THE HIMALAYA PALACE cinema in the London suburb of Southall, an area where many people of Punjabi descent live, showed only Bollywood films from India, usually the latest releases. Being keen on these films, we often made the long trip from our home to Southall to watch them. During our regular visits to India, always including Bangalore, we take time to see Bollywood films in the country where they are created.
We were in Bangalore in December 2001 when the blockbuster film “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (ie ‘sometimes happy, sometimes sad’) was released all over India. We were staying with my in-laws, and everyone decided that we had to see it.
We chose a cinema near the famous Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR), a long established popular eatery in Bangalore. It was decided that we should have breakfast there before seeing a morning screening of the film. So popular is MTR, that queuing is always required before getting a table. It was my first visit to this highly esteemed place and I hope my last. Everything we were served was almost dripping with ghee, which is part of its attraction for its many fans.
The cinema was a few steps from MTR. After buying tickets, we had to wait in another queue. This one was to await one’s turn to have bags searched by security personnel. I thought this was to prevent weapons and bombs from entering the auditorium, but it was not. The security people were searching for food and drinks. So-called ‘outside food’ could not be brought into the cinema because it risked reducing the sales of overpriced snacks and drinks sold by the cinema.
When we reached our seats, my sister-in-law showed me her basket, lifted a shawl within it, and revealed the sandwiches and other snacks beneath. So inefficient were the security people that they had not delved into the bag with any seriousness of purpose.
Before the film started, my sister-in-law offered me and the rest of the family rolls of compacted cotton wool rather like those that dentists stuff into patients’ cheeks to dry the mouth. She said we might need them because the volume of the soundtrack would be very high. I declined them, and enjoyed the full impact of the sound.
At the Himalaya in Southall before the start of any film, a sign would be projected. It said something like:
“Please do not talk during the performance.”
This was a pointless exhortation because at the Himalaya the soundtrack was played so loud that even if you screamed at your neighbour, they would not have heard you.
Sadly, the Himalaya Palace (built 1929) is no longer a cinema. It closed in 2010. When we last visited Southall a few years ago, the Chinese style front of the Himalaya, complete with dragons, still existed, but its interior had become a covered market.
Nowadays, well at least before the pandemic arrived, we watch Bollywood films that are shown regularly (at least one per week) at a Vue cinema in London’s Shepherd Bush.
Providing you miss the Friday and Saturday screenings of the latest releases, the audiences are usually minute, often less than ten people in an auditorium that can seat well over 150 people. Even before the pandemic, social distancing was the norm during the screenings because empty seats usually greatly outnumbered occupied ones.
Most Bollywood films are long, usually over two and a half hours. So, there is an interval during their screening. The point at which the interval occurs is chosen by the film maker to leave the audience at a point of high suspense in the story.
Once during an interval at a Bollywood screening at the Vue, we sat in the almost empty cinema and heard two ladies, sitting several rows in front of us, chatting in Italian. Out of curiosity, we asked them in Italian why they had chosen to see a Bollywood film. Their reply surprised us.
The two women were members of an Akshay Kumar fan club in Calabria in the far south of Italy. They had only ever before seen films starring Akshay on video screens. They were staying far away from Shepherds Bush in Dulwich when, to their delight, they discovered that the film we were watching, starring Akshay, was being screened in Shepherds Bush. They had come to see one of Akshay’s films on the ‘big screen’ for the first time.
Bollywood’s films have captured the hearts of people all over the world. They were even popular in the former USSR. When we visited Albania in 2016, we discovered that they, as well as Indian TV soap operas, had captured a significantly large audience of Albanians. These films would not have been shown in Albania prior to the downfall of its Stalinist style regime in 1991.
Until it is safe to do so again, my wife and I will have to enjoy armchair screening of our Bollywood DVDs. Enjoyable as these are, they are an incomplete substitute for ‘in your face’ full blast performances in a cinema auditorium.