(my grandmother anita then and now, at 19 and 63)
It was a phone conversation, with my grandmother during the lockdown.
I was lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling fan spinning round and round. The evening music of the chirping birds sounded louder that usual through the balcony door that stood ajar, something that had now become a regular sight at home, ever since the lockdown caused the pollution levels to drop drastically. The gentle gushes of the cool breeze that occasionally made their way up and down, caused the leaves on the old peepul tree outside to rustle. The entire tree seemed to break into a soft shimmy, swaying from one side to another. Amongst these sounds of nature her raspy voice echoed through the room from the speakers of the phone.
‘Nani ma, how are you surviving this lockdown’ I droned on, now in my fourth week of confinement to the house, since being back from university amidst this international crisis.
‘Cooking, eating, sleeping, relaxing and repeating’ she replied. ‘We’re trying to make the best of any kind of circumstances.’
‘That’s true. But, don’t you miss going out, even if it’s just for a walk, some fresh breeze?’
‘I go up to the terrace twice a day, to walk around. Sometimes I also sit in the sun, by the peepul tree. The weather’s been nice so it feels good. But otherwise it’s not so bad, I’m just happy to be home safe.’
My eyes remained trained on the fan, unconsciously trying to focus on the rotating centre. The sound of the slow spin, seemed to get louder and louder, gentle breaks now amplified into louder, higher screeches. It made my head spin and a light pain took over the centre of my forehead. I closed my eyes close, to give them some rest.
‘Are you still there nani ma?’
‘Yes I am. I was thinking about what you asked. If I tell you honestly, the one thing I do miss is going to the cinema.’
‘Don’t you have Netflix? You can practical watch anything you want, on that?’
‘Arre,it’s just not the same. The experience of going to the theatre and excitement of a new release is unparalleled, that too with hot popcorn!’
‘Hmm, maybe after this is over, we can setup a home theatre for you. You can have your own large screen, a massive sound system, a couple of recliners and fresh, microwave popcorn! How does that sound?’
‘See, this is the problem. With the coming of this digital age, where everything is available to you at home whenever you want, you lot have lost that sense of excitement; an excitement for the experiences of ordinary life. Any kind of home theatre, can never beat the joy of physically going to the cinema and watching a newly released film.’
And so she began narrating a story; the story of the joy of going to the cinema.
For years she has been a regular at the same cinema, about a 10 minute walk away from her home in Daryaganj; Delite Cinema, on Asaf Ali Road, located in Central Delhi. While for most people this name may not ring a bell, for many years it was one of Delhi’s and most successful theatres, for films and live performances. Opened in 1954, it frequented by the top names in the film industry and in politics. Over the years things changed and commercial chains such as PVR’s, made their way into the market, altering the way viewing experience and culture, and often encroaching upon old, independent theatres. This iconic one however survived, courtesy of a regular and bustling viewership.
(old Bollywood film posters )
This neighbourhood always reminds me of my childhood; The old firestation by the mosque, the orphanage with bright but crumbling yellow walls, the primary school my grandfather attended, and the fresh Aloo Poori made by Sardar Pooriwala across Ansari Road, the lane in which the house is located. The image remains vivid in my imagination. ‘Darya Ganj’, literally translating to ‘River trading post’, is located in the district of Central Delhi. It lies inside the erstwhile ‘walled’ Mughal city of Shahjahanabad, ruins of which can be seen even today. The neighbourhood stretches from Delhi Gate, on one end, to Red Fort on the other and comprises of residential areas, markets, and perhaps most famously multiple iconic food joints. It is famously known for being a hub for publishing, and for the 2 kilometre long Sunday Book Market.
(a few glimpses of the neighbourhood)
‘Our neighbourhood has tried its best to resisted the change. In comparison with many other parts of Delhi, that have been completely destroyed by globalisation and modernisation, it has managed to retain its historical grandeur, charm and community. We still buy our groceries from our local kirana store. For years, the daily purchase of bread, and occasionally eggs has been carried out from the local bakery. A milkman arrives every morning on his bicycle and we buy milk from him by the kilo. For our monthly stock of spices and lentils, we make a trip to Khari Baoli, the ancient market that was established during the Mughal period. How can you get the same joy going to a large convenience store? How can you get the same kind of human interaction?’
I think about the contrasting narrative of my own shopping trips, more than when I’m at home when I’m back at university. I usually go to one massive grocery store and buy everything I can from there. More recently I’ve tried to look into local Scottish suppliers, yet most of my purchases are limited to a homogenous, commercial department store; multiple isles, all in the same colors, the same arrangements.
She acknowledges however, that despite this resistance there is no escape.
‘Slowly and steadily the commercial giants are taking over. And to say that I despise everything about them would be a lie. It makes things easy, comfortable, hassle free, but before you know it everything about your old world would have collapsed and an entirely new set of surroundings will emerge, unrecognisable, where the past only lingers in shadows, that will be altered with one slight change in the light, and soon completely vanish.’
