It was in the year 1952 when I was twelve years of age and ready to travel to Kenya for the first time with my father, who was well settled in Nairobi. He was on a brief visit to Kutch and had travelled by air for the first time. He was the first person from my village to travel by air and he was also the only person from the village with primary education. Modern life in Kenya suited him; he enjoyed an excellent social life and earned good money.
He used to eat in Hindu hotels, went to watch films, and wore modern dress. Very few people from my community did that at the time. Eating out was not considered good for the reputation of the Swaminarayan follower. Seeing films was also rare, and all these activities had to be undertaken secretly.
Hardly anyone from my village had seen a film in Bhuj City. Swaminarayan followers never went near the cinema, nor did they ever eat anywhere when they were out, apart from the food of the temple. The religion did not allow it and neither did the Saints of the temple, so most of the villagers were not even aware of the films, let alone familiar with them. Although they walked past the cinemas in town, they had no knowledge about the activities inside the premises.
My father took me to Bhuj in a hired taxi. At that time, hiring a taxi was not common and was usually done only in an emergency. Not all the villages had taxis; ours didn’t, and my father had to call it from a nearby village. There were four of us, with my cousins.
My Father asked me if I wanted to see a film in the cinema, but, in my innocence, I knew nothing about cinemas or films. I had heard some youngsters talking about it, of course, but I had no clear image about either the film or the cinema. The few who went to see films in town went without the knowledge of the elders.
I took advantage of the offer as my own father was making the proposal. I was sure that if I did not grasp the opportunity, there would not be another chance for me to go inside a cinema or see a film, at least not in Kutch. Nobody would ever dare to take me to see one, as religious belief prohibited us from patronizing such places. But I was young and I had a desire to see it… and I was delighted.
My father went to the small window at the front of the imposing building where, in large letters, the cinema’s name was written. It said “Modern Theatre” in Gujerati, and high above the entrance were colourful pictures of the film being shown which, I was told, was in Hindi and there wouldn’t be any problems in understanding it; the picture was full of action and I would enjoy it without any doubt.
We were escorted into the hall where there were chairs and benches and, inspecting the ticket my father had bought at the window, the usher showed us to our seats. I was told it was a first class row. There were many people seated on the benches in the row in front of us. These were the second class seats, and people with third class tickets sat on the floor right at the very front. I was confused to see the first class people with high-priced tickets seated behind, while the cheap class was in the front. But of course this was a cinema and we were watching a film, not a play where the front row is the most expensive. In the cinema, the best place to see a film is the back row. But it was beyond my understanding then, before my father explained it to me.
There was a big white screen in front of us. Fans were everywhere and there was dimmed lighting around the walls. There were a number of doors with curtains. It was quite dark and I could see the black heads of the people sitting in front of me. There were shepherd clan and very poor and dirty people sitting on the floor in the front, some with sticks.
The film started with the National Anthem and we all stood up. I saluted the Indian flag as I did in school on Independence Day, with pride. Then the trailers of the forthcoming films were shown. My father was kept very busy explaining everything to me as it happened. I could see some funny people acting on the stage but I could not understand how they could all do it on such a small stage. Perhaps the screen was removed and there was a very large area behind where several differently dressed people were seen.
The picture began with some people in a room, but the people and scenery kept on changing and I was confused, not understanding how it could happen. First there was a garden where a man and a woman were singing and dancing, and then there was a road where the same people were in a fast moving car. There was even a river flowing and some animals grazing the very green grass which was not to be found in Kutch, surely? Then the couple entered a big house, leaving the car outside, and again I was very confused. How could all that be happening?
Then there was an interval. This, I was told, was for a short break when we could have snacks and soft drinks apart from going for short cuts. The lights all came on and the white screen was to be seen again in front of us.
My father and I came out with the other people. I was surprised to see the stage empty. Where were all those people dancing, and singing? What happened to the car, and the big house and where was the beautiful garden I had seen from inside? Perhaps they were all behind the white screen? I was really puzzled and my rustic mind was full of jumbled thoughts. I went to have a look behind the screen. There was nothing and no one to be seen.
I had another look around when my father went to buy some snacks for us. My cousins were even more confused and they also tried to find out how it was done, but like me, they could not make sense of anything. You could see nothing while sitting in the chair. Even the car was not there. It was all very confusing. Was it magic? Were those people human, or deities? How could they disappear? They were nowhere to be seen.
I could not contain my curiosity and had to ask my father about it. It would have remained a great mystery for all of us if he had not explained to us the truth about the film or cinema…whatever it was.
My father explained to us exactly what a film was and how it was shown on the screen with the help of a special machine called a projector. It was quite different from watching a drama on the stage. All the people we had seen there were just the actors who were filmed on a reel which was now being projected onto the screen from the rear of the first floor. We were shown the projection room and how the projector worked. And at last I was able to make sense of what a film, or cinema, was.
My first visit to the cinema thus provided me with knowledge I could not otherwise have gained until I visited Kenya.