My love affair with the movies started during my school and college days, though I faintly recall that when I was a child of 6 or 7, my youngest uncle used to pack up my cousin and me and take us off for a night show. I have vague impressions of being taken to Rupali Theatre in Bhowanipore – not one of your fancy picture palaces at that time – and the only movies I remember seeing there were “Zimbo” and some Dara Singh film. “Zimbo” was, if I remember rightly, India’s answer to Tarzan. For the hard-core film freaks out there, you can read more about “Zimbo” here.
In the 1960s, I got thrown out of “Cleopatra” and one or two others for being underage. But the clearest memories of that time were “2001: A Space Odyssey”, possibly the first (and till now, the most mind-bending sci fi movie I’ve seen), “Woodstock” and “Grand Prix”. And one set of ads, of which more later.
“Grand Prix” was special for two reasons. A couple of friends and I used to read about Grand Prix races in Time magazine, and I’d written a RIP letter to Jim Clark’s family when he died; they sent me his biography. I’d also written to Jackie Stewart and got a signed pic in return. That’s one reason why I saw it half dozen times. The other reason happened the second time I saw “Grand Prix”. A few rows before us sat a tall man who looked familiar. I saw the movie a few more times, and as far as I can remember the tall man was there as well. This is the man.
This picture, shot by Nemai Ghosh (Ray’s Boswell with the camera), can be found here, and at a number of other resources.
In the late 1960s, I remember a cinema strike had shut down all movie halls, and there was a lot of curiosity about when Ray’s Gupi Gyne Bagha Byne would hit the screens. I remember wall paintings and posters saying “Guga Baba ki asben?” (Gu ga ba ba – the first 4 syllables of Gupi Gyne Bagha Byne. The sentence translates into “Will Guga Baba come at all?”). When the halls reopened, the posters changed to “Guga Baba kobe asben?” (“When will Guga Baba come?”).
When I saw the movie, I figured why Ray had gone to see “Grand Prix”. Director John Frankenheimer had used a lot of split-screen shots, and Ray did the same in some key sequences in his masterpiece.
My friend, Ravi Mehrotra (RPM), sent me this picture of the first cinema hall in Kolkata – Elphinstone Picture Palace, set up in 1907.
(I’ve not been able to find a source for this on the Net – if anybody can help me, I’d be really grateful.)
Thanks to RPM and other friends, I discovered that this later became the Minerva, where I remember seeing many good Hollywood films; this hall was also one of the theatres used during quite a few Calcutta Film Festivals. Finally, the city fathers took it over and renamed it the Chaplin, and in 2003, this building was demolished. You can read the story here, where you can also read about J F Madan who could be called the father of film production in India.
Those days, the cinema halls around the Chowringhee and Dharmatolla areas had bars and lounges where you could sit out the boring or gooey parts of a film. In the Globe bar, I heard the funniest line ever by a cine-goer. The first “Star Wars” was running; the bell went for the interval, and within seconds the bar was crowded and so was the line to the gents washroom. In a few minutes, the first and the second bells went to indicate the imminent resumption of the movie and the line to the gents was still quite long. One witty soul shouted from the end of the line: “Dada! fifty percent! fifty percent!”