A life in the theatre

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Bhrigupati Singh: When did you become the manager here at Jagat Cinema?

Bal Kishen Malhotra: In 1970, I was the gatekeeper. In 1980, I was promoted to booking clerk. From there I became the assistant manager, then the manager, and then the assistant general manager. But believe me, in a private job, the manager and the chaprasi are in exactly the same position. When the owner feels that he has outlived his usefulness he gets rid of him. They kick him out. […]

I played the lead role in a play once, in Srinagar in 1961, at the 5th All India Police Function. Balraj Sahni and Mohammed Rafi were there. Sheikh Abdullah was the chief guest. I was born in 1945 so I was 16 years old at the time. After the climax of the show Balraj Sahni came up on stage. He hugged me and told me that I would be as big a star as him. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that was the turning point in my life. Some years later in 1967 I was doing another play, Naya Zamana, which I directed. We performed at the Delhi Public Library. J.C. Sharma, the noted film producer was in the audience. After the play was over he invited me to Bombay to join his team. Like me, he was a native of Shahadra in Delhi. He had just announced a new picture called Surag… Many letters came and he called people for auditions in batches and collected money from them. This turned out to be a hoax, he was actually collecting money for the release of ‘Maharani Padmini’ which turned out to be his last film. After this I did some freelancing through contacts I had made while workingwith him. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a godfather and in Bombay that is absolutely necessary.

Then in 1968, a tragedy took place in my life. My mother, who worked in the police, died in an accident. At this point of time my father worked here in Jagat Cinema. My mamaji got me a permanent job in the railways but I didn’t take it because I met another man who invited me to Bombay. Today the fellow who took up the railways job earns Rs 24000 a month. I was even offered a job in the police in place of my mother but I didn’t take it because I pictured myself in a police uniform, and I am short, so I thought I would look comic. Instead I went to Bombay. Filmi bhoot savaar tha na! [I was obsessed with films]. This time I spent two years there. After a while I wasn’t even being able to scrape together enough money for a decent meal so I came back to Delhi. I met Seth Jagat Narain’s son aur unke aage peeche ghoomne laga, hoping he would give me a job. Then, in June 1970 I was appointed at Ritz Cinema as a gatekeeper. […]

 

BS: When did you get involved with the cinema worker’s union?

BK: In 1979. At the time there was a union by the name of Cine-employees Association. On 9 and 10 February 1979, they announced a city-wide strike in Delhi. That strike failed. In that strike the union leader was one Kharod Bhattacharya. Management se mil ke, he agreed to their terms and conditions. After that the workers became dissatisfied. They decided to join together and start a new union. The idea was that the general secretary of a cinema-workers union should be a cinema worker himself so that we don’t have to explain everything to him. We wouldn’t have to tell him how the management harasses us and so on.

There was one Jeevan Kapoor who used to be a gatekeeper at Rivoli Cinema in Connaught Place.He came to meet me. In 1979 I used to work at Ritz Cinema [near ISBT, Delhi] and I had participated with great enthusiasm in the February strike. As a result I was transferred shortly afterwards here, to Jagat. Jeevan Kapoor went to Ritz looking for me. There they told him about my transfer, so he came to Jagat. He told me that he had been going to all thecinemas in Delhi and trying to unite the workers. He said that they were organizing a meeting and he invited me to come. The space occupied today by the Shivaji bus terminal in front of Rivoli used to be a park in those days. The meeting was in that park. Roughly about three or four hundred workers from Delhi collected there.

 

BS: All cinema workers?

BK: Yes. We decided to form a new union and choose a general secretary from among ourselves. The understanding was that all the posts should be held bycinema workers. The meeting went on for a couple of days. At the end of that meeting Jeevan Kapoor Saab was chosen as the president and I was appointed as the general secretary. We presented our new charter to the cinema owners but they didn’t even bother to look at it. They weren’t even ready to talk to us. We held a number of demonstrations. Two cinema owners, the owner of Chanakya and the owner of Delite, were ready to make an agreement with us, which they did.

