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What is a trip to Bombay without a surreal moviegoing experience?


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Ever since i heard about Deepak Talkies in Bombay, a colonial-era theatre renovated by Matterden Center for Films and Creation and bringing back the charm of black-and-white cinema to present-day audiences, i was quite set on catching a movie there. The dream actually, was to watch Casablanca or Roman Holiday. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture Oscar-nominated Foreign Correspondent (1940) presented itself, i decided to seize it (despite waking up from my customary Saturday sleep-in barely an hour before the show was due to start.) Although i was fifteen minutes late for the movie, the whole experience of watching an ‘old movie’ was worth it.

Foreign Correspondent, one of the first two films the inimitable Master of Suspense made after crossing the pond, was one of his two films to be nominated in the same year for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category, the other being the classic Rebecca. As one of Hitchcock’s first films, his predominant theme (and fear) of a man being accused of a crime he didn’t commit, certain scenes which would inspire Vertigo‘s climactic scenes, and the sexual innuendo in every dialogue exchanged between the romantic leads, all find their origins in this film. Notably, his trademark personal appearance in the film is missing here. While i didn’t find the film too satisfying plot-wise, Hitchcock’s dry yet delicious sense of humour keeps your attention riveted. George Sanders, whose face i remembered from All About Eve, surpasses all his colleagues in his turn as Scott ffolliott (i have not misspelled the name). As you watch Joel McCrea in the lead as a rookie journalist caught in an international conspiracy, you can’t help but wonder the kind of horsepower Humphrey Bogart would’ve brought to the role. The film is littered with the auteur’s typical visual touches, and is interesting if one wishes to trace and identify Hitchcock’s influences.

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What completely mesmerised me, was watching a matinée show, sitting farthest from the screen, feet propped up on the seat in front, right under the projector’s beam, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. For ceremony’s sake, i even put my hand in the projector’s beam, to see its shadow on the screen. My shadow on the big screen! In that sea of humanity, to find an island of peace, to forget your pressing troubles if only for two hours, to feel one with ‘all those wonderful people out there in the dark’, maybe even with those people who must have watched films like this decades ago, is quite something. That is the magic and the charm of a black-and-white film. While watching a film, the entire audience unites in one emotion, together. If that is not a connection, what is?

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Blame this on my tendency to attach overarching, transcendental meaning to superfluous, inconsequential instances, but for some reason, i felt that i could connect this with my overall impression of Bombay. Due to its roots as a major port, the capital of trade, a hub of power, and its colonial roots as a Presidency town, the city is dotted with regal-looking British architecture. With exposed brick, antique balcony grilles and peeling paint, these quaint buildings lend a vintage feel to the city. (Despite our hatred of the Britishers, i think that we Indians really do admire and emulate our pukka sahib rulers, even today.) ‘Retro-hip’ is probably one way i could try to describe the general vibe of the city.

As someone from a small town, in the four short weeks that i spent here, Bombay has been a roller-coaster ride. This is a city that swallows you up ruthlessly, takes you in, and leaves you to figure it out and fend for yourself. Bombay is heady, potent, strange, bewildering, untameable, unyielding and, at least for me, one like none another. Here, extremes coexist, the richest and the poorest man walk together, the old melds seamlessly with the new. An air of desperation, of things moving fast, oh-so-fast, is omnipresent. Big cities have a way of making you feel so grown-up one moment, and so small, so lost in the crowd the next. You are all alone, yet you don’t escape the specie for a single moment.

For me, Bombay is a trippy blur of speeding cars, the tranquil waves of the Arabian Sea flanking a sleepless city, the distinct spit-stained, rusted old metal of the local trains, the skin-permeating stink of fish, the constant honking of vehicles, people jogging with their dogs along Marine Drive on Sunday evenings, the sweet smell of alcohol and tobacco wafting out from one of the many establishments, hawkers selling and yelling their wares, the glitter of trinkets along Colaba Causeway, crowds constantly rushing somewhere, the solo strolls along the cobbled streets of Fort; all seen through black-tinted Lennon glasses.

Just like in a movie theatre, Bombay lets you find yourself in the anonymity of a crowd.

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Garam Hawa (1974), directed by M. S. Sathyu, is a poignant film depicting the plight of Muslims in India, post-Partition. Based on a short story by Ismat Chughtai, the firebrand feminist Urdu writer, the screenplay is written by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi (Sathyu’s wife). I remembered this film from a reference in Shyam Benegal’s Mammo (1994), which i had watched years ago. Another rare, undervalued film, Mammo too explored themes of the plight of Muslims who stayed behind in India after Partition. Garam Hawa features Balraj Sahni in his last performance, and what a swansong of a performance this is.

The film focuses on the Mirza family, living in Agra. Salim Mirza (played by Sahni) is a proud family man, who refuses to leave his country, while slowly his family, disillusioned with their plight in India, leave one-by-one for Pakistan. His elder brother has his own ideas, his sons are young and have a mind of their own. But Salim, a man of integrity and loyalty, refuses to get embroiled in politics, and believes in his moral code and honour. But how long, in the face of such adversity, will his patience last?

The dialogues are trademark Ismat Chughtai. If you have read her works, you will recognise her mocking, satirical tone, her metaphors, indeed the typical flavour of her language, immediately. She herself was a Muslim who stayed back in India after Partition. The film touches on middle-class angst and frustration, and even communal riots, but succeeds in not being provocative, serving the interests of the story.

Balraj Sahni’s calm, stoic, honourable Salim Mirza carries the film bravely on his old, weary shoulders. Watch him as he bids goodbye to his family members as they leave him alone, as he tries time and again to pick himself up, and his positive outlook despite the sheer perversity of his situation. And yet, he is dignified. Always, to the last frame.

Piece of trivia: Seen the Google Reunion ad about two childhood friends meeting again years after they were separated by Partition? Yusuf is played by M. S. Sathyu, Garam Hawa’s director.

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