City City Bang Bang, Columns

Movies as memory devices

A long long time ago, i saw a film called Ek Khiladi Baawan Patte. As a piece of information, this can be of no possible interest to anyone, nor is it particularly significant even for me. What strikes me is that i remember this. It was an utterly forgettable film, starring Dev Kumar, an actor unlikely to stir too many memories in anyone. But the memory of seeing it is vivid- it was in a place called Jetpur in Gujarat about forty years ago. The memories include not just the film, but also the theatre, the fact that one saw the film several times over, because the uncle i was visiting was the local police head which meant that one could pretty much stroll in and out of the theatre as one pleased. There are other memories attached to the film, but to inflict any more tedium on the reader would be cruel. The point is that an utterly forgettable film was surprisingly quite memorable as an overall experience.

And this is by no means a one-off occurrence. Just how many memories get associated with films one has seen came home to me when perusing a year-by-year   list of all Hindi films released in the last 40 years. A list that brought back a flood of memories involving not just the films in question, but also about the sights, sounds, smells of the places one saw them in, the circumstances of one’s life at every moment in time, the people one saw the films with, the little details about the era, a little glimpse into one’s earlier version. It was perhaps the best trigger for a chronological account of one’s life, an archive of the self, made up of films both memorable and otherwise. The powerful role played by cinema in one’s life became more tangible. As did the fact that there was a time when one watched films with a cheerful lack of discrimination, and was none the worse for it.

A film (Himmatwala) where my extended Gujarati family carried a full South Indian meal (idlis, dosas, vadas, sambhar and coconut chutney), and passed it around in the middle of a movie. The liquid part of the entertainment was provided by some Rasna which was carried in a water bottle. A film (Khel Khel Mein) that my brother & I snuck into in the morning show after cutting school. Morning shows for kids under 16 were not allowed unless accompanied by adults, so we requested some random young men to become our older brothers. A film that my entire class was forced to watch, instead of the ‘adults’ film we wanted to see, because i was the one person who did not look old enough to pass muster as an adult. We saw Ankhiyon Ke Jharokhon Se instead of The Spy Who Loved Me.

Watching a film was a compendium of stories- where we saw it, with whom, how we managed the tickets, how we felt watching it, some memorable scenes, some not-so-memorable sequences that get inexplicably stuck in one’s head as well the arguments we had after watching it. We also capture the whiff of an era, tune into the career arcs of its actors, remember the kind of films being made at the time, chortle at the aesthetic in vogue- the clothes, hairstyles, sets, the emotional pitch in fashion and so on. The movie-going experience compresses many little films within itself, stories that connect the watched with the lived.

As cultural products, movies are among the most intelligible texts of our past. An object from the past carries memories, but is by itself inarticulate about the meaning it carries. Films on the other hand, have already been decoded for us, although in the act of remembering them, we create new meanings for them in retrospect. We remember movies through today’s emotions and through the lens of current sensibilities. The memories evoked have a 3-D quality; we can almost touch the times we have left behind. We find both our past and our present in the same place, inextricably linked up.

Songs too evoke an earlier time, but except in specific instances, the memories are of a less precise nature, probably because songs were heard repeatedly in different settings. Songs tend to evoke a more timeless kind of memory, of an era, of a kind of time in one’s life. One relives joys and re-enacts melancholy, rather than think of specific images. Some songs do instantly evoke Chitrahaar visuals, others carry some special meanings but overall songs awaken feelings rather than remembrances. In fact, songs can make us remember experiences we never had- an old film song from the 50s for instance makes us nostalgic about a time one never saw.

Even as we cling on to memories, memories need something to cling to. Memories gather around some junctions in our lives- points in time that rise above the surface of our lives and give memories a handle to hang on to.  At a time when our lives were without too much stimulation, movies played a key role in providing punctuation, adding some topography to the otherwise unremarkable landscape that was our life. By providing a common frame for memories to attach themselves to, films give our lives the sense of a journey, as we measure our own evolution through the films we watched.

Every film was like a trip to a strange and intensely bewitching time and place. Watching the film as a child was perhaps the most intense experience of all and we became children each time we saw a film. Although movies may not quite mean as much as they did it in an entertainment scarce time, they still manage to create ripples of memory around themselves. Everyone has a movie memory story to tell and bad films like Ek Khiladi Baawan Patte, perhaps make the best memories of all.

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