The third bell has sounded. The purple velvet curtain is about to be raised. The lights are progressively dimming, till only the red signs showing EXIT remain, glowing like embers in the darkened hall. Popcorn sellers and cold-drinks vendors begin to leave. Salim and I settle down in our seats.
The first thing you must know about Salim is that he is my best friend. The second is that he is crazy about Hindi films. But not all Hindi films. Just the ones featuring Armaan Ali.
They say that first there was Amitabh Bachchan. Then there was Shahrukh Khan. Now there is Armaan Ali. The ultimate action hero. The Indian Greek god. The heartthrob of millions.
Salim loves Armaan. Or, more accurately, he worships Armaan. His tiny room in the chawl is a shrine. It is lined with posters of all kinds depicting the hero in various poses. Armaan in a leather jacket. Armaan on a motorbike. Armaan with his shirt off, baring his hairy chest. Armaan with a gun. Armaan on a horse. Armaan in a pool, surrounded by a bevy of beauties.
We are occupying seats A21 and A22 in the very first row of the dress circle in Regal Talkies in Bandra. We shouldn't really be sitting here. The tickets in my front pocket do not say DRESS CIRCLE RS. 150. They say FRONT STALL RS. 25. The usher was in a good mood today and did us a favor. He told us to go and enjoy the balcony because the stalls were practically deserted. Even the balcony is almost empty. Apart from Salim and me, there are no more than two dozen people in the rows ahead of us.
When Salim and I go to the movies, we usually sit in the front stalls, where we can make catcalls and whistle. Salim believes the nearer you sit to the screen, the closer you are to the action. He says he can lean forward and almost touch Armaan. He can count the veins on Armaan's biceps, he can see the whites of Armaan's hazel-green eyes, the fine stubble on Armaan's cleft chin, the little black mole on Armaan's chiseled nose.
I am not particularly fond of Armaan Ali. I think he acts the same way in every movie. But I, too, like to sit in the front rows, as close to the giant screen as possible. The heroine's breasts appear more voluptuous from there.
The curtain has now lifted, and the screen flickers to life. First we have the advertisements. Four sponsored by private companies and one by the government. We are told how to come first at school and become champions in cricket by eating cornflakes for breakfast. How to drive fast cars and win gorgeous girls by using Spice cologne. ("That's the perfume used by Armaan," exclaims Salim.) How to get a promotion and have shiny white clothes by using Roma soap. How to live life like a king by drinking Red & White whisky. And how to die of lung cancer by smoking cigarettes.
After the adverts, there is a little pause while the reels are changed. We cough and clear our throats. And then the censor certificate appears on the CinemaScope screen. It tells us that the film has been certified U/A, has seventeen reels and a length of 4,639.15 meters. The certificate is signed by one Mrs. M. Kane, chairman of the Censor Board. She is the one who signs all censor certificates. Salim has often asked me about this lady. He really envies her job. She gets to see Armaan's pictures before anyone else.
The opening credits begin to roll. Salim knows everyone in this film. He knows who is the wardrobe man, who is the hairstylist, who is the makeup man. He knows the names of the production manager, the finance controller, the sound recordist, and all the assistants. He doesn't speak English very well, but he can read names, even the ones in really small print. He has watched this film eight times already, and every time he memorizes a new name. But if you were to see the concentration on his face right now, you would think he was watching the First Day First Show with black-market tickets.
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