But we were workers, not advocates. We had no idea that after making out an agreement you needed to get it registered. We were celebrating the victory; we thought we had won our battle. Within three days we received summons from the court carrying charges against us that we had pressurized the cinema owners into signing the agreements. Both cinemas were owned as partnerships, so the ones who hadn’t signed registered cases against us and claimed that the signatories didn’t even have the authority to sign such an agreement! The agreements were declared invalid.

After that hume junoon savaar ho gaya. I decided that we had to do something about this. I started studying the law. We decided to fight this on the largest scale possible. During those days, Chaudhary Charan Singh became the prime minister for a few days. We took a deputation to meet him. We took out a night-time mashaal juloos [torchlight rally] which started from Regal Cinema in Connaught Place. At that time the minister for information and broadcasting was Vasant Sathe. We announced a hunger strike at his residence. I sat there on an indefinite hunger strike.

Vasant Sathe himself used to be a trade union leader in Maharashtra, which is how he had come into politics. He had a personal meeting with me. We kept only one demand in front of him, that there should be a separate wage board for the cinema workers. Because we are scattered everywhere, every hall has a different management. The management pressurizes the workers and gets them to work under all sorts of agreements. So we asked for a uniform wage board. He told us that a wage board cannot possibly be formed for one state. Until your union is at an All-India level, you can’t do anything.

In our personal meeting Vasant Sathe also told me this: I myself started my political career with the cinema workers. Remember one thing, the cinema workers hold no one dear. You’ll stake your life for them, and they’ll remember you for a few days at best. If you call a strike today, no one will land up from the halls that are running new pictures. All of them will be busy trying to earn whatever little money they can, while the film’s success lasts. He told me, ‘Beta! Run a union for coolies, run a union for rickshawallahs. Don’t even try to start a cinema workers union.’ Anyway, because I was a cinema worker I didn’t pay much attention to his words. I paid attention to the relevant information, namely that we needed to make this an All-India union. Just at that time there was the 1st Audio-Visual Workers Convention in Calcutta for which I got an invitation. I attended that conference and put my thoughts forward. There were people present from various states and they were extremely cooperative. They invited me to their states and asked me to meet them. I started a campaign and went out of Delhi.

Ah! But before that was our October strike! In 1979 our union had begun to pose a serious threat to the cinema owners. So first, they didn’t let our union get registered. The other union, the Cine-Employees Association filed a writ saying that we couldn’t register under the name Cine-Workers Association. So then we named ourselves the New Cine-Employees Association and got a registration. In those days there was a big-budget film releasing called Suhaag, an Amitabh Bachchan starrer. We made that film our target, going to whichever hall it was released at. First Rachna cinema, then Vishaal cinema, then Upahaar cinemaand lastly my own Jagat Cinema. We had a peaceful strike for two days.

 

BS: Why did you choose this film?

BK: It was such a big budget film. We wanted to disrupt the cinema business. Otherwise the owners would never listen to us. For two days we had a peaceful dharna and on the third day we called a strike, only for a day. Barely had we announced this strike… actually our numbers had become much less, the morale was going down. We felt we needed some support, some outside help. In those days there used to be a newly formed Delhi State Workers Coordination Committee in which there were factory workers, class 4 employees from hospitals, and others. We decided to affiliate ourselves with this committee but totally refused to have anything to do with any political party.

After joining that committee, we announced this forthcoming strike, and asked for their help for thatday. Our president Jeevan Kapoor and I were in Kalkaji that day. There is a factory there called Jefferson Bolt factory. Their workers were also members of thiscommittee. We were returning after meeting their workers. It was an absolutely silent road, must have been about 4 or 5 o’clock in the evening. It was winter so it had got quite dark. It was the month of October in 1979. Suddenly, a two wheeler scooter came and stood in front of me. The gentleman driving it got off and asked me, ‘Is your name Bal Kishen Malhotra?’ I had barely said ‘Yes’, when the scooter moved and I felt myself collapsing on the ground, head first. Meaning, someone attacked me from behind. I fell on the road. Even before I could get up, I felt blows upon blows. I turned to see who it was but all I saw was a stick coming towards my head. I received a number of hitson my shoulder, a couple of fractures, and the map of India on my back.

