantha Maligai ( a Shivaji starrer, remade as Premnagar in Hindi which we were to see in the same theatre later), Prem Pujari, Mera Nam Joker, Haathi Mere Saathi, Upkar…to name only a few! Of all the Kannada movies I saw in Kasaragod those days, I remember only ‘Mayor Muththanna’ and ‘Karulina Kare’, both Rajkumar hits.
Our voracious appetite for the celluloid spared not even a tent talkies lurking on the outskirts of Kasaragod! We walked all the way to the tent to watch ‘Bombay to Goa’, unmindful of the strain of walking which the excitement took the better off! Yes, excited, because the actual hero of the movie was its villain, Shatrughan Sinha and his dialogues were already on our lips-thanks to the commercials and radio programmes aired those days in Radio Ceylon and Vividh Bharati. Of course we were courteous enough to know who the hero was! To our casual enquiry, our elder brother replied “some Amitabh Bachchan!” in an ‘it- does-not-matter’ tone. He was right. It did not matter! And we took the small B for a Navin Nishchal, by some other name! Little did we know that we were witnessing a part of Bollywood’s greatest history in the making- one of Big B’s unsuccessful attempts to find a foothold in the Bollywood. ( It is a different matter that we became his biggest fans even before we saw ‘Deewar’ and he was, for us, Shatrughan Sinha zoomed, amplified and in multiple avatars)
Back to the tent talkies! To support its thatched roof the tent had a few wooden pillars here and there inside which obstructed the screen. Means, some seats in the tent had pillars censoring the movie. So the viewers who came late, resigned to their fate and sat in those seats. Remember, no seat numbers and hence no unsettling claims. Since consumer courts were never heard of those days, such viewers would only curse their karma and put up with their fate-never demanding half of the ticket fare for ending up watching only a half of the movie!
Interval over, the theatre of the absurd would be staged among the viewers as if to entertain the ‘pillar viewers’. In a situation where there are no seat numbers and some seats are behind pillars, the inevitable would happen. Those who forgot to place a hand-kerchief on their seats ( having no pillar in front) while going out during interval would find, to their chagrin, their seats usurped by someone else ( obviously the ones sitting behind a pillars before interval ). So a sort of class-struggle would ensue between those ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Let alone reality shows, even TV was not in vogue in India those days. Means, these scuffles were free-entertainments (reality shows, that is) for other viewers (apart from the bed-bugs viewers carried home free). Charged as they were, watching their matinee-idol thrashing a dozen goons single-handed, the distraught would go to any length to get back their priceless seats! The chairs, already rickety ones, would prove ‘Weapons of Class Destruction’ in their hands. Like the UN, the management would intervene only at that stage knowing very well that whoever wins the war, it was the theatre owner who would bear the brunt! Those fighters for seats were in fact fit to be our rulers. I mean the MLAs and MPs who often settle their scores in the assemblies and parliaments using the mikes, paper-weights or whatever they can lay their hands on, as Weapons of Democracy’s Destruction!
Chaos apart, there was something about the tent that made itself etched in my memory. The movies it screened. ‘Minchina Ota’ a Kannada classic directed by the Late Shankar Nag, a movie several years ahead of its times, Balu Mahendra’s ‘Azhiyaadha Kolangal’ starring Kamala Haasan and Prathap Pothen, reminiscing their childhood spent in their non-descript native, on hearing about the demise of their teacher who was their first-love…the teacher was Shobha, an Urvashi-award-winner, who was to marry Balu Mahendra later, only to end her life leaving the genius of a director shattered! He shot into national-fame with his ‘Moondraam Pirai’ remade as ‘Sadma’in Hindi.
Raja Paarvai was another classic Tamil film featuring Kamala Haasan in the role of a blind-man.
In the same tent we saw several B&W flicks with Kamal, Rajanikanth and Sridevi in the lead-roles, as newcomers or budding stars!
Be that as it may, we never felt they were new comers! We all became their instant fans. Sridevi, with her Pinocchio-like nose (before she underwent plastic surgery), Rajanikanth at his best in Balachander’s flicks and as villain in others. ‘Moondru Mudichu’ was one such film in which Kamal Haasan is the hero, Sridevi the heroine and Rajanikanth a villain! If you remove posters one by one on the wall of time, you would be amused to find Rajanikanth, Mohanlal and Late Prabhakar in Sandalwood, all transforming from heroes to villains!
This is only some of the vignettes I picked from the treasure-trove of my memories of my tryst with India’s tinsel world. That too dating back to my childhood days only! If I write about all the films per se, it might run into another article or may be a book!