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I grew up in the age of small screens and large joint families. It was the mid 80s. VHS cassettes were home-delivered from friendly neighbourhood video libraries in my hometown Agra. There was no internet. But the movies had reached our houses, to the comfort of our living rooms, dispensing with the need to step out in the notorious heat or cold of northern India, and doing away with the risk of becoming a statistic in a terror attack – a prime minister had recently been assassinated.

It was not just the convenience of home-delivered-movies. It was also the family bonding – three generations sitting around a BPL colour television watching Nagina, Naam or Karma. Adding to the butts on the floor were our neighbours, their children, their household helps, our household helps, and because this was usually was during vacations, one would find visiting cousins and relatives also in the mix. Such was the video craze that a gentleman by the name of Nari Hira started producing direct-to-home-video “original” movies like Abhishek and Shingora, launching the careers of Aditya Pancholi and Archana Puran Singh. Interstate bus services started “video-coaches”, where films could be watched en-route.

In a cinema hall the person sitting next to you cannot see you and judge you for the tears rolling down your eyes, the claps that unguardedly erupt from you, or the drop of your jaw when you gawk at “Sangeeta Bijlani’s lips”.  

One summer, our school had just resumed post vacation. My classmate Tarun Vohra took a heavy school bag off his shoulders and asked whoever was within earshot, “Did you watch Tridev?”

“I did,” I replied.

Mazaa aaya na. Sangeeta Bijlani ke lips…poore screen par!” (wasn’t it terrific, seeing Sangeeta Bijlani’s lips on the full screen). Vohra threw his arms open as wide as he could. We were just about to enter our teens. The morning bell ended the conversation. It was time to recite “Our Father” at the morning assembly.

Vohra’s words remained stuck in my head through the prayer. I had seen Tridev at home on a VHS. I knew which moment Vohra was talking about – the beginning of the song Gali Gali Mein. Yes, there was a shot of Sangeeta Bijlani’s lips filling the TV screen. But what was the big deal? Why did Vohra single that moment out?

Our school playground faced Meher Talkies. Tridev arrived there a few months later. A bunch of us bunked school and sneaked into Meher only to check out “Sangeeta Bijlani’s lips”. We were pretty sceptical of Vohra’s claims, and somewhat irritated that a risk was being taken and pocket-money being spent on a film that had already been consumed at home. Its story (or “content” if you please) held no surprise for us. Once in our seats, we started having fun the other way round – saying dialogues aloud before the actors on the screen could, pretending to silhouetted strangers in the dark that we were smarter than the movie, pretending that we had seen so many movies and they all were so alike that we could preempt the punchlines.

And, then came the moment. Gali Gali Mein. Sangeeta Bijlani’s lips on that giant concave cinemascope screen. Everyone leapt from their seats whistling and clapping, including us – the wisecracks were taken in by the enormity of the moment, by the music that played along with it.

A random YouTube crosscheck shows that the shot of Sangeeta Bijlani’s lips in a long dissolve with Jackie Shroff’s face lasts for about 30 seconds. Back at Meher, most sank back into their seats in approximately 10 to 15 seconds. I stood transfixed for the whole 30 seconds. That image of myself in my head resembles the shot of a tiny Sam Neill standing in front of the giant T-Rex in the dark in Jurassic Park.

Meher Theatre in Agra
Image Courtesy: Meher Talkies In Agra

Years later, I would have a similar experience with Charles Bronson’s eyes when I watched Once Upon A Time In The West at a cinema in Seoul, during a Sergio Leone retrospective. I had seen OUATITW a dozen of times on DVD, but in a cinema hall when that shot comes and starts zooming in on Bronson’s eyes, you feel as if your seat physically slid closer to the screen. Looking into Bronson’s eyes brought tears in my own, something that had never happened during those dozen home-video viewings.

It would perhaps take an expert to articulate what happens inside a human mind on seeing an image projected at an enormous size. For the lack of a better analogy – it’s perhaps the difference between standing in front of the Taj Mahal and looking at its scaled down marble replica at one of the emporiums in Agra.

There’s one thing for which I need no expert. I’ve realised that the cinema-experience is somewhat of a group confessional undergone in the dark with a roomful of strangers. In a cinema hall the person sitting next to you cannot see you and judge you for the tears rolling down your eyes, the claps that unguardedly erupt from you, or the drop of your jaw when you gawk at “Sangeeta Bijlani’s lips”. It’s different from having your joint family around in an adequately lit room, where those watching the film can watch you too.

Before I conclude, a thought for my colleagues within the film fraternity too. In recent months I have often heard voices on the other end of Zoom saying, “people will come to theatres now only for a big tentpole film. If they come at all.” I have a feeling that the skepticism towards the future of cinemas is more within the industry than among the audience. In our ego, we have somehow led ourselves to believe that it is the CEOs, the CFOs, the CROs, the VPs of Creative Divisions, the studios, the stars, who make a film “big” and not believing that it is the “big-screen”, which at its inception had people running for cover when the shot of mere train arriving into a station was projected on it.

Back in the VCR days, at Vivek-Vishal cinema in Punjabi Bagh, New Delhi, I witnessed people cheering with whistles and claps when a bunch of besieged women threw chilli powder in the villain’s eyes in an arthouse film called Mirch Masala. What Sairat, a Marathi film with new faces, did recently needs no reminder.

I will leave this note with an image for us to ponder on. It will hopefully break your heart as much as it broke mine. A few months ago, in the Covid 19 post-lockdown phase, when travel services had opened up and cinema halls were still shut, I was in a cab that was nearing Agra on the old Agra-Delhi highway. On that highway is an old giant single-screen cinema called Heera. There was a hoarding at Heera saying “don’t forget we brought you the stars” and underneath these words were the posters of Betaab and Hero. It was at Heera that people of Agra first saw Sunny Deol, Amrita Singh, Jackie Shroff, Meenakshi Sheshadri, not as five-feet-something humans or as images on a 47 inch screen or as guests or hosts of a reality show, but as larger than life heroes and heroines, akin to demigods and demigoddesses.

Dare we forget our Heeras.

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