No outside food

 

The Coffee Cup café in London’s Hampstead has been in business since 1953, and has been very popular since I first remembered it in the early 1960s. I have visited it several times, but never before noticed the sign at its entrance, which reads: “Please do not bring food or drinks from outside into these premises.” This instruction is not seen frequently in restaurants and cafés in the UK. Seeing this sign reminded me of what is very common in eateries in India, namely, signs reading: “Outside food not allowed.” Customers are forbidden to bring into the estblishment food or drink they have obtained elsewhere. That is fair enough, I suppose.

Cinemas in India, like in many other countries, try to sell food and drink to their customers, often at outrageously high prices. Apparently, watching a film is for many people more enjoyable if you are stuffing popcorn into your mouth at the same time as spilling it on the floor in the dark.

Back in 2001, my family, my in-laws, and my wife’s brothers family went to watch the recently released Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham at a large cinema in Bangalore (India). After purchasing the tickets, we had to wait in a queue before all of our baggage, shopping baskets, handbags etc., were searched by uniformed security personnel. I wondered what these officials were looking for. Was it guns or explosives, I asked my sister-in-law after we had reached the auditorium. No, it was not that, she replied. They were looking for food and drinks brought from outside the cinema. She told me that outside food was not allowed into the cinema, and then showed me inside her shopping basket, All I could see was a shawl (some cinemas are too cool because of air-conditioning). She moved the shawl aside to reveal that her bag was filled with sufficient drinks and snacks to easily satisfy all eight of us during the three and a half hour film. So much for the security check! Had we been carrying anything more dangerous than ‘outside food’, this would have also been missed by the not so vigilant security people.

It is odd how a chance sighting of something like the sign in the Coffee Cup can bring back distant memories.

Bollywood in Albania

Films from India made in Bombay, the so-called Bollywood productions, are popular all over the world. When we visited post-Communist Albania in 2016, 31 years after the death of its long-time dictator Enver Hoxha, we encountered Albanian Bollywood fans in several places. The following three excerpts from my book “Rediscovering Albania” describe some incidences when we met local lovers of Bollywood.

In the northern town of Pukë:

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“Our shopping expedition continued in a tiny stationery/gift shop, where I bought a notebook. The sales lady wanted to know where we came from. When she learnt that Lopa came from India, she pointed at a small television set hidden under her counter. We saw that she was watching a Bollywood movie with Albanian subtitles. Every afternoon on Albanian television, there is an episode of a Bollywood TV soap opera. Those ‘in the know’ never ring ladies between certain hours in the afternoon so as not to disturb their enjoyment of this addictive show. The inter-continental cultural traffic is not one-way: in 2013, the Albanian actress Denisa Gokovi starred in a film (Phir Mulaquat Ho Na Ho) directed by the Indian Bobby Sheik.”

In the southern city of Korçë:

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“Weary and hot, we tried to retrace our steps back into the centre. Quite by chance, we began walking along a road that led straight to the Mirahorit mosque, which was closed when we arrived. However, some men were gathering outside it, and soon the imam arrived to unlock it for afternoon namaaz (prayers). They were all friendly and welcoming. While we were waiting, we were joined by a German lady, who was keen to see this mosque that dates back to 1496. Restored by a Turkish organisation in 2014, it was worth waiting to enter it. The interior was decorated with attractive frescoes depicting various mosques and Muslim pilgrimage places including the Kaaba.  One of the men who was waiting with us to enter the mosque asked Lopa where she was from. When she said India, he exclaimed “Rye Kapur”, that being his pronunciation of Raj Kapoor, a well-known Bollywood film star. As we had already discovered in Pukë, Bollywood is popular in Albania.”

In the large seaport of Vlorë:

ALBOLLY 1

“This small building of great historic importance was dwarfed by huge cranes and ocean-going freighters in the nearby port area. Its windows had slatted wooden shutters, and there was a balcony projecting over its main entrance. It was from this balcony that Ismail Qemal read the declaration of Albania’s independence in 1912. Vlorë, which was invaded by the Italians in 1914, was the country’s first capital. In 1920, Tirana assumed this role.

