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Shelf Life: Moving Pictures and Machine Guns

Shelf Life: Moving Pictures and Machine Guns

This is the story of a boy who was initiated into the wild west at an open movie theatre inside an army Cantonment in India. This was the 1970s and raging in the air was a war.

Vineeth Abraham
By Vineeth Abraham24 December 2021
Books

This is the story of a boy who was initiated into the wild west at an open movie theatre inside an army Cantonment in India. This was the 1970s and raging in the air was a war.

Already a voracious reader by age 7, I discovered my second great love when my father, an army officer, was posted to Mathura from Delhi in 1969. Mathura at the time was a typical hot and dusty one horse (or is that one bullock?) town. Its one claim to fame was the adjoining Brindavan, said to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna. At that time, it was not the major pilgrim centre. The most important establishment in Mathura then was the Army Cantonment, which covered an area almost as big as the rest of the town.

The Cantonment was the fulcrum around which the town and its economy revolved. We stayed at Shivaji Park, basically consisting of officers’ quarters. The rest of the Cantonment was the typical rabbit warren of barracks, office buildings, parade grounds and warehouses of the Ordnance Depot. There was also the local ‘Bhoot Bungla’ which every Cantonment seemed to have. This was an abandoned red brick building where all sorts of mysterious deaths were reported to have happened and was reportedly home to a motley crew of ghosts, demons and witches.

The hub of the social life of the Cantonment was the Officers Mess, situated a few kilometres away from Shivaji Park in its spacious grounds with manicured lawns. The Mess also housed what would become my favourite spot in Mathura, one that I still remember with a smile as I recall it through the golden mist of nostalgia. This was an open-air theatre which consisted of a screen consisting of a huge wall painted white with about 150 odd aluminium chairs arranged in rows before it. This was where I was introduced to my second love, the moving pictures.

It’s showtime, folks!

The theatre had two shows; one on Tuesday and the other on Saturday. On Tuesdays, it screened English films, and on Saturday, Hindi ones. We used to all pile into our Standard Herald car and drive to the Mess twice a week. I would shut my eyes and cower down when we went past the 'Bhoot Bungla’, no sense in taking any chances.

The show would start at around 6.30 pm or 7 pm depending on when the sun went down. The place would be full of chatting women and screaming army brats waiting for the fun to begin. My father would hang around for some time and, as soon as the show began, make a discreet exit. He would dash for the safety of the Mess and would spend the next few hours with his friends, engaged in intellectual discussions while frequent 'burra pegs’ helped elevate the tone of the conversation. Meanwhile, the cacophony outside would come to a stop and a hush descended when the first pictures from the 16-mm projector played on the screen.

I don’t quite remember the first movie I watched there, which must have been the first film I saw in my life. The earliest that has stayed in my memory was the wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music (1965), with a magical performance by Julie Andrews carolling in the Tyrolean Alps. She plays a novitiate nun who has to be governess to the unruly children of a widowed naval officer. She was supported by a stern-looking Christopher Plummer and a bevy of kids of varying sizes, all possessed of beautiful singing voices.

The songs were the standout My Favourite Things, Do Re Me, Edelweiss, The Sound of Music, Sixteen Going on Seventeen, and so many others. I was already familiar with Do Re Mi and My Favourite Things, having had to learn them in music class taught by the dainty Sister Annette at Sacred Heart Convent where I was pretending to study.

Ooops. I let out a shameful secret. Yes, I did study in a convent school but it was just for three years and it didn’t scar my psyche. Watching the songs come alive on screen was a great experience and I gleefully sang along, together with some of my classmates who were also present, and gave Julie Andrews a run for her money. This didn’t go down well with the rest of the audience. Obviously, a bunch of philistines with no appreciation for music or budding talents.

On the Western front

Another film I remember watching was Return of the Seven (1966) starring Yul Brynner, Warren Oates and Claude Akins. This was the sequel to the smash hit The Magnificent Seven, though I did not know this at the time. The posters of the upcoming films would be pasted on the wall of the barrack adjoining the open-air theatre and I remember gawking at the poster of the film with some of my friends. The poster showed seven lean and mean gun-hung men and I realized this was a western. I was already familiar with the genre having read a couple of western novels in my father’s collection and a few Lone Ranger comics and it was already my favourite literary genre.

This was my first exposure to the Western on screen. After ruling the roost as the most popular film genre during the forties and fifties the western was in decline in the sixties and since then has been on life support. The occasional hit once in several years keeps the genre barely alive. This didn’t matter to a nine-year-old boy who was thrilled by the explosion of action on the screen. Mexican marauders, galloping broncos, bullets flying everywhere and a group of seven intrepid heroes mowing down the opposition.

