Atlantic crossing

I CAN ONLY FIND ONE photograph taken on board the SS France when we sailed from Southampton to New York City in September 1963. I do not know who took the picture and why I seem to have no photographs taken during the four months we spent in the USA that year. However, I do recall aspects of that voyage across the Atlantic, and I will share these with you.

FRANCE BLOG

My dear Uncle Felix gave me a present before we left London. It was a pocket-size set of tools (screwdrivers, a miniature saw, etc.) held together on a hinge. I thought that it might prove to be very useful if I became trapped in a cabin while the ship was sinking. Years before, my friend Charles S had recommended that I kept a small notebook and pencil in my pyjama pocket, just in case I was kidnapped – a prospect that used to fill me with fear. Charles’ idea was that, equipped with the writing material, one could send notes to rescuers in the (unlikely in my case) event of being kidnapped. I was, as you might be beginning to realise, a cautious little boy.

Soon after boarding the liner, which had been selected amongst others because my mother had learnt that the vessel had been fitted with the most advanced stabilisers, we looked around. When we reached the ship’s cinema, we poked our heads in and saw (on the screen) a parade of scantily dressed women parading round a pool. My mother pulled my sister and me out of the auditorium to protect us from seeing something she thought inappropriate for our tender young eyes (I was only eleven and my sister younger). The film being shown was “Scheherazade”. 

We set sail in the evening. Our first night was horrendous. As we crossed the Irish Sea and entered the Atlantic, the sea was exceedingly rough. My mother, my sister, and I became terribly sea-sick, despite the state-of-the-art stabilisers. None of my mother’s strong sea-sickness tablets had any effect on her. She insisted on summoning the ship’s doctor, a French man. She told him that she had read that there was an injection for countering seasickness, which had been recently developed, and she wanted that immediately. The doctor had not heard of this wonder cure. However, my mother, a forceful personality at the best of times, insisted on having it. She was not taking ‘no’ or even ‘non’ as an answer. I am sure that the doctor was beginning to regret having come to her aid. In the end, he gave in, and gave her an injection. It may have only been saline, but my mother was happier although no less seasick.

My father was the only member of our family who felt well enough to face lunch in the ship’s dining room. When he arrived there, he was one of a small handful of passengers who felt well enough to have an appetite. After that first night, we sailed through calm waters for four gloriously sunlit days.

During the day, my parents lazed on sun-loungers on a deck. My father is a keen amateur art historian. In his spare time, he read the academic journals, like the Burlington Magazine and the Art Bulletin, which professional art historians read and in which they published learned articles. He might well have been reading one of these, when he turned his head and noticed that a man on the lounger next to his was reading an art historical monograph, which he had read recently. He began speaking to his neighbour. Dad was very excited to discover that he was lounging next to the art historian Leopold Ettlinger (1913-1989), a specialist in the art of the Italian renaissance, the period which fascinated my father most. Leopold and his then wife, Helen, were on their way to the USA to take up a temporary position in an American university, as was my father. My parents struck up a friendship with the Ettlingers, who came to stay with us in Chicago on the weekend immediately following the assassination of President JF Kennedy.

I cannot remember what my sister did during the days we spent on board, but I recall what I did. Far from soaking up the sun, I spent most of the daylight hours in darkness, in the ship’s comfortable cinema. Every day, a different film was screened, several times each day. Except at mealtimes, I watched the same film again and again each day. Two of these films, both filmed in black and white, stick in my mind although I have long forgotten their titles.

One of them, which might have had a title like “The Siege of Altona” concerned a German (maybe a Nazi), who had locked himself inside a flat in the Hamburg suburb of Altona. It was a very moving psychological drama, something that my mother might not have thought suitable for her eleven-year-old son.

The other film was a French comedy. I have not the slightest memory of its title. It concerned two thieves, who robbed locked collection boxes in churches.  Their method was ingenious even if not particularly efficient. The thieves first sucked thin circular toffees attached to long threads. After sucking one, ta toffee was lowered through the coin slot until it touched the coins. When the sweet touched a coin, the latter would stick to the toffee. Then using the thread, the coin and toffee where carefully removed from the collection box. The film worked towards it climax when the thieves conceived an improved method. They arrived in a church with a vacuum cleaner. Attached to its hose was a long thin plastic piece that fitted into the slots on the collection boxes. The thieves inserted this nozzle, turned on the machine, and were able to suck all the coins from a box. However, this discovery coincided with greater police in the activities of this duo. I cannot remember how the film finished, but the two crooks did not come out well in the end. I would love to see this film again. So, if any of you, dear readers, have any idea of its title, please do let me know.

