I joined the Indian Navy in 1973 and in 1975 I was a commissioned officer. I have many happy memories of the first few years of my career in the Navy that were spent in South Bombay. I was never into politics but it is my belief that internecine and dirty politics had not spoiled Bombay at that time. Bombay Police, for example, used to be compared with Scotland Yard in efficiency and reputation. In the services club, when we used to discuss such hair-raising incidents as advent of rogues and killers like Billa and Ranga in Delhi, we used to speak with great deal of satisfaction that such incidents won’t happen in Bombay due to the pro-active approach of Bombay Police.
How safe South Bombay was can be made out from the fact that it was a common sight to see young girls watch late night shows (though South Mumbai movies had to finish by 12:30 AM by local law) by themselves and then walk back home.
South Bombay prided itself in having the finest of the theatres patronised by decent crowds; the type who would be aware as well as well mannered: Regal and Strand in Colaba, Eros at Church Gate, Metro at Dhobi Talao, New Empire, Liberty and Sterling and later New Excelsior near Flora Fountain. There was Akaashvaani near LIC Building and one could watch good repertoire of movies there devoted to a theme. For example, I saw many of Raj Kapoor movies there during a fortnight devoted to his movies.
And what were the movies of those young days? In 1974, still an Acting Sub Lieutenant, I saw The Towering Inferno in Eros. It was a done thing during those days to read the book and then see the movie. The movie ran in Eros for over a year. During the first few months it was impossible to obtain tickets in current booking. My uncle, my dad’s eldest brother, Tej Bhan Singh, had arrived from New York with his American wife, Betty aunty, and two daughters Kiran and Maninder. Kiran and Maninder had missed seeing the Inferno in New York and requested uncle if I could take them to see the movie. They hadn’t reckoned, though, that we couldn’t just walk in to see a movie in South Bombay without prior reservation. Anyway, uncle came to our rescue. He just walked to the Booking Counter where a large sign said ‘House Full’, and addressed the Booking Clerk thus, “Sir, would it be possible to get three tickets in the Dress Circle for my daughters and nephew?” There must have been something in my uncle’s personna because the Booking Clerk dished out three tickets. It was actually House Full and he put three moulded plastic chairs for us in the Dress Circle.
|A scene from Towering Inferno|
|We were on the edge of our seats watching rescue operations|
And what a movie it was; starring Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holding and Faye Dunaway. We were at the edge of our seats with the excitement caused. The movie won three Oscars but left to us we would have given it many more. Hollywood was really very good at making disaster movies. Many years later when they made The Titanic and it was appreciated for its technical excellence, I was not surprised at all.
The Poseidon Adventure, a rescue from a ship that scuttled after meeting with cyclone at sea was another great experience. I saw it in Sterling. I hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, and Red Buttons. Once again the sitting on edge quality was the hallmark of the movie.
|A tense scene from The Poseidon Adventure|
One movie that really changed my life was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jack Nicholson got the Oscar for it. Louise Fletcher played Rached and did it so well that I instantly hated her. The movie was so powerful that you didn’t walk out the same person from the hall. I saw it in Regal. The last scene where the supposedly loony Red Indian uproots the wash-basin in the hospital so as to throw it at the window and escape (and thus the name of the movie) is so intense that you had your hair standing on ends. You were silently willing him to do it. I would rank the movie amongst the best that I have seen. I read Ken Kesey’s book many years later.
|By far the best movie that I ever saw: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest|
|She did her role to perfection and you felt like strangling her alive.|
It wasn’t all disasters and hateful stuff all the while. Paper Moon was a gentle movie that I saw in New Empire. The movie was based on the novel Addie Pray and starred the father and daughter pair of Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal. Tatum, as Addie Loggins was born to a prostitute. It was rumoured that Ryan as Moze Pray was the actual father of Addie since he had had an affair with her mother. Ryan, however, was a conman and was determined to deny it. The last scene of them driving off together as father and daughter was touching.
|Ryan and Tatum O’Neil in Paper Moon|
Talking about conman, how can I forget The Sting that, once again, I saw in New Empire. Both Paul Newman and Robert Redford were there and the suave manner in which Sting was conducted would be probably in the same league as Count Victor Lustig who sold off the Eiffel Tower.
|Superb acting by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting|
Surprisingly neither Paul Newman nor Robert Redford got the Oscar for their acting in the movie.
I can go on and on since it was such great pleasure seeing movies at that time. However, let me just bring out two more before I go on to tell about some of the Hindi movies that I saw. Both these movies are important to me. Fiddler On The Roof was one of the greatest musicals that I saw, in Sterling theatre. The movie was an adaptation by Norman Jewison of a 1964 Broadway play about a Jewish family living in Tsarist Russia. The movie had an unforgettable role by Topol as head of the family with five daughters. As a poor Jewish father he had the task of finding the daughters their matches. The movie had most memorable songs such as Matchmaker, If I Were a Rich Man, Sunset Sunset, Do You Love Me?, To Life, and Far From the Home.
|Topol with his wife and five daughters in Fiddler on the Roof|
The other movie is really very dear to me: Chariots of Fire, story of two English track atheletes, one a devout Jew and the other a proud Christian. This was the first movie I saw with my newly wedded wife in Bombay. We had married in a mandir in 1981, prior to my parents according their permission almost two years later. As she joined me in a one room (bedroom, dining room, kitchen, and sitting room all-in-one) flat in Naval Coastal Battery Worli, I had bought a cutlery set, a few utensils, a fridge, bucket and mug, gas stove etc on instalments. Even in such indigence we went to see this movie. The movie won four Oscars.
