Cutting us to sighs

Unsung heroes Eleven projectionists were honoured at the valedictory function of 75 Years of Sound, the celebrations of the platinum jubilee of the Indian talkie film.

Unsung heroes Eleven projectionists were honoured at the valedictory function of 75 Years of Sound, the celebrations of the platinum jubilee of the Indian talkie film.   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Babies cried. Mobiles rang. But Laila and Majnu romanced each other before an appreciative audience

As the lithe and curvaceous actress danced before the Prince of Iran, Chiranjeev Singh pointed to the screen and cried: "Cuckoo!"But I'm mixing up my reels. This scene is from Reel Number 5 or so. Where's Number 1? Mounting reels in the wrong order is something that Habib Khan would never do. After all, he has been on the job for 56 years and his expertise cannot be- I'm doing it again. Who's Habib Khan? Before you start catcalling I'll begin at the beginning and faithfully follow the numbers on the cans. Ring the second bell, draw the curtains, turn out the lights and let the show begin.The best way to reach the oldest functioning cinema in Bangalore (and possibly in India) is to take a bus to Shivajinagar. After the lassi bar, bakery, cane chairs, aquariums and corporation school, there's a junction where six roads meet. Skip and dance past the two-wheelers and you're on Shivaji Road but even while your eye is measuring its winding length you're there already - at an old grey gate with a signboard above it in block letters, "Elgin Talkies".

Much nostalgia

The sign has been decorated for the occasion - the valedictory of 75 Years of Sound, a celebration of the platinum jubilee of the Indian talkie. Much nostalgia has been shared by archivists and film music buffs during the weeklong affair. It is now time for the organisers (Film Federation of India, Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance Francaise de Bangalore) to call it a night.And what a night it is! Everyone's invited. The good people of Shivajinagar are squeezing through the wicket gate and I shuffle in behind them, displaying my wholly unnecessary invitation card to a frowning watchman. Care-of the celebrations, laminated movie posters from yesteryear grace the outer walls of the 110-year-old building. I see no poster of the film currently showing in Elgin, which stars Mithun Chakraborty (the theatre specialises in reruns). A large snack stall takes up most of the limited parking space, which is chock-a-block with three automobiles - an unusual sight, since audiences normally walk here or arrive on two-wheelers.On either side of the building are six grey wooden doors that open into a wide aisle running the length of the hall and interrupted by pillars, a style of construction seen in the late BRV, Imperial and Opera. In the dimly lit hall the janata occupy the red bucket seats while the organisers and invitees sit in front on hired plastic chairs. M. Bhaktavatsala, Chiranjeev Singh and Hamraaz are crowding around an old notebook. It is Elgin's record of the silent movies and talkies it has screened from the 1920s on. Inscribed in black ink in copybook hand are film, director, stars, and dates of screening. The last column is for remarks: very good, good, fair or poor, which refer not to the quality of the film but how it fared commercially. Hamraaz points excitedly to a crucial entry: Alam Ara, the first Indian talkie screened here in June 1931, three months after its release.The stars of this evening form an unlikely constellation. In a rare gesture, the film industry is about to honour 11senior projectionists (operators, as they are called) with plaques and bouquets. Thanks to Bhakta's imaginative idea we get to see the men who have patiently sat in cramped rooms day in, day out, for 30, 40, 50 years and more. Names are called out... Anand, Haribhai, Thomas, Mir Masid Ali, Mandappa, Govinda, Amir Jaan, Basavaraj, Shivadas, Kamalakannan... hearty applause as Habib Khan's son receives the award on his behalf; 56 years is the longest stretch of them all. Unused to the spotlight, they diffidently accept the awards. Their moment of glory is captured, appropriately enough, on film.Bhakta reminds us that proprietor A.S. Krishnamurthy's great grandfather Veerabhadra Mudaliar built Elgin in 1896. Tallam Nanjunda Setty says he hopes Murthy will keep it going for at least another 50 years. Chiranjeev, who is no stranger to Elgin, recalls seeing Suraiya in Phool and Noor Jehan in Gulnaar "when these red chairs were not here, and there were benches, a gallery, and a women's compartment". He tells me that in '86, he and Bhakta had come here for a 9 p.m. show of the 1945 Laila Majnu, the very movie we are about to see now.We move to the bucket seats and the lights go out. The doors on either side are kept wide open and the thin black curtains have been drawn back to let in the breeze - a summertime habit unsuited to a chill December evening. During the two-hour screening, tail lamps and headlights occasionally flash across the screen. Babies cry, mobiles ring, but nothing can drown the scratchy soundtrack's ear-splitting volume. And nothing can spoil our viewing pleasure.Oh torture, oh heartbreak of lovers immortal, inseparable even in death. Husky-voiced Swarnalata and husband Naseer as Laila and Khais. Khais turns into Majnu, the mad one, deewana with love. Endless recitations of shayari beneath an artificial moon. Beautifully framed shots of camels on the dunes. Stonyhearted Ameer, Laila's father, the raygistan ka paththar, who gets her married off to the Prince of Iran. Piercing whistles during the last scene when, after a convincing sandstorm, the lovers crawl towards each other and die in one another's arms.It was the perfect setting for the romance of black-and-white, the romance of old lyrics and melting tunes - the battered, old-world charm of Elgin Talkies.C.K. MEENA

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