Josna Rege

49. Making Sense of the Movies

In 1960s, Childhood, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on June 2, 2010 at 3:44 am


Before I was ten, I could count the number of films I had seen on the fingers of my two hands: we hardly went to the movies at all. For a little while, in our living room in Athens, my father played and replayed Hindi movies—wildly popular in Greece in the early 60s—translating them into English for Greek subtitling. I remember them only hazily, their plots all blending into one another as Dad rewound the big reels, played them for a few minutes, and then rewound them again. One tearjerker involved a childless couple who decided to adopt; soon after they brought the child joyfully home, the woman became pregnant, and when her biological child was born, she began mistreating the once-adored little adoptee. In the scene that stands out the most vividly in my mind, a runaway child is caught on the railway tracks as a train approaches at top speed. At the last possible moment the mother throws herself on the child as the train bears down on them. After it has passed, the bundle on the tracks is still for a few terrible moments, but then—blessed relief—both mother and child are safe.

In Athens I was also taken to see my first American film, Disney’s 1959 hit, The Shaggy Dog, which I found extremely frightening. In it, a boy began turning into a dog, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. The most terrifying scenes were when he was actually metamorphosing in front of my eyes, his smooth skin sprouting bristly fur and his face taking on canine features. I couldn’t watch, and had to squeeze my eyes shut until my mother told me it was safe to open them again.

During our last summer in Greece we went out to the open-air theater (altogether different from a drive-in) to see Cliff Richards’ 1963 hit musical, Summer Holiday, and were swept up in the romance of it. Since the plot involved a group of teenagers singing their way across Europe to Athens in a double-decker bus, it’s not surprising that the film was popular in Greece. Summer Holiday and (Put on Your) Dancing Shoes were on our lips for months, and still evoke that summer for me.

Back in India, at IIT Kharagpur, we went occasionally to the Saturday film screenings at the Institute. Hindi films generally alternated with English ones, and not all of them were deemed appropriate for us, so I remember only a handful, but I loved going to those Saturday movies. The atmosphere was set by the music that played before the show, most evocatively the theme from Come September (1961, starring Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida, and Sandra Dee, though I didn’t know that at the time, and have never seen the movie). Another favorite theme song was Henry Mancini’s The Baby Elephant Walk, from the 1962 film Hatari (which I didn’t see until years later in America, as an oldie on television). The show started with newsreels and sometimes an American cartoon like Tom & Jerry, followed by advertisements for the latest birth control campaign (“Remember the Red Triangle: do ya teen, bas (two or three, enough)”) and the national anthem, for which we all rose and I sang along at the top of my voice.

When the movies themselves began they were both bewitching and bewildering. They were set in worlds that were completely alien to me, and I found it hard  to work out what was going on. Making it still harder was the fact that the projectionist could never seem to get the reels in the right order, and if there wasn’t a breakdown, with the power failing or the film snapping, there was an abrupt and indefinite halt in the middle of a reel, after which the reels would be rewound and switched. If we were lucky, we would begin again, impossibly confused; if we weren’t, they would announce, after an interminable wait, that nothing could be done and we would simply have to go home. The reels got mixed up in Gone With the Wind, I remember, so that  one moment Scarlett O’Hara was having her corsets tightened and the next, she was making clothes out of curtains; I still have no idea what happened in-between. The same thing happened with Lawrence of Arabia, where all I can remember is large expanses of desert with the sun rising inexorably again and again, with a horrible torture scene in-between which both fascinated and sickened me.


One Saturday the film was The Sandpiper (1965, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). A few minutes in, my mother said, “Oh dear, this isn’t very appropriate for you, is it? Well, never mind, I suppose it’s harmless.” She kept watching, and so did I. Once I had been told it was inappropriate I tried to make the most of the experience, but, truth be told, I didn’t know what the fuss was about. It was set by the sea, with small, long-legged birds skittering across the empty beach at sunrise and sunset, and, as I recall, the man and the woman spent most of their time doing (and wearing) next-to-nothing inside the cottage. There didn’t seem to be much to it, as far as I could make out.

As a teenager in America it took me years to become visually literate like my  American friends. If I came even a few minutes late to a movie I might as well go home, because, not knowing the stock formulas, I would be hopelessly lost. I was culturally illiterate as well. I saw Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate almost as soon as I arrived, and couldn’t make head or tail of it: “Just one word: Plastics” was completely unintelligible.

By the age of ten, a typical American child—and a typical Indian one, too, for that matter—has seen hundreds of movies; without them, I had more time, and other ways, to make sense of the world around me.


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  1. “Summer Holidays” was one movie which we saw at Mount Hermon and I loved it!
    I was not allowed to the movies until I was about 11 and I remember the first one was called “Whistle down the Wind” and was about some children who came across a tramp hiding in their barn and they thought he was Jesus for some reason – probably because of his beard and the fact that he said “Jesus!” when they discovered him. The pathos of the ending left me in tears as the adults arrested him and took him away and the children still believed they had been taking care of Jesus in their barn!
    It was a whole year before I saw another movie at school in Darjeeling on Saturday nights thanks mostly to the USIS! They were mostly English and American movies.
    I especially remember one called Kabuliwallah which we probably went in to town to see at the local cinema. That one stood out because it was an Indian movie but not like any other Bollywood films. It really told a story and the acting was wonderful.

    • Marianne, you watched even fewer films than I did before the age of ten: none! That we both grew up without movies probably explains some of our shared aesthetic and outlook on life. Whistle Down the Wind reminds me of one of my favorite novels as a child, called The Children Who Lived in a Barn; it, too, had a tramp in it, although he was not entirely innocuous. And yes, I remember the films we saw at Mount Hermon, both at school and in town; if I had described them, my post would have been twice as long! I remember seeing Agatha Christie murder mysteries with Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, and at least one Hindi movie, a scary one called Bhoot Bangla (more covering of eyes). Then of course there were trips to town in the rutphut bus to see A Hard Day’s Night and The Sound of Music. I think I remember Kabuliwala, too.

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