|A scene from 1981 movie Chariots of Fire|
Let me now turn to some of the Hindi movies seen by me in South Bombay. South Bombay had the distinction, at that time, of not screening the run of the mill Hindi movies about rich daughter of smuggler in love with poor but upright hero; some of these financed by the smuggler Haji Mastan at that time. It would show Hindi movies with a difference. By far the most powerful of the lot was Garam Hawa (Hot Winds), a 1975 movie that I saw in Regal. The film, directed by MS Sathyu, dealt with the plight of a North Indian Muslim family in the years after partition of India in 1947. Balraj Sahni as shoemaker Salim Mirza, the head of the family, came up with a most memorable performance of his career. As one by one, Muslims left for Pakistan, Salim’s daughter found that her betrothed Farooq Sheikh (having migrated to Pakistan) couldn’t marry her since he had found someone else in Pakistan. She then turned her attention to Jalal Agha. Nothing was decided between them until they went to Fatehpur Sikri where a most poignant scene was enacted. Jalal Agha as Shamshad told her (Geeta Siddharth as Amina) about the Emperor Shahjehan entrusting the Queen Mumtaz with two pigeons whilst he’d be away for a short while. When he retured he found that she had only one pigeon in her hand. A little annoyed he asked her, “What happened?” And she says, “It flew”. He asked, “How did it fly?” and Mumtaz released the other one saying, “Like this.” However, since the story was already known to Amina, she held Shamshad’s hand half way by saying, “I won’t let the second one fly.” In the end Shamshad is arrested and she commits suicide by cutting her vein.
|Balraj Sahni in the role of his lifetime in Garam Hawa|
Once again in Regal Theatre I saw a great movie called Shatranj Ke Khiladi (the Chess Players). The movie directed by Satyajit Ray and based on Munshi Premchand’s short story by the same name, had a super cast of Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Khan, Richard Attenborough as General Outram, Sanjeev Kumar as Mirza Sajjad Ali, Syed Jaffrey as Mir Roshan Ali, Shabana Azmi as Nafisa, Mirza’s wife, Farida Jalal as Mir’s wife and Farooq Shaikh as Aqueel. Mir and Mirza get so obsessed with the game of chess that they negelct their wives. There is a famous scene in the movie when Shabana starts having an affair with Farooq but Sanjeev insists, “Hum aaj kal bahut door ki sochte hain kiyunki hum shatranj khelte hain” (We look far into the future because we play chess). Because of such far-sightedness, they continue to play chess when the British marched their forces to take over Awadh.
|Sanjeev Kumar and Syed Jaffrey in Sahtranj Ke Khiladi|
Another movie that I saw during those days was a Vinod Khanna starrer Achanak (Suddenly) directed by Gulzar. Vinod Khanna as Manjor Ranjeet Khanna was to face gallows for having killed his wife Lily Chakravarty and her lover Kamaldeep who were having an affair when Vinod Khanna was away fighting for his country. When Vinod Khanna, running from the police, is finally caught, he is heavily wounded. Dr Chaudhary played by Om Shivpuri is entrusted with the task of reviving him so that he could face gallows in good health. An excellent movie with ironies galore.
How can I ever forget another one directed by Gulzar called Aandhi (Tempest) that I saw in Metro? The movie starred Suchitra Sen supposedly as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Sanjeev Kumar as a hotelier with whom Suchitra Sen had a love affair but with her engagement in politics it was not expedient to carry on. The movie had three excellent songs penned by Gulzar and music composed by RD Burman: Tere bina zindagi se koi shikva to nahin, Is mod se jaate hain, and Tum aa gaye ho noor aa gaya hai.
|Suchitra Sen and Sanjeev Kumar in Aandhi|
Once again, I can probably go on and on. However, let me end this by saying how an actor came on the scene like a breath of fresh air and during those days we were floord by the light heartedness of those movies. Yes, I am talking about Amol Palekar in Chotti Si Baat and Rajnigandha. During those days, heroes and heroines like Rajesh Khanna (I saw quite a few of them in Liberty, eg Ajnabee with Zeenat Aman), Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan (Sholay), Rekha (Umraao Jaan), Hema Malini (Sholay) were so larger than life that small timers like Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha didn’y stand a chance in making a box-office hit. But such was Basu Chatterjee’s direction, Amol Palekar’s effortless acting, and Salil Choudhury’s lilting music of such popular songs such as Jaane man jaane man tere do nayan, Na jaane kyun hota hai yeh zindagi ke saath (title song), and Yeh din kya aaye; that the movie was a super-hit.
|Amol Palkar in Chhoti Si Baat – breath of fresh air|
Chhoti Si Baat was the second movie of that genre. Basu Chatterjee had earlier made Rajnigandha with the same cast and music by Salil Choudhury. It received the Critics Award in 1975, the year of my commissioning in the Navy. It too had two memorable songs: Rajnigandha phool tumhaare, and Kai baar youn hi dekha hai.
I live in Kharghar now, far from South Bombay; it is not even Bombay anymore. Every now and then I get overwhelmed with nostalgia of that era when I was young, when life was uncomplicated, when seeing a movie was such indescribable fun that it would create timeless memories. I feel like singing Gulzar’s exquisitely written lyrics for a 1975 song for the movie Mausam starring Sanjeeev Kumar and Sharmila Tagore:
“Dil Dhoondta hai phir vahi furasat ke raat din,
Baithe rahe tasavvur-e-jaanaan kiye hue”
(The heart once again yearns for those leisurely days and nights
When we could just sit back leisurely, and let our imagination wander)
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