Ramadhir Singh, the antagonist in 'Gangs of Wasseypur', had famously mocked the false fantasies peddled by our movies, blaming them for the country’s downfall. “Hindustan mein jab tak saneema hain...,” he’d begun, to inevitable meme-dom. This cynicism isn’t shared by the man who played him on screen: Tigmanshu Dhulia, a prolific and unpredictable director, a veteran who likes to pepper his filmography with amusing acting excursions, most recently in Zero and Rangbaaz.
Coming off the third instalment in his Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster franchise, which released last year, Tigmanshu’s upcoming directorial is the Allahabad-set romance Milan Talkies. The film mourns the slow demise of single-screen theatres across India, while singing merrily of the magic of cinema.
“I was a big film buff growing up. The first film I ever saw was Haathi Mere Saathi (1971). I watched it 11 times, often standing in a crowded theatre,” Tigmanshu reminisced, describing Milan Talkies as his tribute to the cinema halls of his childhood. “We had many wonderful theatres in Allahabad, my hometown: Gautam, Sangeet, Darpan. There was another one called Palace, in Civil Lines, which had a colonial feel to it. I still remember you could smoke inside the theatre back then. Also, the National Anthem would play after the screening was over.”
Tigmanshu spoke fondly of the romance of single-screens, but didn’t shy away from accepting their eventual extinction — accelerated by multiplex culture, heavy taxation, real estate acquisition and, of late, the digital revolution. He contended that unless a ‘visionary’ cultural minister or entrepreneur takes some ‘out-of-the-box’ initiative, single-screens will die a gradual death.
“When I was in drama school, I used to go to a theatre called Shakuntalam, at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi, which was run by the government. It had a small capacity of 150-seats and used to run successfully throughout the year. I watched entire retrospectives of Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen in that theatre. Something similar needs to be initiated everywhere — creating and maintaining small capacity cinema halls. That’s the way to go.”
In Milan Talkies, Ali Fazal plays a movie-crazed Allahabad University student who moonlights as a theatre projectionist and an amateur actor-filmmaker. To establish the backdrop, Ali said, they took inspiration from the low-budget filmmakers of Malegaon in Maharashtra, celebrated in the acclaimed documentary Supermen of Malegaon (2008). “In Milan Talkies, Sanjay Mishra and I play a jugaadu (street smart) duo making local films. The trailer opens with me aping both Dilip Kumar and Prithviraj Kapoor’s dialogues from Mughal-E-Azam. There’s a lot of tributing, from the Bachchan-era to the action-heavy ‘90s.”
Like Tigmanshu, Ali credits single-screens for igniting his passion for cinema. The 32-year-old actor, who made his Bollywood debut in 3 Idiots, and whose recent successes include Victoria and Abdul, Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi and Mirzapur — admits to being a filmy kid from early on. “I was raised in Lucknow where Mayfair was an iconic theatre in Hazratganj. I belonged to the generation that saw the last few films before the theatre shut down. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) was the last film I saw there,” Ali said. He also spoke about his college years at St. Xaviers in Mumbai, a chunk of which was spent frequenting heritage theatres like Regal or Sterling. “The smell of samosas was best relished in these places; it was enough to make us keep coming back.”
When pointed to the irony of winning acclaim for his performance in Mirzapur, a digital web-series released on Amazon Prime Video, effectively the antithesis of big-screen projection, Ali said, “The romance of cinema has its own novelty… I hope it doesn’t become a relic. The same (digital vs film) phenomenon is happening in Hollywood. The only movies making money are the Superhero movies.”