Zoe Philip and Reuben Sam, about film watching in the 90s
Doddegowda was a little amused to hear us tell him we were journalists from college. And a little more after we told him that we wanted to ask him about the films he used to watch. “I don’t remember any films from back then”, he said, quite bored of us already and turned back to his computer screen on his broken swivel chair. This is what we came to expect before all the interviews we conducted that day. A little perplexed, we exchanged notes in hushed tones and then I turned back to face him.
“What were you doing around that time?”, we asked him “Were you finished with your studies?”
“I quit school at the age of nineteen”, he says, suddenly perking up. When we prod him further, he tells us that in the 90’s he was already working at the coffee plantations in Chikkamagalur. “Estate ka kaam tha”, he says- it’s clear that neither of us has a good command over Hindi. But for now, it suffices.
Working in the coffee plantations was hard work and little to no rest. But if he ever got the time to watch a film it would be during the fifteen days that were granted as leave every year. “Uss din Ek din main ek picture dekthe the”. He only had about three to four work friends at the time. But they always went together. He doesn’t remember their names anymore. Chikkamagalur had one main theatre, Milana Theatre and it was five rupees for a ticket. Doddegowda’s salary was 350 rupees a month. Apart from the fifteen-day hiatus, every month had two days of leave. His colleagues and he would set out during those days as well.
By 1995, Doddegowda had moved to Bangalore already. Here is where he remembers watching his first English film, Titanic in Balaji Theatre, Tavarakere. Tickets were a little pricier, 10 to 15 rupees, 25 rupees for Titanic. But moving to the city meant better earnings for him as well. By now, he was earning 5000 rupees a month working in electrical retail sales.
Om starring Shivarajkumar was another one film he watched in Bangalore, but his favourite kannada film will always be Nanjudi Kalyana, starring Raghavendra Rajkumar and Malashri in cinemas back in Chikmaglur.
“Kaam jyaada toh film kum”
He says it’s been ten years since he went to the cinemas. His wife and two children prefer to be at home. They only have time for TV serials in the afternoons and the evenings. He spells his name out in English and allows us to click a picture of him.
If Doddegowda was slightly hesitant to answer our questions, Mohammad outside the temple selling fruit bowls is only waiting to get rid of us. He winces his eyes when we ask him about going to the movies in the 90s.
“I don’t remember anything”, he says decidedly. After helping him out with the little knowledge we have of the 90s, the only thing that comes to mind is the Amitabh Bachchan- Rekha affair. Amitabh’s name, as we will come to learn, is enough to get a reaction from some of the most reticent of our interviewees. He seems almost affronted that we asked him this question. “I have seen every one of his films”, he says defensively. “Maza hi alag tha uss dinno mein”.
We walk into the AT halli street mostly absorbed in our conversation and wonder if we should return to campus. That’s when we pass by Jose Tailors and see the owner ironing a pair of trousers and constantly adjusting the measuring tape around his neck to keep it from shrinking in the heat. He does all this while chatting away with somebody standing on the other side of his shop. Walking up the steps elicits a reaction as if he’s been expecting us. He looks up at us from above the lenses of his spectacles while we take a minute to explain what we’ve approached him for.
“So, you’ve come to waste my time?”
Neither of us knows how to answer this question. Like clockwork, he says the sentence we are accustomed to by now. He lifts up the trousers to inspect them and then dives back into the shop for a pair of scissors. “I can’t remember watching any films from back then”. This time we know what to say. We ask him about Amitabh Bachchan and it works better than we expected. His expression changes and points to the back of this shop where a poster of Amit is plastered against the wall. “I’ve seen every one of his films. It was his birthday yesterday.”
Sebastian, (when we finally learn his name) is from Alappuzha but has barely ever been to Kerala. Standing
next to us is his friend Ravi who says they used to jokingly call him ‘daku’. Ravi and Sebastian and another friend who is sitting on the same table, have been friends for over fifty years. Ravi is his closer friend.
We never learn the name of the other friend who remains silent for most of our conversation. “Whenever I’d go to the theatres, it would be with these two only”, Ravi says nodding at them. He doesn’t remember a lot of Malayalam movies being displayed in theatres here. However, he was an avid action movies fan. He watched all of the James Bond and Bruce Lee films and rattles off a bunch of other action classics – The Great Escape, The Melting Man and Enter the Dragon.
As college-going students, going to the cinemas required a pre-budgeting process accounting for the ticket as well as the bribe they would have to give the cop. Doubles on bicycles weren’t allowed in those days and they travelled in triples. The theatres they visited most were Rex and Blue Moon on MG road. We ask them for names of actors and actresses they loved watching on screen. Dr Raj is Sebastian’s favourite along with Ambareesh and Shankar Nag.
Ravi says the iconic villain roles were always taken up by Prabhakar and Shakthi Prasad whom they thoroughly enjoyed watching on screen as well. Ravi looks at him slyly and asks, “What about the item numbers?” Sebastian’s eyes widen as if to say, “How could I forget?”
Their top three without hesitation are Helen, Bharthi and Malashri.
While the English movies only played in Lido mall, Pallavi would screen all Tamil films and for Kannada, one would have to travel to Majestic’s Menaka Theatre on Kempegowda road. Ravi remembers the seat allocation and the prices for each class.
The front row seats or Gandhi Class were the cheapest.
“Sitting in Gandhi class meant that if a car passed by from one end of the screen, your eyes would have to follow it until it left from the other end”
Most of his college life was spent trying to leave campus as soon as possible. Sebastian was an HEP student at Seshadripuram College and his friends and he would attend a single class in the morning sometimes just to maintain their attendance, spending the rest of the day at the movies. Sebastian had it planned out. After attending his one class for the day, he would either watch the morning (9:00 AM) or the matinee (11:00am) show. After that, he’d return to the tailoring shop to work for a few hours before heading back to the theatres for the evening shows. If a show was cancelled that morning, the backup plan was to go swimming in a public pool nearby.
We ask them if they ever took any girls to the movies and Ravi says that was probably their only loss. Sebastian agrees with him and this elicits a shocked expression from Ravi. “And what about Alice?”, both Ravi and the other friend who has been silent up until now, demand in unison.
“ALICE”, Sebastian repeats and starts laughing. Ravi always seems to remember the details of Sebastian’s life better. Sebastian’s girlfriend studied in Florence College of Nursing in Kalyan Nagar but they never really got the time to spend with each other. She was always going back to Kerala and so they only wrote love letters to each other. The distance eventually caught up with them but Sebastian still has fond memories of her.
Talking about films with strangers, especially those that watched them in the nineties, always elicits
a dual reaction -one that starts off with a dismissive attitude towards a time of leisure that doesn’t
exist for them anymore. But then it also prompts them to think about the life around watching films,
a certain youthfulness and animation that returns to them in the course of conversation.
That’s what makes it rewarding to write about them as well, even if for a moment, we can bring back a familiar joy on a face that was once lit by a screen.