Once upon a time in a sleepy town in Assam, Paswan-Da fulfilled the role of the friendly neighbourhood cycle rickshaw-vala. During the day, he'd ferry passengers all over town. But in the evenings, he'd station himself outside Rhino Cinema Hall, a popular theatre in an army cantonment.
Since the agricultural university colony where I lived was only a couple of kilometres away from Rhino Cinema, many would give their trusted Bajaj Chetaks a break and instead engage Paswan-Da's services for the evening, an arrangement that suited him fine. He had a confirmed to-and-fro fare. During the ride back, he made himself a part of the conversation, which, after the film, usually revolved around the film, rather than how the cost of rohu fish has gone up in the local bazaar.
Paswan-Da would gently prod and ask questions regarding the film as he pedalled away. After a couple of trips, he could describe almost every scene of the film without even getting into sniffing distance of the samosas served in Rhino Hall's lobby. This retelling of the film in bits and pieces would be done near my bus-stop to an appreciative audience comprising school kids, the other rickshaw-valas and sundry passersby who had time to kill. This was in the '80s – there was always enough time for everything.
Many a time, I'd spend a few pleasant minutes listening to Paswan-Da's animated description of the latest film playing at Rhino Cinema with his own observations on the plot: "Vishwa Pratap Singh ne Dr. Dang ko thappad maara aur uss thappad usko bahut bhaari padi." And if he was in a really good mood, he would borrow a cigarette from Om Grocery Store and would act out the famous dialogue from Vishwanath starring Shatrughan bhaiyya: "Jali ko aag kahte hain, bujhi ko raakh kahte hain, jis raakh se barood bane usey Vishwanath kahte hain." He would then return the cigarette with a flourish. Paswan-Da was a non-smoker.
Other than keeping aside a small amount for his expenses, Paswan-Da used to send all his earnings to his family in Bihar. He would, however, save up a little money for his one indulgence in a month – a film at Rhino Cinema.
Every now and then, Rhino Cinema would screen films that were at least a decade old. 'Grand Revival' was the term used. For example, Amar Akbar Anthony was released in 1977. But by the time it graced Rhino Cinema's screen, it was 1986. So, yes, popular blockbusters that were also really dated films. But this small fact did little to curb the enthusiasm of people in the neighbourhood who flocked to the theatre to watch the histrionics of Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor. Amongst them was Paswan-Da. He was so impressed by Amitabh Bachchan's famous mirror scene after getting a royal walloping by Vinod Khanna, that he did something unprecedented – he watched the film for a second time. In his words, it was a total paisa vasool film.
Watching a film was a highly researched decision for Paswan-Da. He'd weigh the different opinions and reviews about the film heard while ferrying passengers, and then take an educated decision. If the film was not worth it, he would skip it for that month and the money allotted would go into his savings.
As he liked to explain, 'Why should I spend my hard-earned money to watch my own hard life on the big screen? Watching such films only makes my heart grow heavier.' This was a lesson learnt from watching a film called Gaman, a film that revolved around a taxi driver (Farooq Shaikh) who left his ailing mother and wife in U.P. to earn a living in Bombay. The film ends with Farooq Shaikh driving around Bombay without being able to go back to his family.
Paswan-Da knew from his research that the film didn't really end on a happy note. But he still went ahead as he heard that the film depicted the plight of migrant workers. By the time the film ended, he was extremely upset. He later confessed that he cried for many nights after watching the film. But the antics of Amar, Akbar and Anthony always kept him smiling.
As the era of the Ambassadors, Premier Padminis and Maruti 800s gave away to the Ford Figos and the Hyundai i10s, the shift in social mores started getting reflected in films too. Single theatres turned multiplexes ensured the emergence of a different breed of filmmakers who started making films they believed in, to varying degrees of success. However, mass entertainers, more often than not, continued to score heavily at the box office. But this was something that never found favour with critics or the intelligentsia. The humour, performances, song-and-dance numbers, the overwhelming lack of a plot – nothing was safe from being ridiculed. And with the proliferation of social media platforms, it has become the norm to start bashing this genre of films from the time the trailers are released. Even more vexing is that most of these social media critics would go to watch these films and then moan about their experience online. If one cannot make the distinction between a Housefull part whatever and a Sonchiriya (or, in these pandemic times, between Coolie No. 1 and Sir), then one is really not qualified to froth online about money or time wasted. What is being exhibited is an utter lack of judgment.
For many, a cinema ticket is a ticket to a fantasy world. They laugh uproariously at silly antics with no intellectual pretensions or cheer wildly as bare-bodied Tigers take on an army with a single expression of intent. Meaningful cinema? What's that? All they are concerned with is that for an all-too-brief period of time, thanks to a paisa-vasool/timepass film, they can leave their worries behind.
I had once taken a friend who ticks all the right 'culture' boxes to a screening of Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water. The acclaimed classic left my friend cold. Earlier in the day, he had a presentation that went horribly wrong. Something that he was working on for two weekends in a row. All he could say later was 'I wish we had gone for Welcome instead. I desperately wanted something to take my mind off the presentation. Something fun. Not so intense.' Next day, he went to see Welcome and emerged a far happier being than he was the previous evening.
Welcome became a blockbuster because it was able to successfully distract its audience. It took their minds off hard-to-please clients, missed deals and botched presentations. Mentioning Knife in the Water and Welcome in the same sentence might induce apoplectic fits in cinephiles. But the truth is, the world out there doesn't really care much about the debate between commercial and good cinema. The likes of Majnu Bhais and Don Uday Shettys also have their roles to play.
I think Paswan-Da would agree wholeheartedly with me and mutter something on the lines of apni-apni pasand and pedal away.