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, Tigmanushu’s upcoming directorial is the Allahabad-set romance, Milan Talkies.
The film, set between 2010-2014, 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 eleven times, often standing in a crowded theatre,” Tigmanshu reminisces, 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 speaks fondly of the romance of single-screens, but doesn’t shy away from accepting their eventual extinction—accelerated by the multiplex culture, heavy taxation, real estate acquisition and, of late, the digital revolution. He contends 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 says, 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 we have done, 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 says. He also speaks fondly of 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 his big-screen projection—Ali smilingly says, “The romance of cinema has its own novelty… I hope it doesn’t wane. The same (digital vs film) phenomenon is happening in Hollywood. The only movies making money are the Superhero movies, or the Fast and Furious and Mission Impossible franchises. Otherwise it’s becoming hard to get people to come to the theatres. We all must adapt.” Milan Talkies also stars Shraddha Srinath, Ashutosh Rana, Sikandar Kher and Reecha Sinha. Produced by Filmy Keeda Productions and Torque, the film is slated for release on March 15.