I thought about the paradoxical nature of change; they say, things take time, you have to take it one day at a time. But on the other hand, at time once the process had started, years go by, nothing remains as it was and there is no going back. It’s too late by the time you realise.
‘I always loved going to the cinema’, she recalled, I could feel the eagerness in her voice . ‘My father, was a huge influence in this love for films. I remember when I was only a teenager, our cinema used to run a week of international films, and my father would always buy tickets for the entire week. These weren’t your regular Bollywood films, but films from all around the world. It was special, in those times you see, access to foreign films. My hunger for exposure and knowledge was what lead me to being extremely curious and eager to go and watch these films.’
(photographs in black and white)
To keep up with the times and modern technology, Delite Cinema and others like it, have had to undergo renovations, and the halls don’t look the same as they once did. Despite these alterations, it continues to carry memories of a lifetime!
‘Usually, a couple of us go together. We call a cab or at times even take an e-rickshaw, but its mostly always a community thing. I ask everyone at home, perhaps some friends in the neighbourhood, it’s a good way to enjoy some time together, without really having to do much.’
I recall the few times I have watched a film there, as a child. Perhaps one of the most interesting things about this cinema without a doubt, remains its adherence to the old style of ticket categories; the general public and the ‘balcony’ seats. As compared to the fancy PVR’s, and and newer establishments inside malls, even the fancy tickets are really quite cheap. Yet, both the categories remain full of people, and people from different sections of society.
‘It’s a progression, almost ritualistic. Everyone makes their way in, organically finding comfort in their own seats, next to their person of choice. We always look around to see if anyone we know is in the crowd. Meeting friends, old and new, at the cinema is a wonderful experience; there’s always some small talk, it’s very good for the soul in small doses, often there’s some gossip, a bit of drama; it keeps you going, and healthy. Before the film starts there is already a common desire to go and buy some munchies. When I was younger we used to often carry our own food from home; at times homemade aloo parathas rolled up in foil, even some candy we called goli. Things have become slightly stricter now, so I usually stick to some sweet supari. Now, we head out and pick up some hot popcorn, a samosa to share. Most of the food is already over during the screening of the advertisement before the film begins.’
I can hear her voice light up with joy, as she talks about her privilege as an 'old lady' of 64, and it reminds me of the amusement she experienced on her sixtieth birthday when she began telling everyone how she would exploit her ‘senior citizen’ benefits. With the same childlike enthusiasm she recalls the thrill of reprimanding the noisy folk sitting around; at times young kids giggling, other times slightly older couples whispering to one another. Then, there is the roaring of the crowds, sat in the ‘general seating; area, when the ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ grace the screen. Cheering, clapping, most often lots and lots of whistling!
‘I don’t partake in it actively, but the thrill of listening to the excitement of the crowds, transports me back many years, when audiences were so actively engaged and in awe of film stars. Now, no matter the level of fandom, or cult following a star may have, the theatre experience doesn’t reflect the same emotion, and dynamism.'
Going to the movies was a true delight and joy, even a privilege. We didn’t have the same sort of lifestyle that you all do today. Pocket money was limited, entertainment options were limited, and there was less exposure to all sorts of information. While everything has become extremely convenient, easy, and accessible today, I feel like maybe things were better then. I’ve come to realise, that perhaps, less is more?’
As I listened to her narration, performed with the perfect voice modulations, I tried to recall the last time I visited the cinema. I do like watching films, and have a subscription to all the online channels. I remember having an entire collection of DVD’s at home at one point, and while we recently got rid of many of them, not long ago I had enthusiastically catalogued in alphabetical order. The days when a film lagged or stopped because of the ‘scratches’ on the disc are far behind. Occasionally, I rent some from the library at my university and watch them on my laptop through an external Disc Player, cherishing an experience that the generations after me will never live through. I don’t consider myself entirely out of touch with the past, in fact most of my choices are fuelled by and reflect my passion for all things old; film photography, postcards, anything that has a story to tell.
Yet, despite attempting to resist the new and the modern, I too am as engulfed in today’s times as anyone else. I had to think long and hard to recall my last cinema visit. Eventually, I remembered when and where I’d gone, but with that came the realisation how my frequency of visiting the cinema had only gone down, over the years. The cinema didn’t have the same charm for me, as it did years ago. Maybe it’s the changing nature of the cinema and technology itself, maybe it’s me?
Had I forgotten what that joy was truly like? No matter how comfortable I felt sitting in my living room, with the lights down, watching something on Netflix with hot microwave popcorn by my side, the way she had described her experiences, evoked a newfound and previous unknown sense of within me.
At the end of our conversation, I conceded, ‘I think it’s wonderful how you find happiness, in the small things in life. The experiences that seem ordinary.’ She replied, ‘there are no small and big things. Everything is as valuable as you make it. And yes, experiences are what make us, and keep us going’.
Perhaps, after this lockdown ends, and once we emerge out of this pandemic as a world, I’m going to take a trip to the cinema.