By: Ganesh Saili
By the end of the 1970s, our six movie halls had packed up. At least they had guaranteed entertainment even if you happened to hate the film. Take for instance Electric Picture Palace, our first picture hall that opened on 24th May 1909 when electricity came to town. Sixty years down the road, it had lost some of its spit and polish. The lumpy seats were prone to take on a life of their own, sliding off and crashing with a thud, thereby emptying the occupant on to the floor as the whole hall rang with laughter. Old Arthur Fisher, a poor Anglo-Indian left behind by his family, continued to live in the wood store of Woodlands Estate and work part time as a projectionist, right until he reached his final resting place in a pauper’s grave in the Camel’s Back cemetery.
I remember the day Bir Singh, the linesman of the City Board, accompanied by Ramesh, his sidekick, arrived drunk for the matinee, just in time to see a ‘House Full’ sign from the booking window. ‘Two tickets!’ he demanded of Victor Singh, the hassled Manager.
‘Read the board!’ said Victor. ‘Can’t you slip in two folding chairs?’ ‘Of course I can’t!’ The Manager tried to explain.
‘Bir Singh, climb the pole and pull out that fuse!’ suggested his aide, Ramesh.
And that is exactly what Bir Singh did. Chaos reigned as the hall plunged into darkness.
‘Refund! Refund!’ yelled the irate crowd.
The impasse continued until Victor took two folding chairs from Santokh Singh, the owner of the cinema hall’s tea stall. Magically the fuse slid back. The lights came on.
‘An ant humbles an elephant!’ mumbled Ramesh.
‘Elephants?’ said Bir Singh, ‘Aw! Shut up! That was another film.’
Meanwhile, downstairs was the Jubilee Cinema where the rusty rainwater leaking from the roof had stained the screen, leaving half the screen yellow and the other half brown. But no one seemed to mind, as they had learnt to see the film half in black and white and other half in sepia tone.
Next to Hamer’s was the posh Rialto. One day, before we set off to the matinee, my friend, Prem Kapoor, wisely asked me to phone and find out what was showing?
Matbar Singh Rauthan, the Booking Clerk answered the call: ‘One-minute! Hold on just a minute! There’s a strange film showing Faint Your Baingan!’
Paint Your Wagon turned out to be that memorable western musical starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood along with the lissom American actress Jean Seberg.
Oftener than not, Hari Singh the projectionist would get the reels mixed up and dead Vikings would arise to do battle one more time.
At the mouth of Camel’s Back Road on Summer House’s ground floor sat Basant Cinema. Later it became La Anjuman, but its fancy billboard was of no help as the nearby garbage dump stank to high heaven, putting an end to all entertainment.
Tucked away below Hakman’s Hotel used to be the Capital Cinema built on what were the remains of the Paladium dance floor. The death-rattle of its projector drowned out the sound track and, trying to be helpful, a well-meaning projectionist liberally applied grease to the cogs, short-circuiting the wiring and almost setting the theatre on fire. Capital Cinema had, well and truly, reached the end of the line.
In Christ Church’s shadow stood the Majestic. It was small and intimate, perhaps a little too intimate, for the moment the lights dimmed, out of the seats crawled the fleas and bedbugs. Where did that zoo go when there were no more folks to feed on? Wags say they crossed the road to the new hostelries that had sprung up in the area.
After many years of hibernation, the Majestic (or Vasu) was brought back to life as the Ritz and later the Carnival, which continues to provide some relief to entertainment starved townsfolk.
What more could one ask for than the dimmed lights of a cinema hall to hold someone’s hand? Of course, this story would have a whole other ending if you wound up trying to hold the hand of a complete stranger.
Ganesh Saili, born and home-grown in the hills, belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books, some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.