A water colour of Bala Hisar. Pic courtesy: Rahul Kohli

By: Ganesh Saili

‘No Malls! No Movies Halls! How do you folks stay entertained?’ It’s a question that has often been put to me, especially from the Johnny-come-to-town-lately variety.

‘Ever take a walk under the deodars?’ I venture. And all I get as reward is a withering glance.

Of course, some of us old timers do miss the demise of our cinema halls. All five of them, that came in all shapes and sizes. The King of Cinemas was the Electric Picture Palace which opened in 1912, a full three years after electricity came to the hill station on 24th May (Empire Day) 1909.  The owner, Jas Little, was proud of his cinema hall and advertised as:  ‘It is 71 feet by 30 feet with floor on incline giving a clear view for each person; well-ventilated with electric exhaust-fans… it is on par with the best of London Theatres. There are two shows daily 5 and 9 pm with the latest projectors which allow a continuous show without a wait between parts.’

The Mall, Mussoorie.
Pic courtesy: Philip Thornton

Be warned, though, because Time had tarnished some of its glory. Over the years, it had lost a lot of its spit and polish; the seats were torn and lumpy and occasionally took on a life of their own and were capable of springing clear of their sockets and landing on the floor, occupant and all, with a resounding thud. What happened in the monsoon was a whole other thing – the beat of the raindrops on the tin roof was so loud that it could oftener than not drown out the sound track. During interval, Sardar Santokh Singh’s piping hot tea kept this show on the road for many years, as after much dithering, it finally gave birth to the Jubilee Cinema in its basement. Somehow, no one fixed the leaky roof and the rust-stained water trickled down the silver screen leaving almost half of it in blotches of brown, often with the most interesting results. You saw half the film in black and white and the rest in tones of sepia.

At the plush Rialto there were other problems, including that of the drunk projectionist who on occasion could get the reels mixed up. The Vikings, slain in battle a minute ago rose as if from the dead to mount their horses and do battle once again! I admit, no such fumbling occurred when I saw Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam. That once-grand theatre now stank with the stench of spilt alcohol, cigarette butts and body odour as Anarkali gyrated to lyrics of Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya in the Hall of Mirrors.

The Electric PIcture Palace 1920.

At the mouth of Camel’s Back Road, mirroring the end of the silver screen was the old Basant Cinema, later reborn as La Anjuman, though the change of name made no difference to the stink of sewage from Summer House and the nearby hotels.

On the Mall in the Library area lay the Majestic Cinema which was to later reincarnate as the Vasu. Believe you me, rebirth is not good for all things, especially if they happen to be like the old Majestic cinema in Library. Today it is a fine movie hall called ‘The Ritz’. Though I still daydream of the last tango in Vasu where the seats housed bedbugs and fleas which crawled out no sooner the lights were dimmed. Or you could have the sound of the swatting of the occasional mosquito that buzzed about your ears until you killed them or got used them. Later, like a rude awakening, came the new-fangled VHS video and cable television, you could call them the last straw. It was curtain time for the silver screen. If you’re wondering what happened to those bedbugs and fleas, you need not worry – they simply crossed the road one dark night and migrated to the many hotels that had sprung up.

Below the Kutchery stood the Hakman’s Grand Hotel’s Capital Cinema. You stepped down as if on to the edge of a dried out swimming pool, where the ancient projector’s death-rattle drowned out the sound bringing you back to the era of the silent films.

Given enough time, even stardust can turn to dust.

(Ganesh Saili born and homegrown 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.)