We were guided around the museum, and shown photos, documents, and furniture, connected with the historic events that occurred around 1912. Driton kindly translated our lady guide’s interesting commentary into English. Sadly, we were not permitted to stand on the historic balcony because it has become too fragile. As we moved from room to room, I noticed that our guide was becoming more and more interested in Lopa, touching her occasionally. At the end of the tour, she told us that she loves watching the Bollywood films and soap-operas broadcast on Albanian television. It was a pity, she said, that Lopa had not been dressed in a sari. Lopa’s arrival in the museum had meant a great deal to her. It was as if one of the characters in the films, which she enjoyed watching, had stepped out of her television and into her museum. She said that Lopa was the first female Indian visitor to the museum since she began working there eleven years earlier.”  

Prior to 1991, Albanians would not have been able to watch Bollywood or even Hollywood productions. Under the dictatorship created by Enver Hoxha, which lasted from 1944 until late1990, the Albanian population was almost completely isolated from external influences. A few people watched Italian TV at their peril. If discovered, they would have risked dire punishment. Today, everything has changed; Albania is wide open to foreign culture.

 

REDISC ALB cover

REDISCOVERING ALBANIA by Adam Yamey is available from:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, Kindle,

and your local bookshop (will need to be ordered)

The Red Balloon

The first film (movie) that I remember seeing was “The Red Balloon”. Directed by Albert Lamorisse (1922-70), a French film-maker, it was released in France in 1956, and then worldwide a year later, by which time I was five years old. After seeing the film, I was given a book with the story, which was illustrated by stills from the production.

Thinking back on it, the plot (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_Balloon), written for children, is a little bit  too sad for young children. Nevertheless, the short film won awards all over the world.

 

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My parents were not frequent cinema-goers. However, they took me to see the film at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. This cinema, which still exists, was first a drill hall, then a theatre, and in 1933 it became a cinema. I saw many more films there in my childhood and adolescence. Every year, there used to be a festival of Marx Brothers films. I loved these. In those days, the cinema’s auditorium had a strange smell that strongly resembled gas.  Indeed, there were gas lamps attached to the walls of the auditorium, but I am certain that I never saw them working. The Everyman is located in Holly Bush Lane, which is close to Hampstead Underground Station and is, I am told, now a very luxurious place. The seats are comfortable and have tables beside them, at which waiting staff serve food and drinks. This is a far cry from what I can remember of the rather basic cinema in the 1960s. Back in those days, the Everyman, like the now long-gone Academy cinemas in Oxford Street, favoured screenings of ‘arty’ films rather than the more popular films that most cinemas showed. My parents, who tended to avoid popular culture, probably selected the “Red Balloon”, an arty French film, because it was a little more recherché than the much more popular Disney films that appeared in the late 1950s.

BALLOON 3

The “Red Balloon” kindled my love of cinema. For a long while I preferred ‘off-the-beaten-track films’ of the sort that were shown at the Everyman and on the three screens of the Academy. I used to enjoy slow-moving films like Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee”, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”, and Wim Wender’s “Kings of the Road.” Now, my taste in film has changed dramatically.

The change began in mid-1993, shortly before marrying my wife, who is from India. She took me to meet an Indian couple, who lived in south London. After feeding us a great lunch, we watched the Bollywood film “Sholay”, which was released in 1975. After seeing this, I could not get enough of Bollywood films. Also, my love for slower-paced European and American films diminished.

BALLOON 2

What is it that attracts me to Bollywood films? First, they are colourful, lively, fast-paced, and filled with strong emotion, music and dancing: never a dull moment. They are also filled with meaning at various levels. There is the story, often complicated and ridiculously unlikely. Parts of the plot are often based on aspects of Hindu mythology. Then, the films often convey important moral or civic messages. For example, the 1977 film “Amar Akbar Anthony” is about inter-religious tolerance. More recently, the 2018 film “Padman” is about the importance of using disposable pads to promote women’s health.

