Let’s Go to the Picturesby Rumi Taraporevala December 8 2020, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 43 secs
Rumi Taraporevala writes on the ‘masti-majaa’ of watching the movies with his buddies
Right from the silent era and the early talkies to Hollywood’s blockbusters and zany comedies - till the multiplexes spoilt it all. Growing up in Bombay in the 1930s and ‘40s, “Let’s to the pictures” was our most favorite expression. Apart from the radio, there was no other form of entertainment or pastime available in the city.
The term ‘pictures’ originated in my father’s time of silent movies -moving pictures, as they were known in the 1920s. My dad as a young man was fond of frequenting the Edward Theatre at Kalbadevi, which seemed to be the place for thrilling serials from Hollywood. There being no sound, a Goan from one of the dormitories at Dhobi Talao, would be thumping away on a piano, music, which according to him was most appropriate to the action on screen.
Some high-budget serials from Hollywood however, were known to provide scores for piano and violin befitting the action. The term ‘serial’ was just that, a never-ending movie. Patrons were forced, over a period of time, to see one episode after another. Each serial would end at a crucial moment in the action. The hero would be hanging by his fingernails at the edge of a cliff, the villain gloating above, ready to stamp on the poor chap’s fingers, the music rising to a crescendo, when slam-bang, a notice would appear on the screen, “AWAIT THE NEXT THRILLING EPISODE.” Or the heroine would be about to be ravished by a leering hoodlum, but the poor moviegoer, aka my dad, had to spend a few more annas the following week to learn the fate of the damsel in distress.
The 1930s witnessed the transition from silent movies to the talkies. Most of the stars from the old days, however, fell by the wayside - some had guttural voices, others had foreign accents, all of which were totally unsuitable to the new milieu. The comedy team of Laurel & Hardy was a notable exception. They continued to make the world laugh right into the 1950s, and frankly, we old-timers enjoy their antics to this day. They were a class act!
Two brand-new theatres came up in Bombay in the mid-‘30s - Metro and Eros. They were state-of-the-art for those days, and great competition for the existing Regal, New Empire and Excelsior. All of them screened Hollywood movies, the show timings being 3.30 p.m., 6.30 p.m. (the most popular), and 9.30. p.m.
New movies ran from Friday to Thursday, and depending on their popularity lasted for two to three weeks maximum. Bathing Beauty was featured at the Metro, and ran for a record number of weeks. Esther Williams, a sensation in her bathing suit, continued to pull the crowds in week after week. There was a story going around (no doubt started by the bawajis), that the denizens from nearby places flocked to the 4 anna seats right in front, hoping that Esther Williams’ bathing suit would one day slip off, and they would have a grandstand view from close quarters. Bathing Beauty, undoubtedly the start of other MGM blockbusters, like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, which broke box office records week after week.
My movie experience started pretty early during school days; mum would give us 4 annas each for my close friend Homi and me, plus bus fare, to take in a matinee show, which we did with the greatest relish. Provided of course that we had sola topis on our heads, without which we were not allowed out of the house. In those days we got full value for our 4 annas. The show usually started with a cartoon, or sideshow of two reels with a well- known band/orchestra properly togged out in suits or tuxedos, playing popular hits of those days. Very often there were words on the screen (akin to today’s karaoke) to allow us to sing along lustily, and out of tune.
Then if you were at the Metro, there usually was a travel show, with a commentary by a ‘Smith called Pete’, taking us around the world from our cozy cinema seats? This guy even did a piece on Bombay, with road scenes of ancient cars, bullock carts, and the racecourse with Parsi ladies in their ‘siddha cherra’ saris and ‘matthu-banoo’ backing the ‘gee-gees’. Movietone or similar news followed this. The main movie was always after the interval. My saddest moment was invariably at THE END - the hero kissing the heroine and riding off into the sunset. Back to the real world, school and lessons – uggh!
The ticket rates usually ranged from 4 annas right in front, the pit class, behind which were the eight-anna seats. Re. 1.2-anna seats were further back and were termed Balcony seats, and these were patronized by most of us when we started earning some moolah.
The Dress Circle seats were on the first floor and cost a princely sum of Rs. 2.4-annas - aptly named, as the patrons were usually well dressed in suits and saris.
This reminds me of the time that the Eros opened to great fanfare and pomp. The proprietor, Mr. Shiavux Cambatta, insisted that all patrons for the night show in his swanky new theatre be dressed formally. He was known to stand in the lobby to oversee this protocol. One fine evening, a young man of a wealthy Parsi family known for his ‘chavatt giri’ and mischievous ways, parked his Lancia in the Eros circle, and shabbily dressed as ever, sauntered over to Mr. Cambatta and enquired in a rather loud voice “Eeya sandaas khaan chhe?” Poor Shiavux naa position maan puncture perryu! This did happen - I do not know the end of this anecdote, except that Mr. Cambatta soon had to revoke his fatwa.
Sunday 6.30 p.m. shows, particularly at the Metro and Eros, were much sought after. Long queues would form well before the opening of advance booking on Tuesday mornings, to ensure the best seats for the fashion parade on Sunday evening. It was exactly that! Young Parsi men in suits, girls in lovely frocks (I insist on using this term to this day, much to the amusement of my girl cousins), would preen about in the lobby well before the start of the show, and during the interval.
It was the place to see and be seen at. Many patrons had what was known as ‘permanent bookings’ for the Sunday evening shows. Four to six of the very best seats were reserved for those who had good connections with the management. They did not have to line up on Tuesday and could pick up the tickets in the course of the week. Mr. Keki Mody, movie mogul and a relative by marriage, was kind enough to keep ‘permanent’ bookings for the Wednesday 6.30 p.m. show at the New Empire, for my mum and dad. He was gracious too, in treating my parents to new, uncensored movies at his private studio in Tardeo.
