Amar, Akbar, Anthony And Paswan Da.

Paswan da was our friendly neighbourhood rickshawala. He came to the rescue when school buses were missed; elderly relatives who didn’t trust scooters needed a lift to the nearest bus station and for various other trips around town. Paswan da was also quite resourceful.  During the thunderous monsoon season, travelling by rickshaws meant the moment the heavens opened up, one would get drenched in an instant. But Paswan da had come up with an innovative solution for rainy days. He had rigged a plastic apparatus that covered his rickshaw totally with a single flamboyant flick of his wrist. He used to proudly proclaim ‘You might get wet before you get into my rickshaw, or after you get out of it, but when you are inside it you will be as dry as a leaf in winter’. He was very happy when I named his rickshaw ‘Duckback Rickshaw’. These are events that happened in an idyllic era called the eighties in a small sleepy town called Jorhat in Assam.

In the evenings, Paswan da would be found at the Rhino Cinema Hall, a popular theatre in an army cantonment. Though it was meant for the armed forces, civilians were also allowed. Since the agricultural university colony where I lived was only a couple of km away from Rhino Cinema, many would give their trusted Bajaj Chetaks a break and instead engage Paswan da’s services for the evening. An arrangement that suited him fine. He not only had a confirmed to and fro fare but also made himself part of the conversation between the filmgoers, which after the film, usually revolved around the film, rather than how the cost of rohu fish has gone up in the local haat (bazaar). Paswan da would gently prod and ask questions regarding the film as he pedaled away. After a couple of trips, he could describe almost every scene of the film without getting into sniffing distance of the oily samosas served in Rhino Hall’s lobby. This retelling of the film in bits and pieces would be done near my bus stop to an appreciative audience comprising of the other rickshawalas. Many a time, I’d get down from the school bus and spend a few pleasant minutes listening to Paswan da’s animated description of the latest film playing at Rhino Cinema. And if he was in a really good mood, he would would borrow a cigarette from Om Groceries and would act out the famous dialogue from Vishwanath starring Shatrughna Bhaiyya - Jali ko aag kahte hain, bujhi ko raakh kahte hain, jis raakh se barood bane usey Vishwanath kahte hain." He would then return the cigarette back. Paswan da was a non-smoker.

Other than keeping aside a small amount for his expenses, Paswan da used to send all his earnings to his family in Bihar. He would, however, save up a little amount of money for his one indulgence in a month – a film at Rhino Cinema.

Maybe it was red tape. Maybe there were budget issues. Maybe somebody found some perverse
pleasure in it. But Rhino Cinema only screened films that were at least five to ten years old. For example, Manmohan Desai’s classic ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ was released in 1977. But by the time it graced Rhino Cinema’s screen, it was 1986. So, yes, popular films. But really dated films. But this little fact did little to curb the enthusiasm of people in the neighbourhood who flocked to the theatre to watch the histrionics of Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor.  Amongst them was Paswan da too. He was so impressed by Amitabh Bachchan’s famous mirror scene after getting a royal walloping by Vinod Khanna, that he did something unprecedented – he watched the film for a second time. In his words, it was a total paisa wasool film.

However, watching a film was a highly researched decision. Paswan da would weigh the different opinions and reviews about the film heard while ferrying passengers and then take an educated decision. If the film was not worth it, he would skip it for that month and the money allotted would go into his savings. As he liked to explain in his own inimitable manner, ‘Why should I spend my hard-earned money to watch my own hard life on the big screen. Watching such films only makes my heart grow heavier.’ This was a lesson learnt from watching a film called ‘Gaman’, a film that revolved around a taxi driver (Farooq Shaikh) who left his ailing mother and wife in U.P. to earn a living in Bombay. The film ends with Farooq Shaikh driving around Bombay without being able to go back to his family. Paswan da knew from his research that the film didn’t really end on a happy note. But he still went ahead as he heard that the film depicted the plight of migrant workers. By the time the film ended, he was extremely upset. He later confessed that he cried for many nights after watching the film.

But the antics of Amar, Akbar and Anthony always kept him smiling.

As the era of the Ambassadors, Premier Padminis and Maruti 800’s gave way to the Ford Figos and the Hyundai i10s, the shift in social mores started getting reflected in films too. Single theatres turned multiplexes ensured the emergence of a different breed of filmmakers who started making films they believed in, to varying degrees of success. However, mass entertainers, more often than not, still continued to score heavily at the box office. But this was something that never found favour with critics or the intelligentsia. The humour, the performances, the action sequences, the song and dance numbers, the lack of a plot. Nothing was safe from being ridiculed. And now with the proliferation of social media platforms, it has become the norm to start bashing this genre of films from the time the trailers are released. What’s even more vexing is that most of these social media critics would even go for these films and then again moan about their experience online. If one cannot make the distinction between a Housefull and a Gangs of Wasseypur, then one is really not qualified to froth online about money wasted on a ticket. 

It’s simple. Masala entertainers are not made with the intention of satisfying the finer sensibilities of cinephiles. They are made with the single-minded purpose of getting crowds in the theatres by applying the lowest common denominator factor.

For many like Paswan da, a cinema ticket is a ticket to a fantasy world. For three hours or so, they can leave their worries far behind as they laugh at Shah Rukh Khan’s clumsy attempt to fight a villain three sizes bigger (Chennai Express) than him or cheer wildly as Akshay Kumar uses a row of trucks as a jogging track (Boss). They are not bothered whether it is meaningful cinema. All they are concerned with is that for an all-too-brief period of time, they forget the tables they have to clean, the taxis they have to drive and the streets they have to sweep. Only a paisa-wasool film can help them achieve this state of mind.

I had once taken a friend who ticks all the right ‘intellectual’ boxes, to a film festival to watch Roman Polanski’s ‘Knife In The Water’, an intense film that revolves around three characters on a boat. A much-acclaimed classic that left my friend cold. Earlier in the day, he had a presentation that went horribly wrong. A presentation that he was working on for two weekends in a row. All he could say later was ‘I wish we had gone for Apna Sapna Money Money instead. I desperately wanted something to take my mind off the presentation. Something fun.’ Apna Sapna Money Money made money not because of its content, or lack thereof, but because it also made white-collar workers take their minds off hard-to-please clients, missed deals and botched presentations. Mentioning ‘Knife in the water’ and ‘Apna Sapna Money Money’ in the same sentence might get film enthusiasts get their hackles up. But the truth is, the world out there doesn’t really care much about what you and I think.
In short, keep calm and watch the films you want to. And let others like Paswan da enjoy a few hours of escapism without getting the country's history and culture into it.