I prefer to watch Bollywood films with subtitles, but great enjoyment can be gained without them. Many of the films have dialogue in Hindustani. However, many viewers in India have little or no understanding of this language. Therefore, the films are produced in such a way that much of the message of a film, maybe not the finer details, can be understood by people with no knowledge of Hindustani. In fact, Bollywood films are not only popular in India, but in many other countries of the world. Once some years ago, some Uzbek neighbours invited us for dinner. After serving us  a national dish, plov (like pilaff), they sat us in front of a television and played a DVD with a Bollywood film. They told us that this kind of film is very popular in Uzbekistan and, also, in most parts of the former Soviet Union.

Although I have come to love Bollywood films, I am not sure that they would have been to my parents’ taste. They never took me to see Disney films when I was too young to go alone. Had there been more ‘sophisticated’ children’s films like “The Red Balloon”, maybe I would have been taken to the cinema more often in my earliest years.

 

Image source: YouTube

Gandhi to Hitler

GTO H 2

On the 24th of December 1940 Mohandas Gandhi (the ‘Mahatma’) wrote to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Amongst other things that he wrote in his letter, the following extracts suffice to give the gist of it:

I hope you will have the time and desire to know how a good portion of humanity who have view living under the influence of that doctrine of universal friendship view your action. We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark. I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts. But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms.

But ours is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny. Our resistance to it does not mean harm to the British people. We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field. Ours is an unarmed revolt against the British rule. But whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation…

…During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attended to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.” (see: https://www.mkgandhi.org/letters/hitler_ltr1.htm).

I do not think that this unbelievable letter ever reached the Führer. However, it formed the basis for a film, which was on general release in India briefly.

G TO H

[Source: MensXP.com]

In 2011, an Indian film, “Gandhi to Hitler”, was put out on general release in India. One newspaper accorded it a rating of half a star out of five. We were staying in Bangalore when it was showing, and I was dying to see a film whose name juxtaposed the peace-loving Gandhi with the war-mongering Adolf Hitler.

Only one cinema was showing the film in Bangalore. It was a long way from where we were staying. We arrived for the 10 am performance and joined a long queue of school-aged children waiting at the box office of the cinema multiplex. When we reached the ticket office, I said to the ticket seller:

“Two for the Gandhi/Hitler film.”

“Not possible, sir,” came the reply.

“Why not?”

“I must sell three tickets before we can screen a film, and you are only two.”

“But,” I protested, “we have come all the way from London to see this film.”

I thought for a moment, and then said:

“Sell me three tickets, and then you can screen the film.”

The seller was happy with this. We walked over to the lift that would take us up to the cinema. While we were waiting, the ticket man came rushing up to us, waving one of the notes with which we had paid for our tickets. He had managed to find a third taker for the film and refunded our third ticket.

Apart from an usher, there were only three of us in the large auditorium. The film was so dreadful that it was quite amusing. The plot had three main strands that ran in parallel. The first was Gandhi and his followers walking endlessly around a lovely garden. One of the followers was the wife of a man, who appears in the second strand. This aspect of the plot revolved around a group of Indian soldiers who had joined the German Army but were trying to desert from it. For those who are unaware of it, some Indian soldiers did actually join the Wehrmacht during WW2, hoping that a German defeat of the British might hasten the independence of India. Throughout the film, this forlorn band of soldiers trudged through a snowy mountainous landscape that was supposed to be the Alps but looked more like the Himalayas. Somehow, quite inexplicably, the woman in India was able to correspond by letters with the soldier tramping through the ‘Alps’.

The third strand of the film, which had no obvious connection with the other two strands, was set in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin during the last days of the Third Reich. Anyone who has watched the excellent film “Downfall” (2004) would be able to see that the bunker in the Indian film is a very crude copy of that in the German film. Unlike Adolf Hitler, the man portraying him in the Indian film is a true Aryan, an Indian. Goebbels is played by a character who looks like an elegant Italian. The Indian Hitler kept forgetting which of his arms was supposed to be lame.

There was an interval half way through the film. We left the auditorium to stretch our legs. When we returned for the second half of the film, my wife and I were the only people left in the auditorium.