We docked at a quay on the west side of Mahattan. Soon after that, we visited our old friends, the late Cyril and Elaine Sofer, in their holiday home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Cyril had been a friend of my father’s since they were both young in Cape Town. Elaine outlived him. She was, incidentally, the first person to make a Bloody Mary for me (not in 1963, but much later, I hasten to add). Leopold Ettlinger, Cyril and Elaine Sofer, and my mother are no more, nor is the SS France. It made its last voyage in 2008, when it docked at the breakers’ yards in Alang (Gujarat, India), where it was broken up for scrap.  

Himalaya Palace

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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.

The kiss

SHE LAY ON A RUG on the well-trimmed lawn of the Ootacamund (Ooty) Golf Club, propped up by one of her elbows. Dressed in a colourful sari, her long black hair was partly hidden by a picnic box filled to the brim with fruit. There was a thermos flask and a cylindrical container for warm food next to and in line with the fruit filled box.

Soon, a bespectacled young man with well coiffured hair and dressed in a white shirt with brown trousers began crawling towards the lady’s feet. Then, he manoeuvred his body over her knees and towards her face. Then, just as he was about to kiss her, both of these figures lowered themselves so that their heads were hidden from view by the picnic box, the hot food storage and the thermos flask.

This amorous couple were neither alone nor unobserved. Apart from my wife and me, local women carrying unwieldy bundles of wood on their heads passed by. Also, the couple were surrounded by a large film crew with lights and cameras.

Soon after their heads disappeared from sight, they reappeared as the film director came running towards them. He talked to them and they repeated what we had just watched after a man with a clapperboard bearing the film name “Andaz” had stood close to them for a few seconds.

“Andaz”, a Bollywood film, was released in April 1994. By chance we had stumbled on this outdoor film shooting in January 1994 during our honeymoon, part of which was spent in Ooty.

In 1994, and certainly until quite recently, intimate displays of affection were not included in Bollywood and other Indian films. What we saw in rehearsal was one of many ways from which film audiences would be saved from seeing an intimate moment. At the moment the audience would expect the male actor was about to plant a kiss on the young lady, they disappear from sight behind the picnic items. Nowadays, the audiences in India get to watch the intimate moment, often in surprising detail for someone, like me, used to watching the older more prudish Bollywood productions.

Although my love of Bollywood films began around 1994, seeing this scene being shot only increased my affection for them. My addiction to Bollywood films began in 1993 when in London some Maharashtrian friends of my wife-to-be insisted that watching the Bollywood film “Sholay” (1975) was important for acclimatising me to the Indian milieu I was about to marry into.

Although many of the latest Bollywood films are extremely good, my preferences is for the older ones. Though often with very complex plots, they have, I believe, an enjoyable innocence that transports the audience temporarily away from the harsh realities of the world beyond the walls of the cinema. Many of the more recent films do the opposite: they remind the audience of the problems they are facing.

My artistic mother

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My late mother died at the age of 60 in 1980. Her mother, who was born late in the 19th century in South Africa, held an old-fashioned opinion that girls should not attend university however bright they were. My mother would certainly have been able to cope with a university course of study, but, instead, she enrolled in the prestigious Michaelis  School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Founded in 1925, it is now ironically a department of the University of Cape Town.

Mom studied commercial art. Her first employment was hand painting posters, advertising cinema films. When I began visiting India in the 1990s, many film posters were still being painted by hand. Often, we saw workers perched on rickety bamboo scaffolding, painting the details of huge posters. Two years ago while visiting Bhuj in Kutch (part of Gujarat), we found a workshop where two men produced hand painted posters. They told us that the demand for these was dying out rapidly. It is interesting to note that, like my mother, the great Indian artist MF Hussain began his creative life as a painter of cinema posters.