Pateti celebrations of our extended family in the 1940s, started with the gathering of the clan at my paternal Bapaiji’s place at Jaiji Terrace. Believe it or not, almost 30 of us, young and old, gathered in the small house to meet and greet each other, and to partake of our Bapai fui’s excellent ‘ravvo’ and other delicacies. During those days eating out was not in fashion. Apart from the dining rooms at the Taj and Greens, there were no standalone restaurants like today.
Pateti evenings were, therefore, reserved exclusively for the movies. The others of our community being similarly inclined, we had to ensure our 30 tickets by lining up at the theatre of our choice, a week prior, at 5 a.m. for advance bookings. This task was delegated to the youngsters, which delighted me a lot. It was a chance to be with my pretty cousins, without the steely eye of some elder or the other monitoring the situation. A spot of hanky-panky then was decidedly in order! Our Pateti evenings in the ‘50s, however, were spent in the company of Adi Marzban and his galaxy of fine comedians at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan or the Tejpal theatre - tickets courtesy of the producer Pesi Khandalawala, my childhood chum and fellow scout at school.
Minoo Kapadia, another friend and scout, was a partner in Evergreen Pictures. They owned a number of theatres like the Super at Grant Road, the Taj at Playhouse, the Palace at Byculla and so on. They showed only Indian movies. He was good enough, or foolish enough, to hand out passes liberally to our group of young adults, well known at dances and such functions, for our rambunctious behavior. The Indian movies of that era were usually bloody awful, which for us meant having a good time and a good laugh.
A movie called Black Cat, a thriller supposedly was showing at the Taj. Fifteen of us trooped in for the night show, and we certainly were not disappointed. It was all about a group of gangsters called the Black Cats, all of whom dressed in black felt hats, black glares, long black coats reaching below their knees and black shoes - in short, they were totally incognito. Their boss was the owner of a restaurant. The good guy walks in one evening and one of the hoods phones his boss who is away. Dialogue: “Boss, chhe number ke cabin mein suspicious character aaya hai.” Cut to the boss: “ACHHA, uska chicken soup mein baara number ka powder daal do.” We were hooting and howling with laughter. A Bohri’s wife, enthralled by the on-screen action, turned around and scolded us “Jarra bhi saynse nathi”. A similar incident occurred at the Palace theatre one evening, when we were rather boisterous. The manager called Minoo the next day and told him that had we not been his friends, he would surely have called the cops.
Fun at the movies with Eric Paymaster: Eric (aka German) recounted to us this incident, which occurred many years ago. During Diwali time it is the custom to have bhang, a mild drug/substance the ingesting of which, has the following effect - if a person starts crying, he keeps on crying, if he laughs he keeps on laughing, till the drug wears off. Well he and his pals, after having copious amounts of the stuff, went to see the movie Emile Zola.
At the end when Zola dies, one of Eric’s group starts howling and blubbering “Zola marri giyo, Zola marri giyo…” All of them, totally gone, took up the cry, and joined in the loud weeping, howling and blubbering, “Zola marri giyo, Zola marri giyo.” Another Bawaji in the audience, not in their group, had just about enough, and yelled at the top of his voice “MUGHAN MAARO, KAUN TAMHARO BAAP THAI?” As you can imagine there was total chaos, bedlam and laughter in the house. At least, poor Zola went out in style.
Much later, during the screening of A Man Called Horse, the hero Richard Harris, having been inducted into a Red Indian tribe and about to marry an Indian squaw, is hung from a tree with eagle talons hooked into his chest to prove his manhood. The hero passes the test with flying colors, but cannot perform in the marital bed. Eric, despite his bulk, was a total softie and fled from the theatre muttering fortissimo, “Kahan thi honeymoon thai?” Loud laughter followed him all the way out of the auditorium. I had to literally drag him back to his seat during the interval. His pet name for me was Colonel, and I was about the only person who could control his wayward ways.
Another hilarious incident occurred at the Eros, which was showing Ruthless People starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler. Danny the rich businessman is married to Bette, but he is fooling around with another floozy on the side. So when an amateur husband and wife team kidnaps his wife, he is delighted, and refuses to pay the ransom on one pretext or the other. When they learn of the Shorty’s agenda of trying to get rid of his wife, Bette and the kidnappers become friends. In the denouement, Bette confronts Danny at the edge of a pier. The Shorty tries to wriggle out of a tight situation by telling his wife how happy he is to see her alive and well, blah, blah, blah. Bette is having none of his nonsense, and unleashes a mighty kick in his crotch to send him flying into the sea.
Freny’s brother-in-law Pesi, his eyes crinkling with delight, started yelling and chortling at the top of his voice “Maar saala ni gotti maan laat, maar saala ni gotti maan laat”. Coomi, his wife, was totally embarrassed and went “Pesi, Pesi”, but would Pesi listen? He had the bit between his teeth, and there was no stopping his clapping and loud howls of approval. The audience simply lapped it up and joined in the fun and laughter with great gusto.
Sad, but nothing lasts forever - the glory days of going to the pictures finally came to an end. Our fun-loving gang of relatives and friends diminished with time.
Many went to the great theatre in the sky, some drifted away to foreign shores, and those remaining became old together. Frankly, watching movies in the present day multiplexes is not my idea of fun and certainly not without my beloved old cronies. The curtain has finally come down to…