I had to stay in Willingdon Hospital for a few days. But I didn’t get scared, my resolve was firm. We continued with the strike, starting from Rachna, to Vishaal, to Upahaar and finally ending up at Jagat. The day we were at Jagat, the last day of our strike, I suddenly saw the same man, the one who had stopped on the scooter and verified my name. He was standing next to the owner of my hall! That was it. We went after him. The owners left him standing there. Anyway… we had been working there for so many years, my father also worked here, so we reached a compromise and I withdrew the case I had filed against the owners.

Anyway, taking Vasant Sathe’s suggestionseriously, I moved out from Delhi, starting first with U.P., Ghaziabad, Meerut, Kanpur, Lucknow, Banaras, Mughal Sarai, where we made a lot of new members. From U.P. we moved to Haryana, then from there to M.P. Madhya Pradesh is such a big state, the towns are so spread out. In all we enlisted members fromfour states. Of course, while we were travelling we lived without pay. In those days the union chanda was Rs 2 per worker per month. Unfortunately many workers didn’t even pay that small an amount. So we became increasingly penniless, virtually living hand to mouth.

Every time we returned from the tour back to Delhi we would obviously be without salary. Our homes were running out of food. The workers wouldn’t pay their chanda. Only those whose work was pending would give their share. They would even be willing to pay up to one year’s advance fee. But once their work was done, they were nowhere to be seen. So gradually the union dissipated. A union can never work on the basis of a leader. The leader’s strength is his backing, the people with him. So that campaign to take this to an all-India level was left incomplete.

A few years later we tried again. New people came forward. Bengal, Maharashtra, Karnataka, these states joined us. We registered ourselves at an all-India level. Today I am the vice president of thatall-India union; B.M. Rachappa from Karnataka is the president. But this union exists only on paper. For one, the business for cinema halls is totally over. Since VCRs and cable TV came about the cinema business itself starting going down. Gradually halls started shutting down. In Maharashtra and Karnataka a lot of halls have shut down, also in Tamil Nadu. Now the union barely has any work, maybe now and then some formal agreements and so on, but the energy we had in those days is totally gone.

Almost every day, walking on the street, I see things that make me mad. If I could make a film, I would express that. A writer expresses himself with his pen; a film person expresses himself though cinema. I, for one, cannot express myself through any medium. It’s like being strangulated, as I file these sheets every day.

 

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Dear All,

Since I began posting to PPHP, I have always posted in a realist, knowledge-building, analytical mode. Today I had an unsettling experience in my most familiar field site, for which reason I post this mostsubjective of entries, for no reason in particular.

For the past many days, almost since I began moving into spaces in the city with the express purpose of studying/representing them, I have been visiting Jagat Cinema near Jama Masjid at regular intervals. There is no concrete reason for me to be doing this – it is certainly not one of the ‘mainstream’ cinemas, it possibly has little to do with most of the dynamic, cutting-edge and influential media flows in the city and it is considered down market, even by the rickshawallahs in Old Delhi. I think that may be the reason actually…

There is the grave of a Pir underneath the space the movie screen occupies today, and every Friday Niyazi is offered. No one, neither Hindu nor Muslim, goes near the movie screen wearing shoes. Naeem, the old and bespectacled electrician who makes the offering, is quite mysterious about the origins of this ritual. ‘Ek din jab time milega phir bataunga, yeh kaun aur kaise log the,’ he tells me with an air of foreboding, every time I ask him. There is a chicken shop next door to Jagat, run by Pahua Pehelwan (an aging wrestler) who refuses to discuss gundagardi and the black ticket circuit with me because he is still quite involved in the local political network in the city and thinks that Imay be some sort of newspaper reporter type figure.

