Morning Shows and Matinees

My earliest memory of movies has me sitting in the Central Theatre in Kottayam and watching a black and white Superman desperately hanging on to a post on the top of a tower to avoid plunging to certain death. My companions were my younger brother Rajan and a servant, whose name I do not recall now. Bestotel, a restaurant, has long since replaced the theatre. The face of superman is mixed up with that of Christopher Reeves (who indeed appeared in a Superman movie much later) in my mind, which is absurd and shows what time can do to sane people since Reeves was not even born then.

I spent the summer vacations in Puthupally, my mother’s place in those days. Puthupally had a theatre with a thatched roof near Kavala. Accompanied by Narayanan, the servant, me and my cousins would march to the theatre to see movies like Parakkum Rajakumaran (Flying Prince), an early John Carwash-Nadia favourite.

Serious movie-going started when I was in the sixth standard, thanks to a persistent motivator; Appu, our driver, was madly in love with Hollywood. Every Sunday morning was time for the morning show, and the local Star theatre would have arranged for a western or a romance. Appu had no particular preference, as he would sit immersed in the happenings on the screen. He did not understand a single word of what was being spoken, as he was academically challenged. He once confessed to me that what he liked was the overall ambience and style and the goings about and that he was not particularly concerned with the story’s theme. I am convinced that he would have done very well as a Bollywood movie producer.

Another providential happening that conspired to keep me glued to the silver screen was my being sent to Trivandrum to study for my pre-university degree. This was incredibly liberating, as I had to stay at the University College hostel. The theatre in Trivandrum specializing in English movies was Sreekumar in Thampanoor, conveniently located for me to take a bus from the hostel. The owner of Sreekumar theatre was an ardent devotee of M. S. Subbalakshmi. So he advertised to the world by ensuring that the song in praise of Murugan, “njanapazhathe pizhunthu” was the only song played before the movies started and during the interval. Since this was the only song in the Sreekumar repertoire, it got played at least a hundred times. We joked that the owner was a perfectionist and made MS sing the song until she got it right.

Sreekumar theatre would faithfully bring a new movie every week. My earlier acquaintance with the Hollywood staples got vigorously renewed. The selection ranged from dishum-dishum westerns like the Lone Ranger to classics like Gone with the Wind. Great movies like Gary Cooper’s High Noon and the unforgettable Casablanca. I also remember greatly admiring Disney’s Vanishing Prairie and other nature movies. My acquaintance with Hitchcock started during this period. Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and Vertigo were all great movies for me. Occasionally Salim theatre in Pattom was also favoured for movies like Picnic, Joshua Logan’s classic with William Holden, Rosalind Russel and Kim Novak, the smouldering beauty of Czech extraction.

Four years later, another phase of my movie-going started when I joined the Union Christian College at Alway for my postgraduate studies. The Sunday rendezvous was now with the Star Theatre in Cochin, again a one-hour trip by bus. The theatre somehow got my name and address, and they would send a postcard on new attractions, which made me feel somehow obliged to go. The Kottayam gang in the hostel were all movie lovers and hence I always had company.

This was also the time of my transformation to a cineaste, genuinely admiring the art and craft of movies. I also began to get interested in movie-making technology and started my collection of books on movie craft. I learned about the difference between Cinemascope, Vistavision and Todd-AO and the magic of the green screen technique. Pai & company, the bookshop on Broadway, was a convenient stop after the movies, which immensely helped the book collection grow. I began to study the technical aspects of a movie presentation, how the credits appear etc. The animated spirals of Saul Bass’s title designs in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” nudges you to an effect of dizziness. Much later, Dan Perri’s design of the text “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.…” crawling away at the beginning of Star Wars sets you up on a “Hero’s Journey” as interpreted by Joseph Campbell. To meet some unexplained urge, I started making a database of movies, like the names of the director, screenplay writer etc., written and rewritten many times originally in a small notebook and later transferred to library indexing cards. This interest in databases spread later to other types of information, like books and DVD collections.

The next stop was Kothamangalam, where I did a two-year stint as a lecturer. Kothamangalam those days was a place that time forgot. The only theatre there mainly was dedicated to Tamil and Malayalam movies. As college lecturers, we always got the best seats. The second year of my stay at Kothamangalam also coincided with Prof. M. P. Varghese taking over as the college principal. He asked me to set up a film club. I went to the RCA offices in Trivandrum to negotiate to purchase a 16-mm movie projector. We found a distributor in Cochin, and the film club started to the great joy of students. I do not exactly consider the choice of the films as very wise, since I recall showing the Horror of Dracula in one night. An associated and equally pleasurable task was to build the first music library for the college, which included movie songs and Western classical compositions.

After two years at Kothamangalam, I moved to Aligarh to do my Ph.D. One of the early vows I took was that I would forever forsake such distractions as movie-going and dedicate my life to Physics. This was soon forgotten since the movie theatre was nearby and Sunday matinees showed English movies. I used to subscribe to Time magazine those days and read the movie criticism with rapt attention. Hollywood movies would come to theatres in Delhi, and one of the joys was catching a morning train to Delhi, seeing a movie and returning in the evening.

When I came to Ahmedabad, I checked out the movie situation and was relieved to note that a few theatres like Natraj were regularly showing English movies. My wife being a movie buff, this became a pleasant outing. McKenna’s Gold and the French Connection were movies I still remember Ahmedabad had an excellent choice in movie houses, including India’s first drive-in theatre.

In the eighties, the western side of Ahmedabad began explosive growth with shopping malls and multiplexes springing up everywhere. I had built a house in Bopal, further to the west by this time. Proximity bred affection and our afternoons became a celebration of movie-going.

On trips abroad to attend scientific conferences, I have continued to feed the movie addiction. For example, on my first trip to Los Angeles, I went to a theatre in Westwood, which happened to be premiering George Redford’s movie, The Sting, starring Paul Newmann. I found it touching the audience standing up at the film’s end and clapping in appreciation. Another memory was sitting in a theatre in Gothenberg, where we attended the International Conference in Plasma Physics and saw ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ with a Swedish soundtrack. Another surge of movie-going happened when I spent close to a year in Vienna. Haydn Kino was a theatre on Mariahilferstrasse which brought a new English movie every week and was conveniently connected to where I lived by the subway.

After returning to Kottayam, I had to give up the pleasure of seeing movies in theatres. However, I discovered the delight of watching recent movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime in the pleasant confines of my study, where I have built a modest home theatre using a Samsung monitor and Soundbot Bluetooth speakers linked to my mac. In addition, I discovered sites like http://www.xmovies8.com and http://www.gomovies.com, where old Hollywood classics are available for free viewing.

My friend O. M. Mathew and I were recently felicitated by Athanasius College for services rendered in connection with the construction of the college building. I was greatly touched by the gift presented to me by Winny Verghese, the present Secretary of the MA College Association. This was a hard disc with a collection of more than 300 English movies and many great western musical compositions.

Movies, like books, broaden one’s mind, allow one to explore all possible and even impossible worlds, and go on vicarious journeys of exploration, quest and conquest. This early obsession with the magic of movies has persisted well into the evening of my life, and I can happily say that this has been passed on to the next generation and their families. In our Sunday Zoom meetings, movies are discussed and critiqued.


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