Cinema Inferno

Writing :

Having just reviewed everyone’s favourite film about cinemas and cinema-going, Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film “Cinema Paradiso” over on my film-related blog : I was prompted to write about my own early experiences of going to the cinema in a West London town with a growing immigrant community that has parallels with some incidents depicted in the film.

In more ways than just cinema, the immigrant community of that part of West London in the 1960’s and 1970’s could be viewed as a counterpart to that depicted in Tornatore’s film, since many came from rural villages with a farming background.

The appetite for films was catered for by the community clubbing together in much the same way as depicted in Tornatore’s film since established distributors in the U.K generally didn’t handle films from India due to a lack of demand and it was left to a few enterprising individuals to acquire films by various means in the knowledge that there would be an absolute certainty of an audience and some revenue to offset the cost of acquiring valuable prints from India.

The pooling of financial resources from the community only extended to acquiring films, however, and not in securing a cinema to screen films. The solution came in the form of local cinema managers allowing one-off screenings of a Hindi film by renting out the cinema for the purpose, secure in the knowledge that it would be paid for by the sale of admission tickets and the sale of home-made Indian snacks on the day of screening.

Although cinema was and still is a hugely popular medium in India, audiences tended not to be mixed in terms of gender for cultural reasons so these early “distributors” – and I use the term loosely since they were essentially enthusiastic film-fans – would organize two screenings of a film, one for men that was ticketed and another for women and children where the cost of admission was either a fraction of the price or completely discounted, and it was to these screenings that we, as kids , would be dragged along to by our mother on a weekend day, usually a Sunday.

The chosen cinema rendezvous was always a fabulous example of 30’s Art Deco cinema architecture called The Dominion, and typically, it stood head and shoulders above the shop fronts of a busy street, creating the impression of an ocean liner that had somehow run aground. The Dominion didn’t just host the odd Hindi film, it was also turned over to live all-in wrestling when that was all the rage and occasional live concerts by pop-stars of the day like Cliff Richard and musicians like John Barry.

I have only very vague memories of the films that we watched and some made more of an impression than others – we were more often than not either bored or distracted by the environment and snacks on offer since the films were rarely subtitled and being from the South of India, we didn’t follow Hindi. Things usually picked up during the song and dance sequences or “Dishoom Dishoom” fight sequences that are an indispensable staple of Indian commercial cinema and that don’t really require an understanding of a language to enjoy.

Very occasionally the news that a blockbuster film was to be screened would cause a flurry of excitement through the town and posters would be posted in shop windows and flyers stuffed through letter boxes.

The actual date is hazy though I’m sure some research online will reveal it since the events that transpired on one such Sunday afternoon cinema visit was, I’m pretty sure, covered in local newspapers.

When news landed that “Junglee“, a Hindi blockbuster starring Shammi Kapoor, then, a huge star of Hindi cinema, was to be screened at The Dominion the whole town was gripped by a kind of cinema fever unmatched before or since and unusually for a Hindi film, the screening would be for the family rather than split along gender lines, possibly because the print was only available for a short space of time.

Of course, we were duly dragged along by my mother and, for the first time, with our father who was not by any means a film fan – his film heroes had been Charlie Chaplin and the stars of 30’s and 40’s Hollywood and he had no time for Hindi films, which he considered inferior potboilers for the masses – but still, he was swept along by the frenzy in spite of protests that he would rather stay behind and read the Sunday papers, and we found ourselves joining a throng outside the Dominion, crowding the narrow pavement in anticipation.

You have to understand that Indian audiences were unused to the more sedate way in which the host community enjoyed films that involved waiting in an orderly queue as a “commissionaire” in a smart uniform would wave them in between screenings of a film – no, this was more like football fans crowding the turnstiles and soon what began as crowding the pavement soon spilled out into the road and into oncoming traffic and we were jostled and squeezed between towering adults eager to watch the film.

In retrospect, my guess is that the film was oversubscribed, and when the organizers held back on opening the doors out of a fear that there would be a stampede having underestimated the turn out, that is exactly what happened.

The doors opened and we were literally carried forward by a stampede of suited, booted, Bryllcreamed, “Swastik” hair-oiled, perfumed, sari’d film-crazy human beings. I remember distinctly avoiding being trampled while groping for my school cap that had been knocked off in the melee and crying out for my mother before we were swept into the large circular foyer.

The organizers, in the hope that they could control the flow of people up the two sets of stairs that led to the theatre, had set up trestle tables of “Samosas” and other Indian snacks but in their eagerness to watch the film people tried to swarm up the stairs after pulling aside the red knotted ropes that blocked their way.

Outside the crowd showed no sign of thinning out and we were soon jammed into the foyer by people milling about.

Anger soon spread amongst the people in the foyer and outside as their attempts at entering the cinema were frustrated and the anger turned to blind panic as children started to cry and women screamed. Outside, angry drivers were berating people on the pavement and in the road and honking their horns and within a short space of time the police descended en masse on the cinema to break up what was by now, in effect, a riot.

I have no idea how long that moment of terror lasted but my main memory is of being part of a large circle as the doors were locked shut, holding hands with my sisters, mother and father as a police inspector and policemen walked slowly around the circle taking down details as we quaked in terror at the possible consequences, combined with shame. The police inspector stopped in front of my father, nose to nose, and calmly asked for our names and home address before delivering a harsh ticking off.

Needless to say, the screening didn’t go ahead and the police advised us to return to our homes along with a general warning – no samosas were eaten and my father never set foot in another cinema to watch a Hindi film thereafter 🙂

My mother, on the other hand, continued to drag us to see Hindi films each weekend until our interest began to wane, since for her it was a way of meeting her friends from work and this continued up until the late 1970’s when cinemas in general were starting to feel the decline of audiences and by the 1980’s the appetite for Hindi films was met by the rise of video tape.