Returning to my mother, she designed and painted advertising material for the Red Cross in Cape Town during WW2. In 1947, she followed her fiancé, my father, to the UK. She married in 1948, and I arrived a few years later. According to my father, Mom took painting classes with the the famous Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).  Sometime after that, she began creating sculptures.

When I was born, I had a torticollis (twisting of muscles of the neck beyond their normal position) that caused my head to be bent to one side. At that time in the early 1950s, the doctors told my mother that there was nothing to be done about this, and we would just have to live with it. My feisty mother refused to believe this. Every day, she manipulated my head and neck and gradually corrected the situation. Whether it was this manipulation that caused my mother to become a sculptor, I cannot say. However, one of her first sculpures was a terracotta mother and child, which she reproduced much later as an alabaster carving (see photo above).

When I was a young child, my mother used to attend the sculture studios at the St Martin School of Art in London’s Tottenham Court Road. She was not a student; she used the facilities and received advice from other sculptors including Philip King and Antony Caro. At that time, she became a close friend of the sculptor Dame Elizabeth Frink, who visited our home regularly. At St Martins, Mom learnt how to weld and work with metal. She created several quite attractive abstract metal artworks. Being a perfectionist, she destroyed much of what she made, but not before having it photographed by a competent photographer. Sadly, these photos have gone missing.

By the time I was a teenager, my mother had ceased working at St Martins, possibly not of her own volition. She rented a large garage in Golders Green and used it as a studio, where she created huge abstract sculptures in timber. She found working on her own to be lonely. However, without the benefit of proper lifting equipment, she produced quite a few sculptures.

Around about 1970, Mom began complaining of back pains, which she thought were the result of the heavy work she was doing in her garage. She abandoned the garage and more or less stopped creating any artworks except for a very few abstract pen and ink drawings, which she considered good enough to be framed.

The back pains continued. My mother became disillusioned with the contemporary art scene. She was familiar with the great renaissance  works of art which she visited every year in Florence (Italy), and comparing these with what she and her contemporaries were producing added to her disinclination to produce any more art of her own. For the last ten years of her life, Mom continued to search (unsuccessfully) for an interest to replace the creation of art. Tragically, she died young because of a cancer, which might well have been contributing to her long-lasting back pain.

Whatever the reason, if an artist loses the urge to create, it must produce a huge hole in his or her life, something like losing a loved one.

Drama at the theatre

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In the past, I preferred watching films (‘movies’) to attending live drama at the theatre. Now, my preferences have reversed. In live theatre there is an interraction between the actors on stage and the audience. Good actors engage the audience  psychologically and almost physically. And, I suspect that the actors are also engaged by the audience – its attentiveness, its reactions (facial and otherwise), and other signs of the audience’s feelings provoked by their actions. So great is that interaction between performers and the audience that often I leave the theatre at the end of a performance feeling physically exhausted. Even with superb cinema productions, I never feel as gripped by the performance as I do whilst watching live theatre.

Having stated the above, I am now going to be a bit critical. I have watched many live performances of drama on stage, much of which was excellent. However, I have noticed that in some plays, the first (opening) act is often very weak compared with what follows later. On several occasions, I have walked out of the theatre because a play’s first act or first half has been unpromising. This is sad because now I know that many plays improve as they progress.

I cannot understand why so many plays have weak opening scenes. If I were reading a book and the first 10 or 20% of its pages did not capture my attention, I would abandon the idea of reading it through to its end. Why do so many people remain in the theatre when the opening act is unpromising? Is it because they have paid so much for the tickets? Or, is it because they, like me, have realised that most plays take time to build up to an engaging/enjoyable momentum?

Recently, I saw a play “Amsterdam” by Mayur Arad Yasur at the Orange Tree Theatre at Richmond (SW London). From its first moment, neither the actors nor the play were able to engage me. The same seemed to be the case for several other members of the audience, who walked across the stage and out of the auditorium within a few minutes of the play’s beginning.

