How do you know so much about cinema and how do you remember so much? Every time I am asked this question – which is not all that often, but frequently enough to serve as the opening for a piece such as this one – I give some version of the same answer. Do you know those sports commentators who, the instant a batsman pulls off a reverse-sweep six, can rattle off all the earlier instances of this shot, with the year and perhaps even the name of the stadium? Do you know those political columnists who, the instant a budget is unveiled, can produce a comparative analysis that references budgets from two decades ago? It’s something like that.
My mind holds on to all kinds of movie memories – not just what happened in this film or that one, but the name of the theatre where I saw, say, Janbaaz. (If you want to know, it was a matinee at Santham.) It’s crazy. I don’t want to remember this crap – but I do. And this fondness for movie-related trivia – or, depending on the way you see it, this pathological inability to forget things about the movies – results in the oddest of side-effects, like the warm glow that spreads through your system when you chance upon a newspaper from the past and see the now-showing ads.
Some time back, I’d remarked on my blog that I was unable to recall the name of the film critic who used to write for The Indian Express in the 1980s/90s. I remembered this critic’s reviews because, unlike the other reviewers of the time, he didn’t go about making an itemised list, evaluating the various aspects of the film. Instead, he focused on the parts of the film that grabbed him, that moved him enough to make a remark. He summed up Agni Natchatiram by saying “there is more light than heat,” an assessment I don’t agree with but am still impressed by – because he said what he wanted to say with style.
And one reader of my blog took it upon himself to scour the Internet and send me links of the reviews – by, as I eventually found out, N Krishnaswamy. (Thank you, blog reader. The Tennessee Williams phrase “the kindness of strangers” comes to mind.) And these links opened into e-copies of the whole newspaper, one of which was dated Friday, July 13, 1990. What joy there was in seeing the movie ads. Dil was playing 4 shows in its fourth “Public ka dil kho gaya” week at Subham. (“Music is the soul! Story is the body!! Love is DIL!!!”) Ghayal, playing at Melody, was celebrating its 25th day. (“Only a woman could tame his tempers.”) And at Sathyam, in its “thrilling thunderous third week,” License to Kill was keeping the Bond franchise alive.
But chasing memories can sometimes have serious consequences. You may be led to wonder: Why do people who do visible work – film stars, musicians, sportsmen –come to feel like family? Why do we have such pleasant memories about them, as if the mere fact of our watching one of their movies at a certain age has bound us forever to them? And why do we experience such sadness when they die?
I am not just talking about the big stars. I am talking about someone like Nisha, the pretty actress who featured in a clutch of mostly forgettable films in the 1980s. I was on a YouTube binge one night, doing my usual check of whether videos of early Ilayaraja hits had been uploaded – say, the one for Poonthottam from Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal, a music video I’ve never been able to find. These were songs we heard on the radio, but unless we went and saw the films we didn’t know how they were picturised. And now, thanks to YouTube – and again, the kindness of strangers – we know, and despite the inevitability that most of these songs are horribly shot and staged, there’s something about seeing a time-capsule version of this actor or that Chennai location that makes the exercise worthwhile.
And so I found myself watching Nisha in Dhaagam Edukkira Neram – a staggeringly gorgeous number whose asymmetrical melody lines are filled with beautiful lyrics – and wondering where she was these days, and this led to a Google search. Imagine my horror when I chanced upon some sites that said she had died of AIDS-related complications. There were pictures of Nisha as a shrivelled wreck – she looked like a mummy. The then-versus-now contrast was too much to take. The reports said that she died in 2007, and all I could think of was that, thanks to this song, she had left behind at least one immortal memory.