This was cinematic heaven and almost 50 years and about a thousand westerns later I still feel that tingle of anticipation when I sit down to watch a western I’ve not seen earlier. Yul Brynner, John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Joel McCrae, Audie Murphy, Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart and an endless list of stars would go on to be my heroes and my first exposure to the genre was through this movie. I do remember feeling a bit put out by the fact that the hero was totally bald, but soon forgot this and cheered lustily as he and his cohorts battled impossible odds and came out on top. Charisma and Presence are words too often used loosely about actors but Yul Brynner had it in spades.

Scary, charming worlds

The other English movies that stick in my memory from that time are the Audrey Hepburn suspense thriller Wait Until Dark ( 1967) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960 ). Wait Until Dark featured Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman in whose apartment a heroin filled doll has been hidden. She is menaced by a trio of crooks led by the psychopathic Roat (Alan Arkin in a great performance ). The movie is a real spine-tingler and the entrancing Audrey is always watchable. I viewed most of the film peeking from between my fingers as I covered my face. For the first time, I felt that delicious 'frisson’ of fear that the very best suspense movies arouse. I probably did not understand most of the movie, especially as my eyes were closed most of the time, but have since seen it twice. I think it’s time I viewed it again, it’s that good.

If Wait Until Dark scared me silly, Psycho almost made me embarrass myself by wetting my shorts. The ominous Bates Motel with the even scarier house behind it, Anthony Perkins’ twitchy, nervous character, the justly infamous shower scene, the 'mother’ from hell and the screeching background score just scared the whatsits out of me. I certainly didn’t understand the psychology behind the character’s actions, that happened later when I read Robert Bloch’s brilliant source novel. Undoubtedly my favourite Hitchcock movie and one I’ve seen a few times since then, thankfully not facing any sartorial misadventures.

Hindi encounters

This account of my early encounters with moving pictures wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Hindi films I was exposed to. I remember Jeene Ki Raah with Jeetendra and the spy thriller Yakeen with my then favourite hero Dharmendra, in a double role, warbling Yakeen Karlo Mujhe Mohabbat hai Tumse to Sharmila Tagore. The film also had a cabaret dance by the great Helen and a villain I loved to hate in Shetty. Then I got to see An Evening in Paris and instantly Shammi Kapoor moved to the top of the list of favourite heroes. An indelible memory is Sharmila Tagore water surfing in a bikini while Shammi dangles from a helicopter yodelling Aasmaan se Aaya Farishta. Great songs, lots of action, my favourite villain Shetty popping up again and Shammi Kapoor at his swinging best.

While Shammi stayed on my list of favourites his numero uno position was, briefly, captured by another trio led by the great Dara Singh. The famous pehalwan acted in a number of low budget Hindi action movies with makeshift sets, ridiculous costumes, wafer-thin plots and a bunch of extras playing secondary roles. These were the Indian equivalent of Hollywood ‘B’ movies. My friends and I didn’t care. What the movies had was end to end action with Dara Singh taking on all comers and pummeling, pounding, throwing and choking them into submission.

I remember watching his Samson, Toofan and Choron Ka Chor and a bunch of others. He wasn’t the only desi action star around. His younger brother Randhawa, another wrestler, also starred in some potboilers including Son of Hatimtai, Rustam Kaun and Mohabbat Aur Jung. The third of the action stars of the time was Sheikh Mukhtar. I watched him in films such as Gunda, Badmash and Mangu Dada. Seeing a poster for a film starring any of the three would send me and my disreputable friends into a frenzy of anticipation for the action-fest coming up the next Saturday.

War years and after

During the 1971 operations against Pakistan, my father and his friends had to leave for the front. The theatre bravely carried on, helping in keeping the morale of the families high. My mother used to now drive us to the theatre along with her friend Lalitha aunty (whose husband Major Kelunni had also left for the front) and her two daughters Asha and Bindhu. Both were younger than me and great pals with my pesky sibling so I naturally tried my best to ignore them. Asha would later go on to make a name for herself on the silver screen under her screen name of Revathy.

Undoubtedly her love for the medium was also nurtured in this ramshackle amphitheatre of dreams. Unfortunately, bad tidings were at hand. There was a danger from Pakistani planes intruding into the country and the theatre was shut down. Windows were covered with black paper and all lights had to be extinguished when the air raid siren blared and people cowered in their homes or ran for the air raid shelters. We could hear the menacing drone above and see the occasional blooming flowers of ack ack fire. Fortunately, Mathura never got bombed and as soon as the war ended my father got transferred to Thiruvananthapuram. I never got to see another movie at the Army Mess and I often wonder if it still survives. It will always remain close to my heart.

To be continued. Read previous parts of Shelf Life here.

By Vineeth Abraham24 December 2021