Mercifully, about half way through the performance, which did nothing to make me forget the discomfort caused by my seat – it did the opposite, there was a technical hitch. The performance was paused, and some member of the theatre staff mumbled something, which I imagine was to notify us of the hitch. After almost 10 minutes during which no further information was given to the by now restive audience, I decided to follow the actors backstage to find out what was going on. Only then, did someone come out on to the stage to give some information. As what we had already seen of the play had been so unbearable and there seemed to be no sign that the performance would be resumed in the near future, we walked out. Had the play been more enjoyable or in some way worthwhile, we would have waited for it to continue.

Well, you cannot win every time. For each disaster such as “Amsterdam”, we have have seen plenty of highly satisfactory plays.

Critics: can we trust them?

Many of us have great faith in reviews of artistic events such as film, theatre, and other performances.  Can one trust professional critics and reviewers? Do their tastes match yours? If they do not and you follow their reccommendation, you must be prepared for an anti-climax.

 

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A rave five star review

Great expectation

Sometimes disappointment

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.

A theatre resurrected…

Early in November 2018, I saw the opening performance of a new production of “Love Lies Bleeding” by Don de Lillo, which was premiered in 2005, at the Print Room in London’s Notting Hill Gate. The play deals with the question of euthanasia in a situation of a person with persistent vegetative state. The playwright deals with moral and other questions relating to this in a sensitive way. As with most Print Room productions I have seen, the acting was superb, at times gripping.

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The Print Room theatre began its life in 2010 in a converted printers’ warehouse in Hereford Road, close to Westbourne Grove. We attended several excellent performances there, seated on not very comfortable chairs. In summer the warehouse, which was poorly ventilated, could become very hot. I remember watching “The Kingdom of the Earth” by Tennessee Williams one hot May evening. The heat in the theatre complimented the seediness of the characters. A year or two ago, the Print Room shifted to the Coronet in Notting Hill Gate.

When I began living near this place, the Coronet was a cinema. It was the last cinema in London to permit smoking in the auditorium. Smokers had to sit in the balcony seats, not in the stalls below them. The cinema had two screens, the larger of which was in what looked like an Edwardian theatre. Indeed, the Coronet started life as a theatre when it was opened in late 1898 (see: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/CoronetTheatreNottingHillGate.htm).    It was designed by a theatre architect WGR Sprague (1863-1933). Eighteen years later, the theatre began to be used as a cinema. Many of its original features were retained. By 1923 it became a full-time cinema.

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In 1972, the Coronet was threatened with demolition. It was saved and made subject to conservation regulations following local residents’ successful protests. In 1993, when I first came to live close to the Coronet, the cinema looked run down but romantically picturesque. The local Kensington Temple Church bought the Coronet in 2004, planning to use it as a place of worship (as has happened with so many former cinemas in London). As a digression, it is interesting to note that cinemas in London have been converted to churches, whereas in Communist Albania the reverse was true during its period of official atheism.

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The Kensington Temple spruced up and restored the Coronet, but kept it running as a cinema. They used it occasionally as a place where their congregation could listen to preachers. Once on a Sunday morning I passed the Coronet, whose doors were open, and looked into the auditorium where a very enthusiastic clergyman was rousing his lively audience.

The Coronet cinema closed in 2014. It had been bought by the Print Room, which had shifted from Hereford Road. Thus, the Coronet became a theatre once more. The Print room have preserved many of the decorative features of the original theatre but have made some major internal modifications. A new stage has been built to cover the space where the original lower level stalls were once. This stage extends to the lower level of the raked seating that had formerly been the original theatre’s Dress Circle. The seats in this Circle have become the new auditorium. Although much has been done to preserve original features, the theatre has been decorated to give its walls a fashionable distressed appearance. The place reminds me a little of what I remember of the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris when I saw it in the 1970s soon after the British director Peter Brook re-opened it.

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Although the theatre and its productions are wonderful, the bar must not be missed. It is located beneath the new stage in the space where once the stalls were located. Its concave floor reflects the raking of the seats that were once affixed to it. A grand piano serves as the bar where drinks are sold. The dimly lit bar is decorated quirkily with all manner of bric-a-brac, largely chosen by the staff and, no doubt, sourced from the nearby Portobello and Golborne markets. The bar is open an hour before and an hour after a performance. It is closed during performances because its ceiling is the theatre stage. Even if you cannot manage a play, a visit to the Coronet’s bar is a treat.

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:

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“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.

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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