The demise of Rajesh Khanna has triggered a nationwide bout of nostalgia. Recollecting the days when a populace with little or no knowledge of Hindi queued up to watch movies made in the language, a tradition now gone with the wind.
By now, ‘Pushpa, I hate tears’ must have resounded in every living room, thanks to news channels that aired daylong tributes to Bollywood’s first superstar. To a nineties kid from the southern tip of India, fed on a diet of Khans, it didn’t make sense to watch my ever-diligent mother with a smattering knowledge of Hindi, ditch her chores and sit up till midnight glued to the screen, watching replays.
It was not until later I discovered that many, with little or no knowledge of the language, had performed the same ritual on Wednesday night. Conversations with Tiruchiites in the 30-70 age group unfolded memories of a city’s long-forgotten obsession with Bollywood cinema. While youth in the city today bemoan lack of decent theatres that screens Hindi flicks, here were people talking about Hindi movies that crossed the 100 day mark and queuing up on streets to watch , mind you not MGR or Rajinikanth, but Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore and Dimple Kapadia. Where has all the magic gone, I wondered.
Forget the blues
“I didn’t know a single word of Hindi, yet I watched Yaadon Ki Barat ten times,” exclaims Mahadevan, member of yesteryear Cine Forum, echoing the mantra of his generation. “There was no need to understand the words as the sentiments came across. The magic of the 70’sand 80’s will never happen again. If India could forget its unemployment and financial blues, it was the charm of Hindi cinema’s stars that made it possible.”
Mahadevan recalls Aradhana as among the longest running movies in the city, only outdone by Haridas and Engal Veetu Pillai. Bobby and Yaadon Ki Barat ran in cinemas for a whole year. Anaesthetic appreciation among youth triggered the obsession he believes. “While Tamil cinema was targeting family audiences with domestic dramas high on pathos, Bollywood charmed the youth.” Subramaniam, secretary of a mission hospital concurs. “There were no great dialogues, these movies were about visuals. Movies like Raj Kapoor starrer Jagte Raho, about a thirsty man running from apartment to apartment were fresh,” he says, referring to 1950’s. “Hum Dono and Shree 420 are classics and they are close to my heart.”
Children of the golden age
Children of the sixties and seventies associate Bollywood with Gaiety Theatre,(a shadow of its former self now) that exclusively screened Hindi movies. In the 80’s, however, Kalaiarangam, Sippy, Aruna, Rukmini and others joined the club. “There were only 500 seats at Gaiety and you would three fourth of the crowd waiting outside with no tickets,” recalls railway employee Balasubramanian. “I was in school when Hare Rama,Hare Krishna was released. My friend and I were lost in the milling crowds and had to be rescued by teachers from a neighbouring school,” he chuckles.
“The theatre was packed and the facilities were not great. But when Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore came on the screen, there was magic in the dark hall,” recalls consumer activist Pushpavanam, relishing the nostalgia. “I could tell you the exact moment that catapulted Khanna to stardom. When he gets off the train attired in an army uniform, he captured the imagination of a nation.” Even the anti-Hindi agitation did little to quench the spell of yesteryear Hindi cinema, “Ironically while we were raising slogans in college, we played gramophone records of Hindi songs in the hostel,” he recalls.
It brought my mother back
It did not end at the movies, Bollywood influenced life to a great extent as Sheridan shares. “I grew up listening to Rajesh Khanna’s songs, as my father would play them every night on our gramophone. While my dad had Rajesh Khanna’s punch dialogues painted on his bike, my brother and I imitated his style of dressing,” His loco pilot father Austin remembers West Boulevard Road choked with crowds during the silver jubilee of Haathi Mera Saathi, causing a traffic diversion.
Though the magic continued with Amitabh and Aamir Khan, a reason why many wax eloquent about the movies today is the memories of being introduced to Indian cinema by parents who often acted as translators. Kanaga Bashyam, principal of a women’s college, a self-confessed admirer of Rajesh Khanna, says, “My mother is no more today, but she came back to me as I remembered our conversation at dinner when Rajesh Khanna’s marriage to Dimple was announced. It all seems trivial now, but we were taken aback as it was expected he would marry Anju Mahendra. My mother induced a dose of reality explaining how transient things were in Bollywood.”
“My mother was such a fan of Rajesh Khanna that she named my brother after him, though she did not understand Hindi,” says Ramesh Kamak, who remembers lounging in Gaiety theatre’s wooden balcony. For professor Shirley Deepak, whose sister was named after Sharmila Tagore, Aradhana will remain unforgettable. “I was a seven-year-old and it was the first and only movie I watched in the theatre with my dad,” she says. She remembers queuing up with a hope of landing tickets for Aamir Khan’s debut, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak which many Tiruchiites tag as a massive hit. “Sadly the last Hindi flick I watched here was My Name is Khan. There were but seven people in the theatre and it was spooky.”
Paul Loganathan says the magic was revived with Shah Rukh–Kajol blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniye Le Jayenge. “While rushing to the movie, my friend and I met with an accident and his chinwas pared. But tickets were so hard to get that we had first aid and rushed back, all covered in bloodstains.”
Only memories left
Tiruchi with a significant North Indian and Hindi speaking population resorts to CDs for its dose of Bollywood today. Or as Mythili Ramanan who has watched every single movie of Rajesh Khanna says, “Forget the CDs. Today you can catch the flicks faster on television. Yet it is loss to miss out on the big-screen experience.” Others like HR professional Shaista Shivakumar, a die-hard Amitabh fan continue to stomach dismal interiors for there are big screen experience, as she did for the recent ‘Cocktail’ where audience made up just two rows. Padma Chari wishes Hindi classics would be rescreened or revived like ‘Karnan’.
As the few Hindi movies screened here today disappear with hardly a whimper, a consequence of protectionism measures by the government in the eighties, revisiting the songs and scenes is all that is left of the magic, says Pushpavanam. “Among students, the acid test to prove oneself as a Sharmila-Rajesh fan rested on one question that demanded minute observation,” he guffaws. ‘Can you guess the novel Sharmila is seen reading in ‘Mere Sapnon Ke Rani?”
For answers, play it again- relive the magic.