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Cinemaya I

Wisdom, it is said, is bestowed upon you when you least expect it…

It was early evening; the western sky was panorama of myriad colours. I was having a cup of tea in a shanty-shop at the Fulchokdubi bus-stop, waiting for the last bus that would bring me back to Kolkata – a journey of more than two hours. Fulchokdubi, situated on the banks of the river Matla, is a non-descript hamlet where marginal farmers eke out a meagre living cultivating the mono-crop saline soil of the Sunderbans and catching fish and tiger-prawn hatchlings from the treacherous and moody river. The chaiwallah, whose brother was one of the conductors of the bus, informed me that the bus would be late by more than an hour as it had developed some minor snags. Finishing my tea, I started walking down the road to while away the time. A couple of hundred yards down the road I noticed a thatched hall-like building made of bamboo and wood. On it was a billboard – “Video Hall” it proclaimed. Faded lithographs of B-grade Hindi films adorned the bamboo walls. A middle-aged man wearing high power spectacles sat on a stool in front of the door, the patrons paid him the entrance fees and went inside. Thinking that a garbage movie would be an ideal time-pass I approached the man and asked him the price of the tickets. The man looked at me with incredulousness and suspicion. “Are you sure you want to want watch this film,” he asked, “Aren’t you the babu from Kolkata who was taking photographs of our village school?” I told him I was bored and had an hour to kill. The man winked, “Oh! You are bored! Then you might as well…” I paid him five bucks and went inside…

There were about twenty men sitting on a tattered jute mat. The hall was lit by a shaded 100watt lamp that created an eerie chiaroscuro. A crumpled white sheet flanked by two huge speakers served as the screen. A man sat beside a table on which a DVD player and projector were kept. He kept a count of the audience and from time to time kept glancing at his watch. The air was filled a strange expectancy and bidi smoke; the person lying half-prone beside me reeked of country liquor. A group of teenaged boys walked in stealing furtive glances. I could feel that the people were pretty surprised and curious to see a city babu among themselves but they kept quiet. A few more people trickled in and after ten minutes the man sitting at the ticket-counter came inside and shut the asbestos sheet door. The lights were switched off; murky white light flickered on the screen; the drunk lying by my side sprung to attention as the projectionist put the DVD on fast-forward mode in order to skip past the colour bar and the promos. Seconds later, he put it on normal mode and the opening credits of the film ‘A Threesome In Paradise’ superimposed on the image of a yacht sailing in the deep blue see floated in along with its soft jazz soundtrack muted down to an extreme. From the names I realized that the film was from the land of Ingmar Bergman but the camera lingering lovingly over the voluptuous bodies of two bikini clad blondes told me that this film was of a different genre altogether…

As the two women settled into their erotic gymnastics, I glanced around to have a feel of the audience reaction to these taboo images. In the eerie light of the screen I saw that the men were transfixed by the actions on the screen, submersed in own private worlds yet bound to each other by the complicity of communion and thrill of illicit pleasure. That the settings and actors of the film were completely alien to their existence hardly mattered; the fact that none of them had ever met a Caucasian did not interfere in their enjoyment of the bodies of these Nordic Amazons. Someone lit up a bidi, there was muted collective groan of discontent; in the fleeting light I noticed that a bald-stocky middle-aged man sitting near me had taken off his shirt, hitched up his dhoti and was fondling his privates. The teenaged boys were gazing at the screen in rapt attention, their mouths agape; my drunken neighbour gave me a little nudge and asked me for matches. I handed it over, he fished out a bidi packet from the folds of his dhoti and offered me one with a smile. I took the bidi; he lighted the match and we lit up. A wise smile appeared on his wiry weather-beaten face; he winked and whispered, “Black or white, it doesn’t matter …a naked woman is a naked woman… Isn’t that true, Babu? I nodded; we both turned our gaze back to the screen and into our own private, primal worlds….

Minutes passed; a hunk joined the two babes; more bidis were lit up; the bald Onanist sank deeper into his reverie; a few coughs punctured the monotony of the muted ‘muzak’ mixed with grunts of pleasure, and the roar of the generator kept outside the hall. I glanced at my watch and realized my time was up. I walked up to the exit and the ticket-collector opened the door with a grin. I stepped out and took a deep breath of the fresh, salty air. As I lit a cigarette and walked back to the bus-stop, I recalled that Roman Polanski in his memoirs mentions that he and a couple of friends in the Lodz Film School had screened a few reels of Pre World War I German erotica in the context of that eternal debate – form versus content. Polanski confesses that even though the images were extremely clichéd and of very poor quality he and his friends had enjoyed them thoroughly and so had decided that content was indeed the king … substance over form…!!

Walking down the moonlit village road I muttered, “Yes Boss!”

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