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Vol. XXXIII No. 17, December 16-31, 2023

My Brush with the Silver Screen

-- by Nandini Vijayaraghavan

Many schoolgirls dream of appearing on the silver screen in film-obsessed India. Fortunately for film goers, this was never my aspiration. Yet I did have my moment on the big screen in the most unexpected of circumstances.

Circa the late-1980s, a bunch of schoolgirls including me, after appearing for our annual exams, secured permission from our parents to watch a film by ourselves and treat ourselves to ‘tiffin’ at Woodlands Drive In – a restaurant that operated from what is now ‘Semmozhi Poonga’ on Cathedral Road. That our weights and voices were unaffected by Drive In’s best sellers – the deep fried channa bhatura, vegetable cutlet and poori-potato, creamy fruit salad with ice cream and chilled lemon juice – is a story for another day.

The thespian Nagesh in the K. Balachander directorial Server Sundaram would ask a group of college girls, ‘Who among you is Kavitha?’ When Kavitha identifies herself, Nagesh would quip, ‘There is bound to be a Kavitha among college girls’. Similarly, a gang of schoolgirls with common names, Deepa, Priya, Preetha, Gayatri and yours truly Nandini, set off to India’s first multiplex – the now demolished Safire theatre complex on Anna Salai.

I had a particularly sheltered upbringing even among the five of us. My parents had accompanied me to precisely six films till then – The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Fiddler on the Roof, My Dear Kuttichattan, and G.V. Iyer’s Adi Shankaracharya. However, I was not completely ignorant about films. During summer holidays, our family would vacation for around a week at Ooty, Kodaikanal, or Yercaud after which my brother and I were dispatched to Kumbakonam to stay with my maternal grandmother.

Kumbakonam was a Mecca for old Tamil films with dirt cheap ticket prices ranging from Rs. 1.0 to Rs. 5.0. Our neighbours at Kumbakonam had six offspring, who are my dear friends. Pattamma akka and Sridhar anna, the eldest of the six who were close to twenty-years accompanied the younger siblings, my brother and me to at least two films a week. These included Siva Gangai Seemai, Thiruvilayadal, Thillana Mohanambal, Kasedhan Kadavulada, Bama Vijayam, Kadalikka Neram Illai, and the aforesaid Server Sundaram. In short, I was quite familiar with the predominantly black and white Tamil films released before 1970.

A scene from the movie Thillana Mohanambal.

The five of us set off on that May afternoon to watch the 1952 film adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe. Blue Diamond in the Safire complex was screening Ivanhoe as a continuous show; the film was shown repeatedly from morning and midnight. Viewers may buy one ticket and watch the film any number of times during a day. We decided to start watching Ivanhoe at 1:30 pm. This would give us time to visit Drive In and return home by the 6:00 pm curfew.

We were so excited that the deserted theatre lobby escaped our notice. The stench of nicotine assailed our nostrils as we entered the mostly empty theatre. As our eyes acclimatised to the dark interiors, we realised that there were barely thirty people in the 300-seat theatre. The usual viewers of period English films – families, college-goers and senior citizens – were conspicuous by their absence. The viewers comprised lungi-clad men and heavily made up women draped in vividly coloured sarees, most of whom were smoking and drinking. The audience appeared not to understand English and was completely uninterested in the on-screen proceedings.

Discomfort, curiosity, and excitement gripped us. As we dithered between staying and leaving, those present shot us curious looks, heightening our unease. This was when Deepa nudged me and pointed to the screen asking, ‘Isn’t Dilli your driver?’ Ivanhoe was replaced by scratchy transparencies in Tamil and English that instructed, ‘Nandini, Deepa, Priya, Preetha, and Gayatri, Come out immediately. Urgent. Dilli Babu is waiting for you.’ Dilli was employed with my family from before I was born. Meanwhile, two Safire employees entered the theatre wielding torches, loudly announcing our names.

We shuffled out of the theatre to be met by Dilli, disapproval writ large on his face. He had just driven my father from Ranipet to Chennai and was hoping to take the rest of the day off. Unfortunately, my father asked him to fetch us.

‘You ought to inform your parents of your whereabouts,’ observed Dilli.

‘I secured amma’s permission,’ I retorted.

Pat came the reply, ‘What does she know of movies and theatres? Next time, ask appa.’

Dilli then informed us that he will drop everyone off at their homes. None of us mustered courage to tell him that we preferred going to Drive-In. Two of my friends were understandably so annoyed that they refused to talk to me for months.

I was even more excited than usual to board the now discontinued Shencotta Passenger to Kumbakonam the next day. After all, the risk of being pulled out of a theatre amid a film screening was practically non-existent there.

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