A City, Cinema & A Community: Reflections
By Brig (retd) A.R. Siddiqi
Royal Book Company
ISBN: 978-969-407-545-7
152pp.

The cultural, social and political life of the vibrant city of Delhi, during the last three decades before Partition in 1947, has been remarkably described by Brig (retd) A.R. Siddiqi in his recent book, A City, Cinema & A Community.

Delhi, which remained the capital of undivided India for centuries, including during the Mughal Empire (1526 –1857), was truly a cosmopolitan metropolis. The city hosted people from different ethnicities, beliefs, cultures and customs, speaking a variety of languages, who lived together peacefully.

The 20th century brought a revolutionary change in the cultural and social life of people in the Subcontinent with the advent of cinema, originally known as bioscope. The author saw his first movie at the age of six or seven, accompanied by his mother.

She, along with some other ladies of the family, had gone to Purdah Bagh, a ladies-only garden, where a film was also being screened free for the visitors. The small boy could not comprehend what was happening and fell asleep leaning on his mother’s shoulder. But the vague memories of this experience developed in him a deep interest for movies later in life.

Brig (retd) A. R. Siddiqi’s recollections about city life in Delhi and the advent of cinema culture before Partition transport the reader to another world

As the author is an eyewitness to the era of silent movies in the 1920s and then talkies in the following decades, there are some interesting facts linked to their screening in cinema halls. For example, during the screening of a silent movie, there would be two side screens, projecting the dialogues in Urdu or Hindi script. In a corner of the pit or the third-class enclosure, musicians would play live harmonium and tabla to provide background music, commensurate with the situation in the movie.

While still a child, the author saw his first Indian sound film, Alam Ara, in the early 1930s, along with his mamoon (maternal uncle). He states: “I could hardly believe my ears as I heard the characters sing, and the singing all the way through put me to sleep.”

There was a violent reaction to cinema from the clergy, who condemned it strongly, calling it “as nothing less than a vile satanic challenge to Islam and Almighty Allah.” But the people would not bother about the angry outbursts from the clergy, and would throng the cinema houses to watch the new movies, released weekly and that too on a Friday, right after the prayers.

The famous and crowded Chandni Chowk had the largest general merchant store in its vicinity, named H.S. Fazal-i-Ilahi & Son. It was known for a large variety and range of imported goods. Haji Fazal-i-Ilahi was known in the entire merchant community of the city for his good luck and thriving business. He was closely related to the author. There were well over a dozen cinema houses in Delhi, and four of them were in the surroundings of the store.

As movie-watching would provide immense joy to the people and was also a cheap source of entertainment for the masses, the cinema industry flourished at an unprecedented rate. People would be excited and curious about watching the upcoming movies after seeing their colourful posters and hoardings outside the cinemas. Besides, pushcarts used for advertising the movies were on the move all over prominent places in the city.

The most popular actors from Bombay were Motilal, Nazir, Chandra Mohan, Prithvi Raj, Gajanan Jagirdar, Surendra Nath, Ashok Kumar and others. The thrilling song-rendering of singers such as K.L. Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, K.C. Dey, Kanan Devi, Uma, etc, raised cinema music to new heights, free from the intricacies of classical singing, for the common people to appreciate and enjoy.

 A poster of the film Elan, the last film made in undivided India | From the book
A poster of the film Elan, the last film made in undivided India | From the book

The director-producer Mehboob Khan had already risen to fame in undivided India, with fine movies such as Roti, Behan, Aik Hi Raasta, Aurat, Najma and Elan. His film Elan, the last to be made in undivided India, was released on the independence day of India, ie August 15, 1947.

An actor named Muhammad Hanif, who would get some minor roles in movies, was quite keen to become the car driver of the Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who required a second driver. During the interview, the Quaid asked him only two questions. First he asked, “Are you first a car driver or an actor?” Hanif responded, “A driver first, sir…” The Quaid then asked if he had a proper driving licence and, as Hanif had one, the Quaid took him on as his driver.

In the longest chapter titled ‘A Novella’, the author narrates the story of two young Muslim girls Jamila and Hasina, who were close friends. They were the daughters of two elderly and respectable men, both members of the Dilli (Delhi) Punjabi Saudagar Community living in Baradari Nawab Wazir, or simply Baradari. They would be taken to school by an ayah (nanny) in a purdah-drawn tonga.

The arrival of cinema in India, had brought on a tremendous cultural change in peoples’ lives, bringing in excitement and jubilance. Lots of girls and women would visit cinema houses to view the colourful posters, hoardings and photographs of the pre-release movies. On the darker side, the cinemas would also attract rascals, vagabonds and nefarious characters, roaming around with ill motives.

The presence of the Elphinstone cinema played a significant role in the relatively free outdoor life of the Baradari residents, especially young school-going boys and girls. Although belonging to conservative Muslim families, Jamila and Hasina could not resist the temptation of looking at the pre-release posters and photographs of the forthcoming movie Jawani Ki Hava [Whirlwind of Youth], at Elphinstone cinema. The leading roles were played by the famous Devika Rani and Najmul Hassan.

The girls were lured into watching the movie’s trailer by Musa, who worked for Majid, the manager of Elphinstone cinema. They watched the trailer in the special box upstairs and were entertained by the host with high tea. Majid, who was also present on the occasion, invited the girls to see a special show of the movie, which would be arranged by him after a week.

The girls went back to their homes, debated Majid’s invitation, and decided not to go to the special show, especially since they were warned against Majid by Musa. In the meantime, a journalist friend of Musa, who had seen the girls with the latter, published a highly offensive story about them, in the daily Watan.

The story came as a great shock and caused embarrassment to the families of Jamila and Hasina. Their fathers formed a group of community elders and took up the matter with the British Deputy Commissioner of Delhi, Richard Collins, requesting him for the closure of Elphinstone cinema.

Collins gave a patient hearing to the group and, after a few days, told the elders that Elphinstone would remain closed for three months. Thereafter, it would operate with new staff and the new name of Novelty. Collin’s decision was unanimously accepted by the elders. The story refelects the culture and situation of those days, along with the behavior of the British Deputy High Commissioner. The Cinema was British and still he took strong action, closing it for three months and then revamping it.

The book is a well-recalled tribute by the author, to the magnificent city of Delhi and the magical evolution of cinema in undivided India.

The reviewer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi and Vital Pakistan Trust

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 9th, 2024

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