Another thing that has intrigued me is the aura of anytime-possible termination of the space, as itexists now; an aura that has become a reality for many of the cinema halls in the interiors of Old Delhi. In the last five years, Kumar Talkies has been sold to become a commercial complex, Majestic has been taken over by the gurdwara next to it and Minerva, Novelty and Westend have shut down because of financial and legal problems. Jagat Cinema itself was shut for about a year [for 11 months in the year 2000] because of a court case but re-opened late last year.

But I mustn’t forget to mention the one thing about the hall that fascinates me most – the manager Bal Kishen Malhotra… I think what makes me visit him again and again is that his personality is a fascinating combination of Bombay cinema and Hindi/Urdu poetry. He dramatizes each incident in his life, telling it with perfect diction and a majestic command over language and expression. Maybe I also see in his life stages of my own, or someone I might be many years later, full of wishes that I never fulfilled. He used to direct plays and loved the theatre but gave up on it. So did I. He wanted to make films, but never did… I thought I would start a revolution, one day. Apparently, he tried and failed (this, the story of the New Cine-Employees Association, is the one that he tells the best).

Recently, the hall has shifted from screeningre-release B-circuit films (old Dharmendra and Mithun ones) to more recent, locally produced C-circuit films (the film last week was Kaam Granth, this week is Kaatil Chudail). This is different from Ritz and Rivoli which show foreign films with ‘pornographic’ inserts. Here, in these films all the actors and crew are Indian and the ‘exposure’ is very much a part of the story and not an insert. This is something else that has interested me since I began PPHP, the C-circuit films at Ritz, Rivoli and other halls. I thought I might even make an effort and try and write something substantial about it, at some point. Of course, I was sure (and still am) that if I were to write something about the ‘morning show’ culture, it wouldn’t be in the vein of ‘here are all these depraved men doing all these disgusting things.’ I do after all, fancy myself as an anthropologist, understanding the kinds of things people do even if they don’t fit into my frame of reference.

Let me now start with my unsettling experience,the first – I was sitting in BKji’s (the manager’s)office, as I always do when I come to Jagat, sipping on the Coke that he always orders for me as soon as I enter. A representative for a local distributor comesto the office – he has got the trailer for a C-circuit film that will probably play at Jagat from next week calledDuplicate Sholay (this is different from Rampur ke Sholay)… BKji shows me the film poster – there are many other duplicates even apart from Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra – Sunny Deol, Shahrukh Khan, as well as a big-breasted caricature of Phoolan Devi. Oh wow! I sense the opportunity for a media studies essay and an interesting sidelight for PPHP to track. I go into the screening area of the hall to check out the Duplicate Sholay trailer. To my surprise, the entire hall is absolutely packed. The trailer begins with an exact copy of the Gabbar Singh sequence – ‘Kitne aadmi the?’ The works. However, then begins an array of breasts, always large. Unsurprisingly, these are often bared, most often when the Phoolan Devi caricature is attacked by another dacoit. I have seen morning shows many times before but nothing quite prepares me for what is to come. A few gunshots, and Jai and Veeru kill a few of Gabbar Singh’s men. Then another series of interspersed women with forcibly bared breasts. And this time there are men fondling them. ‘Fondling’ is a bad word because itconveys an element of care. These are men and women, playing out the familiar rape sequence of Hindi films, but this time there are no fans or cracked mirrors to look at. Instead, I see men grabbing, squeezing and wrenching at bare breasts so hard that I can feel it, sense it, almost as if it were real, their violation of another person’s body. The trailer is over and Kaatil Chudail resumes.

I have read media theory. I know that people ‘appropriate’, ‘negotiate’, and ‘make meaning’ in ‘surprising, often unpredictable ways’. I have never argued for censorship of content in any discussion in which I have ever taken part. I am aware of art, theatre and film history and the many ways in which pastiche and vulgarity have been used to shock bourgeois audiences. I have read and admired Bakhtin’s celebration of the lowbrow. But there was something about Duplicate Sholay that made me sick, so sick that I couldn’t take it. Suddenly I understood BKji’s stories of Pakeezah and Deewar better. I could see that he might have been happier then, as a young man, a fire and brimstone union leader, working as a gatekeeper at the samecinema, admiring and revelling in the films that he was letting people in to see. I felt sympathetic.

