February 22, 2020
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Cinema Century Diary

They say people are defined by their earliest memories. One of mine is watching my first film...

Cinema Century Diary

For Cinema Verite

Call it a twist of fate of the kinds we see in our films. As I write the wrap-up words for Outlook’s Cinema Century Special, a blog written by the unassuming yet gifted young lyricist Rajshekhar unexpectedly begins floating online. The writer of hit songs Rangrez and Kitni dafe from last year’s Tanu Weds Manu, Rajshekhar hails from Bhelwa village in Madhepura district of Bihar, 240 km from Patna. His village got electricity barely a few months back. So it isn’t hard to imagine that a film would be even further away from Bhelwa’s reach. From hiring a projector to renting a venue: Rajshekhar writes an intimate, bitter-sweet account of the intricacies involved in getting his mother to watch his debut film. The irony is inescapable. A country literally worshipping cinema for a 100 years may also have to struggle hard to access it. The biggest dream factory of India may not enter the reality of its millions. Rajshekhar’s story finds a deservedly happy end. His mom sees a film after 20 years in a crowd of 300 people, doesn’t utter a word after it gets over, keeps crying as she goes on looking at her son. In my mind’s eye, it unfolds like a powerful, affecting climax. I have a habit of seeing films everywhere, in every situation, always.

Legendary French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier sees things the same way. “Life is the best film you can watch,” he says, while shopping with me for cushion covers and bedsheets in FabIndia some years ago. “If only younger filmmakers saw fewer films and lived life more!” he sighs. I nod, noting his words to quote for posterity. As I am now.

Brief Encounters

Writing on cinema does give me this special privilege. Of name-dropping. I shopped with Tavernier (he gifted me an Urmul kurta which I rarely put on lest it wears off). I had a lunch of palak paneer and yellow tadka dal with Aamir Khan after asking him the three-crore question. I had tea with Hrishikesh Mukherjee in his lovely Carter Road bungalow, Anupama. I discussed the severe lack of interesting men in a single woman’s life with Rani Mukherjee. That was when she hadn’t discovered Aditya Chopra. I heard SRK mock Rahul Rawail’s Buddha Mar Gaya and RGV’s Darling and narrate a hilarious anecdote about watching Deepa Mehta’s Fire in the company of his mother-in-law. Even superstars can fidget at films! So long as they are not their own!

The most unusual encounter was a lunch date with the Dadasaheb Phalke of Malegaon, Shaikh Nasir. I had written a piece on Faiza Khan’s excellent documentary, Supermen of Malegaon, about the spoof film industry of the town and their attempts at making their first Hollywood spoof, Malegaon Ka Superman. Nasir, the director, and his cast and crew had been invited for the film’s screening to an international festival in Delhi, only to be stopped at the entrance as they didn’t “look” like people who’d be making or watching festival films. He was hurt. But also excited. It was his first film festival, first stay in a hotel, first plane ride and furthest he had gone away from his hometown. He felt he owed it to me and wanted to pay off the “karz” by buying me a meal. We went to Tonic in the Siri Fort Complex. I was also instrumental in making him have his first pasta. I haven’t spoken to Nasir for years now. Shafique, the actor who played Superman, passed away some months ago. I read the news in the papers.

First Shows

All these uncommon experiences have come my way because I decided to make a living out of watching movies. At times it has also meant sitting in torture chambers. From morning to matinee to evening. I sat down for one such show last Thursday and had severe existentialist pangs. Do I want to keep doing this forever? Yes. More than the films, the healthy snack boxes served at press previews (from Bengal Sweet House, Kalewa and Haldiram) don’t just keep me going but leave me asking for more. Contents include samosa, kachori, paneer pakoda, chips, sandwich, gulab jamun.

They say people are defined by their earliest memories. One of mine is watching my first film, Vijay Anand’s Tere Mere Sapne. At the age of three, in the lap of an older cousin in a Durgapuja pandal. Or was it on DD? Mumtaz gets hit by a car. I bawl. And every single red tomato that spilled from her vegetable basket on the road gets imprinted in my brain though I haven’t seen the film again. I remember helping cousins make scrap-books of Shashi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman from pictures out of mags like Madhuri and Movie. And encountering stars for the first time at Sangam theatre in Delhi. That was when Big B, Jaya and Rekha had come calling for the premiere of Mr Natwarlal.

A Happy Ending

“Do all you want to do for this issue,” my generous editor tells me. “After all, we are not going to make another soon.” Certainly, not sooner than another 50 years. When I’m not going to be around anyway. It has been good timing in life for me then. To be a film journalist and be able to celebrate cinema’s hundred.

Namrata Joshi is Associate Editor, Outlook; E-mail your diarist: namrata AT outlookindia.com

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