Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Bar) & Advisory council member of GCTC
This piece is all about a lifetime with movie/film watching, the pleasures involved in visiting different types of theatres and the snacking and social trivia which goes with it.
My first ever film was ‘Parivar’ (1956); I am not sure what the cast was, nor the story; I only remember the wonderful taste of ice cold Vimto which my mother handed to me to keep me quiet. I learn Vimto is attempting to make a comeback to India, 60 years later and look forward to it to determine whether the taste will be the same. I saw this movie in an open air Army cinema at Damana, near Jammu and since then have had a particular liking for all open air cinemas. The best of them were/are at Mhow, even today; The Infantry School and Military College of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE) excel at the total entertainment value of their facilities. The sheer pleasure of a beer, hot dog and chips and walk in walk out mode are unique facilities.
The first movie that I really enjoyed, without understanding the story, was ‘Moby Dick’ (1959). My father explained me the story later but I chanced upon it again only on a Thai Airways flight three months ago (2016) and then thoroughly enjoyed it watching it again. Among the classics that my father took my brother and I to watch were ‘The Time Machine’ based on the book by HG Wells and ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’. The parents refused to take us for K Asif’s ‘Mughal e Azam’ because all unit officers and their wives wished to see it together without the children. An opportunity once missed comes several years later. Later I saw the full color version only in the 90’s. This was vintage 1960.
By 1961 I was a movie goer par excellence because the Staff College movie hall, incidentally the good old Sardar Patel Lecture Hall, provided film shows for children and the movies were the regular ones, not the ‘kiddy’ ones. I was decidedly bored with some romantic ones featuring Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant. It was the time of the macho star Steve Reeves in ‘Goliath and the Barbarians’ and ‘Spartacus in Chains’. The first real Western was watched at this time and it was a movie called ‘, Run on the Arrow’, followed up by the multi starrer – ‘The Big Country’.
The early to late Sixties saw me enter Sherwood Nainital where the movies were screened twice month with help of a single 16 mm projector; there were intervals whenever there was a break in the reel or a change of reels was needed. The 16-17 reels were usually rolled into three spools thus forcing only two programmed breaks. But the movies were out of the world. Sherwood was very nationalistic in outlook and always screened a Hindi film on Independence Day. ‘Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani’ was the first of these that I saw. During the 90 days long winter holidays it was one big movie watching relay that I was usually involved in. In 1963 I saw Kohinoor, the Dalip Kumar starrer, in 1964 it was Raj Kapoor’s ‘Sangam’. The latter was such a hit with its music that 14 of our senior boys had earlier ventured to see it at night by bunking from the school promises after placing well-formed dummies in their beds. They were caught and underwent a unique punishment of having to memorize 900 lines of poetry; why our revered Principal chose the figure of 900 has never ever been revealed.
Sherwood had a fine movie tradition. It arranged special shows at the local movie halls whenever a classic happened to be screened. The entire school trooped down and saw the movie together. There were other times when the movie was considered not so classic but good enough to be watched individually if we wished. The first few of the ‘greats’ I saw in this mode were ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Sound of Music’. More macho stuff was in the form of ‘633 Squadron’, ‘Guns of Navarone’, ‘Lost Command’. I am not sure why but Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra’ did not meet our Principal’s approval and I remained without seeing the classic till date. However, I am thankful that we were sent to town to watch Peter O Toole and Omar Sharif in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. The memory stayed and I could appreciate much better my own visit to Wadi Rum in the Jordanian desert many years later. Of course no movie recall is complete without Clint Eastwood’s great Dollar series ending with ‘Hang en High’
I shouldn’t create an impression that I was only a Hollywood admirer. At heart I was always desi. I loved Dev Anand’s ‘Guide’ (1966), Shammi Kapoor’s ‘Teesri Manzil’ and Dalip Kumar’s ‘Ram aur Shyam’. But the one which had all our hearts thumping was ‘An Evening in Paris’ starring Shammi and Sharmila Tagore. The producer did a publicity blitzkrieg by putting a bikini clad Sharmila on the cover of Filmfare and Young India went bonkers. The magazine was sold in black market for a major premium.