And here begins the unsettling experience, the second. A bit later the same evening a few employees of the cinema asked to be let into BKji’s office. About ten of them came in till there was no space for anyone else to enter. Here is the background – in the one year that Jagat was shut a number of the employees were offered some pay so as not to take up alternativeemployment because the cinema was expected to ‘open shortly’ for the entire year. Many of them had substantial outstanding dues from that time, and some hadn’t been paid for periods even after the hall was opened. Subsequently, many of them had gotten together and were thinking of filing a court case against the owners of Jagat Cinema. However, they knew that if they did this, the court case, as court cases invariably do, might threaten to stretch interminably. The workers were in the office that evening, asking for a resolution to the problem. I thought of BKji, and the passion with which he had told me his stories – leading a mashaal juloos from Regal Cinema in a late October night in 1979. And then the time he was beaten up, attacked from behind (meri peeth par Hindustan ka naksha bana diya tha, he told me) and how despite that he had continued the strike against the same owners these employees were battling today. The ten people in the room were hesitant to speak. Finally, one of the gatekeepers spoke. He said that they wanted all their outstanding dues to be paid back within the next two months.

BKji put on the same public voice he would use to speak into my high-tech looking mini-disc recorder and made a counter-offer. He said that he would ensure that they each got Rs 500 extra per month and subsequently their balance payment would be calculated and returned at this monthly rate. There was silence for a bit and then another gatekeeper spoke. He said that might not be enough, they might have to go back and think of filing a case. BKji’s voice rose a little – ‘Suppose I was to suddenly suspend you from duty for a month,’ he said, ‘I challenge you to return with any form of litigation at the end of that month.’ Saying that BKji thumped the table hard and his voice rose a little more, ‘I offer you an entire month to prove yourself,’ he continued. ‘There is no better example before us than Ram Dutt, and the labour commissioner was his relative. He tried all he could and till today more than Rs 10000 of his are still due.’ Looking slightly unsure the employees left his office, telling him they would make their decision by 6 o’clock tomorrow. Turning to me, BKji asked ‘So, how’s your project going?’

‘Not that well,’ I answered.

A few weeks back, moved by a poem he had recited, I had told BKji that I could see the revolutionary, the dramatist, the actor and the filmmaker in him. He told me ‘Arre yaar, mei sher hota tha, sher. Abhi bhi sher houn. Par abh mujhe lagne laga hain ki mei circus ka sher houn.’

 

* This article is in two sections. The first section is a synthesis of four interviews conducted over a period of about six months with Bal Kishen Malhotra in his office at Jagat Cinema. The interviews were originally in Hindi (with occasional smatterings of English). Unfortunately, the translation loses much of the poetry, the drama and the anguish of the Hindi version. From October 2001 until August 2002, I was part of the Publics & Practices in the History of the Present (PPHP) Project, located at Sarai-CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies), Delhi. This is an inter-disciplinary social science research project conceptualized by Ravi Vasudevan, Ravi Sundaram and the Raqs Media Collective. These interviews were done as part of that project. The project maintains an archival ‘diary’ where the various people involved email each other field reports and discuss ideas and possible research openings. These email notes can be collaborative, combative, functional and short, or long and subjective, depending on the nature of the exchange. The second part of this article is a field note from late April 2002, sent to the PPHP mailing list, written after I had been visiting Jagat Cinema once a week for roughly six months. Jagat Cinema is named after Seth Jagat Narain, who bought the hall from B.N. Sircar of New Theatres (Calcutta) in 1937. The hall is presently run by his sons. My interest throughout this piece is far less in the ‘facts’ of the matter and much more in how a person or a place might present itself as an object of memory. I offer this two part conjunction without interpretation and explanation so as to leave it somewhat open, since it is part of a broader work in progress. A Life in the Theatre is a play by David Mamet, a tragicomic dialogue between an older and a younger actor.

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