All of last week I sat inside my room working, and the sun rose and set without my knowing very much about what was going on in the world outside; by the time I finished work it would be dark, and when I did leave home I went most days to a place where bright light never penetrates: the cinema. I saw two excellent German films, Head-On and Good Bye, Lenin, on successive evenings at the NCPA, and having worked up an appetite for pleasures cinematic I then proceeded, first on a damp and slushy evening last weekend and then yesterday on just as damp and slushy an afternoon, to watch Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal twice at the Regal cinema in Colaba.
When I bought my ticket last afternoon I looked closely at it and saw that it said not just 'Regal', as I thought it would, but 'The Regal', and that capitalized 'The' gave the name a ring of grandeur quite proper for a cinema now in its seventy-third year. The Regal first threw open its doors to the public on the night on October 14, 1933, and the first film it ran was the Laurel and Hardy starrer The Devil's Brother. (I advance this detail with some trepidation, dreading a barrage of Regal-centred questions the next time I see him from my blogger friend Yazad Jal, a fount of all sorts of obscure knowledge.)
Anyway, I stood for a while on the front steps of the cinema, watching the rain coming down at a slant against the dark foliage surrounding the gorgeous old dome of the Prince of Wales museum (now named, along with almost everything else run by the government in Bombay, after Chhatrapati Shivaji), with the tall straight lines of the Bombay Stock Exchange looming behind it in an ugly contrast. A poster on the steps advertised a new restaurant, Zaffran, that remained open till four in the morning, offered a discount to patrons carrying the counterfoil of Iqbal, and supplied a road map with directions: "Proceeding from CST to Crawford Market, do not take the JJ Flyover, but proceed towards Crawford Market…" After making an imaginary journey all the way from Regal to Zaffran, taking care to avoid the JJ Flyover after I passed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, I went into the theatre and took my seat. I stood up for the national anthem sung by a male voice in a Marathi accent, with a brightly coloured graphics-generated flag doing a mock-flutter on screen, a definite comedown from the instrumental version of the anthem, which always gives me a thrill, and the picture of a real flag fluttering in a real breeze that used to feature in the cinemas till a few months ago. Then the movie began.
Iqbal, to my mind, is at its best in its first half-hour. That is when everything about it is fresh and its cinematic language is the most original. The deaf-mute Iqbal lives and breathes cricket. He dreams, like any young cricketer, of sharing the stage with the heroes whose pictures adorn the little straw hut that is his little private den, and Shreyas Talpade is so good as Iqbal that we immediately feel intimate with his world. It has been noted almost everywhere that the film is outstandingly cast, but the way Iqbal's world is realised on screen in just as praiseworthy - not only his house with its green-painted walls and the courtyard outside and around that the village, but also the beautifully realised space where so much of the film is set: the little clearing by the river, surrounded by palm trees, that is Iqbal's practice ground, his theater of dreams.
Indeed, the film pays a great deal of attention to trees. The opening sequence, showing Iqbal's mother heavy with child, watching a cricket match beneath a tree with the rest of the village, suddenly provides us with a long shot so full of green trees that we do not know where to focus our gaze. Then suddenly the bottom of the frame explodes to life, and we see the miniscule figures of the villagers leap up at India's victory and begin to dance in jubilation. The camera returns up close to the villagers, shows Iqbal's mother dancing and then suddenly stopping and clutching her stomach, at which point it leaves the scene and cuts away, winding high, high amidst the trees, as if to approximate the passage of time; when we see Iqbal in the next scene, he is a boy of eighteen.
The scene in which Iqbal gives evidence of his cricketing ambition for the first time, leaving his buffaloes and stepping into the palm-tree-fringed clearing to bowl at three sticks, is just as well realised; indeed, we are more likely to carry away memories of Iqbal in this setting than later when he is doing great deeds in whites in the Ranji Trophy or running up to bowl in a blue Indian uniform for the first time. And the trees in Iqbal carry different kinds of meanings. On one occasion when Iqbal goes to the cricket academy where he spies on the young players from behind his buffaloes, he turns away in dejection and sits down with his back to the action, glumly looking at the green fields of his village - where he will soon have to go to work if his father has his way. The only other Hindi film I can remember in which trees mean so much and have such attention lavished upon them is Sudhendu Roy's 1973 classic Saudagar, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Nutan, in which both lead characters rely upon the sap of date-palm trees (from which jaggery is made) for their livelihood.
I found the cricket scenes in Iqbal charming only upto the point where they take place in this unusual private setting, with an unusual cast that gradually extends to include not only Iqbal but also his sister, his coach (played by the ever-brilliant Naseeruddin Shah), and all his buffaloes. The scenes depicting what are we are to understand to be Ranji Trophy cricket are understandably far less convincing, and the climactic gambit with which Iqbal bowls his team to the title was, at least to a former cricket writer's taste, quite absurd. The subplot involving the two coaches who go back a long way is frankly tiresome, and the sudden appearance of bribes on one side and agents toting cheques on another most unsatisfactory. But one forgives these things when one places against them the considerable achievement of bringing to life Iqbal, his world, and his dreams with great imaginative sympathy, and without the emotional manipulation that often accompanies the portrayal on screen of characters with disabilities. Imagine if you will what heavy-duty damage Sanjay Leela Bhansali would have wrought with such a story.
Film is the youngest of all the arts, yet the ubiquity of the moving image in our times is such that we take it completely for granted. Yet it was only a little more than a century ago all this was impossible, and the only things that could be projected onto a screen were still photographs. Watching the first-ever screening of film as we know it, organised by the Lumière brothers on the evening of 28 December, 1895, the magician George Méliès thought he was going to be shown yet another set of stills, when suddenly the world in front of his eyes began to move: "A horse pulling a cart started to walk towards us, followed by other vehicles, then passersby - in short, all the hustle and bustle of a street. We sat with our mouths open, without speaking, filled with amazement."
The first-ever film screening in India took place in 1896 at the Watson's Hotel, just down the road from the site that would one day house the Regal. A list of various milestones in the history of Indian cinema can be found here, and an essay on the same subject here.Good cinema in Bombay continues this week with the screening of several of François Truffaut's films at the Alliance Française, at New Marine Lines very close to Churchgate station.