Chicken tikka in Tirana

This war written in mid-2016, following Adam Yamey’s visit to Albania

ALB 1

Tirana

Between 1944 and 1990, the tiny Balkan country Albania was governed by a Stalinist dictatorship. During that period, it was more isolated from the outside world than North Korea is today. My Indian wife, Lopa, and I visited the country in June 2016. We were open to surprises, but never imagined that we would discover what I am about to describe, namely some Indian connections.

The small town of Pukë is in the north of the country. Hardly visited by tourists, it is a pleasant place at a high altitude. During our visit there, we entered a small gift shop to buy a notebook. The shop-keeper looked at Lopa, and asked where she was from. When we said India, she pointed at a small television screen beneath the counter. We saw that she was watching something from Bollywood, but with Albanian sub-titles.

ALB 2 Vlora

Vlore museu,

Some days later, we were in the coastal city of Vlorë, visiting the house where on the 28th November 1912, the independence of Albania (after about 500 years of Ottoman domination) was declared. We were shown around the building, which is now a museum, by a lady who spoke only Albanian. An Albanian friend translated. As we moved from room to room, we noticed that the lady was becoming more interested in Lopa than the Independence of Albania. She kept touching Lopa and even hugged her from time to time. At the end of the tour, she asked Lopa why she was not wearing something like a sari as the actors in the Bollywood films do on the television shows that she loved.  A devotee of Bollywood soap operas, she was thrilled to have a real live Indian in her museum. She told us that Lopa was the first Indian women to visit her museum in the 11 years that she had been working there.

Later, we learnt that Bollywood television soap operas are extremely popular in Albania, especially amongst women viewers. The shows are usually broadcast in the afternoon, so a ‘savvy’ person knows better than to ring an Albanian woman during the hour that such shows are on-air.

ALB 3 Korce

Mosque in Korce

Love of Bollywood is not confined to Albanian women. In the southern city of Korçë, we were visiting an old (15th century) mosque, when an elderly man, who was just about to enter to do ‘namaaz’, saw Lopa, and asked if she was Indian. On hearing the answer, he exclaimed: “Rye Kapur”, which was his way of pronouncing Raj Kapoor.

Judging from the excitement that Lopa evoked when meeting Albanians, we guessed that there were probably few or even no Indians in Albania. Our guesswork ended when we met Vijay in the foyer of the National Museum in Albania’s capital Tirana. Vijay, who hails from southern India, lives and works in Albania with his family. He was waiting for his son to return from cricket practice. We were surprised to hear that cricket is being played in a country which has not ‘enjoyed’ the effects of British colonial influence. Vijay told us that not only were ‘ex-pats’ involved in cricket in Tirana, but also Albanians. There is an Englishman who has been training members of Tirana’s rugby club to play cricket. In late June this year, the Albanian team beat the ex-pat’s team by one run.

On the next day, we met Vijay, who teaches computing to Albanians in Albanian, with his family at a café. His wife had specially prepared some Indian snacks for us: chicken tikka and some aloo bhajjis. While we were sitting chatting, another Indian, Vicki, wandered past and joined us. Vicki was working for an Indian mining company, but has recently returned to India having spent a few years in Albania. When we had spent time with our new Indian friends, we got up but before saying farewell, they invited us for lunch the next day.

Apart from having been very fortunate to have ‘bumped’ into Vijay and his family and friends, we were very lucky to have met any Indians at all in Albania. This is because there are currently only about 50 Indians in Albania, and some of them are Mother Teresa nuns.

The following day, we met Vijay and Vicky in the centre of Tirana. A car pulled up, and we all piled in. The car was driven by yet another Indian, Father Oscar who runs Tirana’s large Roman Catholic Don Bosco establishment. He drove us out to Vijay’s flat on the edge of the city. There, we were confronted with a superb warm buffet prepared by Vijay’s wife. As I served myself with chicken biryani, dal, chappatis, channa, and so on, I had to pinch myself to believe that I was not imagining eating home-cooked Indian food in Albania.

PS: Finally, for those with Indian passports who wish to visit Albania, the nearest Albanian embassy to India, we were told by an Albanian diplomat, is in Beijing (China).