Entering college at the cusp of the 70’s it was a little more high-brow at St Stephen’s. It was the time when Chanakya theatre was inaugurated and Cinerama with the deep curved screen wowed Delhi. I watched the amazing Alec Guiness in ‘Cromwell’ and George C Scott as George S Patton in the epic ‘Patton’, all at Chanakya. Also some new world musicals like ‘Woodstock’ and family classics such as Sidney Poitier’s ‘Guess Who is Coming for Dinner’, which had the gracious presence of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. ‘The Night of the Generals’, with Peter O Toole and Omar Sharif.
Once into the Army, movie going was a great thing during courses in Mhow or Belgaum. In the mid-70s I was with my unit at Udaipur and in those days we had 21 officers to a unit compared to 10-11 today. Amitabh Bachchan was breaking ground with ‘Anand’, ‘Zanjeer’, ‘Deewar’, ‘Majboor’ and ‘Kabhi Kabhi’. His films remained favorites and once I was married in 1980 the passion for watching any Amitabh starrer became an obsession as my spouse was a fan and a true one at that. A few years later, she shook hands with him in Allahabad our home town, which Amitabh represented in the Lok Sabha in 1985. She threatened that she would not wash her hands thereafter. But while at Udaipur it was Sholay, seen many times over. Never left memory; the dialogues ever green as they were.
At the IMA in 1981-83, as a young Platoon Commander and newly married, movie going was again a pleasure. The IMA movie hall was still at the Shivalik Block S-16. Colour TV had just come into India and so we had options of TV, IMA films and the market. The films stuck to memory are ‘Insaf ka Tarazoo’, ‘Silsila’ and ‘Nikaah’. I cannot recall a Hollywood film of that time although we saw many. While at the Staff College Wellington, I was not a serious movie goer at all; the late 80’s were spent in Sri Lanka and then in turbulent Punjab. Yet, one can’t forget the un-forgettables that we saw on VHS tapes in the acquired craze of those days – the VCR. Madhuri in ‘Tezaab’, Anil Kapoor in ‘Ram Lakhan’. By this time Bollywood was obsessed with Sylvester Stallone and the movies based on Afghanistan – Rambo and the likes. As a late memory a recall is of The Towering Inferno and a string of disaster related films. There was less computer generation of visuals then and that is why one could marvel at the sets and the screenplay.
The 90’s saw me in and out of Delhi. PVRs had yet to emerge. Shiela, Odeon and Plaza were on their last legs. Chanakya was a shadow of its glorious past. The Hollywood bonanzas which come to mind are ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Titanic’. Among the Bollywood ones one enjoyed the early Shah Rukh efforts with Kajol and of course all the Madhuri movies.
By the turn of the Millennium I was clearly losing it. My interests were more into knowledge acquisition and less into entertainment. I stopped reading film magazines even for recreation and preferred only those films which had an Oscar connection; a sure sign of growing older and too mature for fun. Besides this I was far too involved in Kashmir which left me no time for films. A movie I really enjoyed was ‘Forest Gump’ with Tom Hanks becoming a favorite. That led me to see ‘Castaway’. ‘Black Hawk Down’ was seen because of my association with the UN Peacekeeping operations and then the viewing of ‘Hotel Rwanda’, a film I can see many times over because of the association I have with the fascinating country, Rwanda.
Among the finest films of the 90s which I only saw in the first decade of the new Millennium was ‘Bridges of Madison County’, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in a mature and touching love story. I would always recommend it to friends but also advise them to read the book before they see the film.
I am not a film junkie today but I do enjoy an odd movie and let me admit it I do prefer Hollywood for the technical excellence and acting and Bollywood for the music. The recent film ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ was enjoyable but the scene which took the cake was that of the Sufi qawwali at the end. I suddenly find I am veering towards Sufi music. Coke Studio’s Aik Alif left me enthralled.
So from a writer on strategic affairs and military issues it is always good to take a professional break and write on issues which have fascinated you. If you can do it only from memory, like I have done, then the pleasure is even more.
Happy movie going to all readers.