Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Closely Watched Films

Kaushik grew up watching and revering Amitabh Bachchan. His father deified him for Kaushik, describing his films and acting in every superlative he knew. His mother did not care much either way, happy in the Bengalis’ indivisible love for Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen.

Every fortnight, his father would come home with a rented VCR and two tapes – one Bachchan and one Uttam – Suchitra. The films were watched huddled around a 14 inch colour television set. The first film was always Bachchan’s since Kaushik would have to be put to bed by ten. His mother would keep hurrying away to the kitchen whenever the pressure cooker whistled and sometimes his father would call out to her for a cup of tea and she would return with it. Kaushik would sit through all this, staring at the screen with rapt attention, waiting for the next action set piece to begin. When it would, Kaushik would scramble up to his feet and kick and punch the air with sounds of ‘Bhishoom Bhishoom’. Sometimes he would punch his Dad on the arms and he would grab a squealing Kaushik and pull him down to his lap and hold him tightly and tickle him and Kaushik would love it. In movies where Bachchan died in the end, and there were several of those, Kaushik would become glum and his Dad would promise to show him another film where Bachchan does not die. He would go to bed after that, his mother by his side, and when he was asleep, his Mom and Dad would watch the Uttam – Suchitra film.

In those days, the entire family visited Kolkata for a week or two every year. Kaushik loved going there, for they usually stayed at one of his Uncle’s house – his Dad’s elder brother – and he had a large television set and a VCR of his own. He did not see Bachchan films there, but instead he saw magic tricks his Uncle had recorded during TV programmes and Satyajit Ray’s ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ and ‘Felu Da’ films.

It wasn’t until he was past fifteen that he started to realize that he was watching the same films over and over and they were starting to bore him a little. He asked his Uncle if there were other films he could watch and his Uncle would speak animatedly of the latest Magic show they’d shown on television. At first, he continued to sit through those but soon he learnt the art of wiggling his way out ot them. “I want to read a book now” he would say, waving an Enid Blyton and scampering off to another room.

His father realized what was going on and Kaushik noticed that now there were three tapes being brought with the VCR – a Chinese Martial Arts film in addition to the other two. “Enter the Dragon!” or “Fist of Fury!” or “36th Chamber of Shaolin!” his Dad would announce when he returned from work and they would settle down to watch it soon after. His Mom would now sometimes make tea for him as well. Of course, he was now allowed to stay awake well after midnight since two films needed to be watched and slowly, Uttam Suchitra faded away into oblivion for there just wasn’t enough time for a third.

It was around that time that English films and Coca Cola came back to India. And Schwarzenegger rode into Kaushik’s life, shotgun in hand on a motorcycle, and wearing leather jackets and dark glasses and it was ‘Hasta la vista, baby’ to Bruce Lee and his ilk. These movies, of course, were somewhat more risky in that there was gore and scantily clad women involved, and Kaushik’s Dad went to the theatre alone first to check if Kaushik could be allowed to watch. Once in a while, he would take Kaushik on the condition that he would walk out of the theatre, when asked, for a few minutes in the middle of the movie like during Jamie Lee’s striptease in True Lies. He would do as asked. One time, his Dad allowed one of his friends to sample a film since he was busy and Kaushik got to sit through an entire James Bond film, while his mother muttered under her breath next to him.

Dhule brought with it porn. He learnt to revel in the terrible odour and creaky chairs that permeated shady video theatres. He learnt to not let his concentration flag even as those around him moaned and groaned in the darkness, although he never did that himself, choosing to wait until he got back to his hostel room. He began to read Sydney Sheldon and Harold Robbins too and for those years, all literature and film became for him means to a single purpose.

By the time he graduated and returned home, however, he had begun to tire of them. He still watched porn, of course, but it seemed to him it had become more a matter of need and continuity than actual excitement. He shifted to Maclean and Forsyth in the written word, but about films he did not know what else he could do and, therefore, he eventually stopped watching them altogether, except for the odd one that appeared on TV.

In Lucknow, while he walked around campus and into classrooms with novels in hand, Kafka and Hemingway and Conrad, he scoffed at those that displayed interest in films. “They’re just a waste of time”, Kaushik said to himself. What good would films do to him? He’d rather spend that time reading or playing cricket. One of the first times he spoke to Ritankar, they discussed literature, but when Ritankar brought up the subject of films, Kaushik made excuses and turned away.

And then one day, Ritankar forced him to watch ‘Apocalypse Now’. And he stared at the screen spellbound by the extraordinary translation of Conrad’s vision. Afterwards, while he mumbled on about the greatness of the film, Ritankar asked him if he’d seen ‘The Godfather’ films and he nodded his head even though he had not. The same day he returned to his room and spent the night watching all three. He then watched ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Scent of a Woman’ and ‘Heat’ and Pacino replaced Bachchan, for whom his feelings by this time were less of reverence than of adoration in any case, in his head.

“Bergman, Godard and Truffaut, they are the real stuff,” another friend told him. He found their films unavailable on the campus LAN and therefore had to wait till he visited home during a term break. There, he convinced his Dad they needed an unlimited downloads broadband connection and when that arrived, he downloaded films by all three, and spent the rest of the break watching those. He found ‘Week End’ fascinating although he understood very little of it. When he returned to campus, he sought out the friend and asked him what else he would recommend. “If you liked ‘Week End’,” he said, “you will probably enjoy Last Year At Marienbad.” Kaushik was in a trance when he watched. A few months later, when he was beginning to discover hints of superiority in his behavior with other, less informed, people, he realized the only thing similar between ‘Week End’ and ‘Last Year At Marienbad’ was that he had understood neither. He watched them again.

The next windfall came when the Post Graduation program ended and Kaushik returned home for a three month break before he would move to Mumbai for work. He decided he’d had enough of the French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and that he would now devote himself to contemporary cinema. He discovered ‘Sex & Lucia’ and for a brief period, Paz Vega became more beautiful to him than Penelope Cruz, until he watched Volver. Sex & Lucia led him through Julio Medem to ‘Lovers of the Arctic Circle’. He spoke to Ritankar and Ashish about the film and found they had not watched it. He was thrilled that he finally had a film that he alone could recommend.

He began to detect hints of snobbishness creep into his conversations. “Oh! You haven’t seen Head On? Dude, you must absolutely see it!”. He warmed to the romance of Europe. He cursed himself for not going there when he had the chance, for the International Student Exchange program. Ashish did go and when he told them stories from his time there, Kaushik listened wide-eyed and jealous.

Once they were all settled in Mumbai, Kaushik sought out film appreciation groups and special screenings, better placed as he was in a film production company than Ritankar or Ashish. They enrolled to every club they could find and each Sunday morning at ten they began to go to a movie screening, red eyed and disheveled from the previous night’s drinking. In the afternoons, there was another club that exhibited films in a pub and they went there too. Occasionally, an obscure film released in theatres and they bought tickets for it, incredulous that such films could release in theatres – ‘Edge of Heaven’, ‘Turtles can Fly’, ‘Secret of the grain’. Kaushik became friends with Kartik and found himself being invited to special screenings of independent film directors he was in awe of. He contemplated becoming a filmmaker himself. He spent hours in office conceptualizing stories and camera angles. He looked forward to returning home each evening so he could watch a film and to weekends when he could discuss those and watch more.

He often reflected on how much films had affected his life. His world view expanded. He realized he couldn’t be very happy living the rest of his life in clusters of five day weeks. And he drifted apart from his friends of Dhule and to an extent, his parents, for he couldn’t bring himself to find conversations with them engaging anymore.

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