Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.

Website: ramnikshah.blogspot.com

London Calling by Ramnik Shah

My earliest memory of going to the cinema is being taken to the Majestic Theatre in Mombasa by my sisters, in the company of their neighbourhood friends, to `zenana` shows to see Hindi movies (the term Bollywood was unknown then). These were ladies only afternoon matinées, to which boys of my age could be sneaked in as part of a family group.  And I can still virtually savour the aura of the sweet smelling scented burqa clad Arab, Swahili and Asian Muslim women who, once they got in, dared to bare their colourful inner finery beneath the black bui buis! So freed from the male gaze, they would indulge in much bonhomie, loud yelps of joy and deafening chatter all around.  Other than that, I don`t recall much, except that sitting in the front row of the balcony seats, it felt overpowering to look at the celluloid images flashing by across the black and white screen.  I could see the action but not understand what was being said.

The Majestic and the Regal up on Salim Road were the only two cinemas in Mombasa then, in the late 1940s. The NaaZ and the Moons came later. The next phase was my early teenage years, which also coincided with the onset of such iconic films as Aan, Awaara, Anarkali, Baiju Bawra, and Mother India, all of which I remember seeing.  These hits were the talk of the town, so to speak, as were some earlier ones such as Andaz and Barsaat. Then Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, with its classical dance sequences, had a high profile gala premiere in the newly opened Queens Cinema on Fort Jesus Road in the presence of local Indian leaders and the Provincial Commissioner and his entourage as specially invited official guests. The songs and the music associated with them all were heard everywhere and particularly in places like the Blue Room, which had a thriving juke box, a novelty in those days, much patronised by boys and young men, invariably, who sat around having ice creams or endless teas and bhajias

From the mid-50s, as secondary school pupils we switched to `English` films and that, together with the language itself and the accompanying literature, opened up a whole new cultural dimension. Then my cinema-going experience took on a different trajectory.  On Saturday afternoons my mates and I would join the crowds of youngsters, including girls and European kids, eagerly queuing up to see cowboy and adventure films at the Regal or the Queens Cinema.  In fact the street scene in Mombasa on Saturdays was dominated by excited groups of boys and girls loitering around Salim and Kilindini Roads, eyeing each other and making merriment.  In the cinema foyers, the box office clerks, sitting behind grilled windows in their tiny booths, would expertly dispense paper tickets marking the seat numbers in a barely decipherable scrawl and we would pile into the auditorium, and if the lights had gone out and the show had begun then the usher would shine their torch to guide us to our seats.    

In the dark, however, there could be mischief and shenanigans. Once  I saw my form teacher, a young Mr Pereira, busily engaged in necking (what the Americans call `making out`) with a woman and another time a couple of Goan girls were vigorously doing the same with each other, with their skirts hanging out through the back!   These incidents remain imprinted in my mind for what they`re worth!    

As one grew older, the dynamics changed, and so did the choice of films. I then began to see more serious films on my own and was much influenced by the content. Those that come to mind are Charlie Chaplin`s The Great Dictator (mocking Hitler`s antics at his mass rallies) and The Gold Rush, both of which were shown during a revival of his old films at the Queens Cinema, where around the same time I also saw Alfred Hitchcock`s Rear Window and Vertigo.  Thus it was that I became a lifelong Hitchcock fan, and also developed an interest in Chaplin`s later films. The other films that I saw during the same period, circa 1957-8, were A Night to Remember (about the Titanic) and Sayonara.  

School days over, I came over to England for higher studies.  I had just turned 18 and like any other young man on the threshold of maturity, let loose in the great metropolis of London, was only too eager to broaden my horizons and embrace new experiences.  The next 4-5 years were a time of awakening and education. 

It was common in those days for British cinemas to have continuous roll over performances, so one could go in at any time and leave when the cycle was complete, back at the starting point, though it was perfectly okay to stay on longer.  These were usually double bills, including either a second `B` film or a documentary, which meant a total of some 3+ hours – useful and welcome in the cold and damp months of winter to keep oneself warm. 

So in the popular genre, I saw, in no particular order and out of many, many more, the Hitchcock movies (North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds); the first two Bond films: Dr No and From Russia With Love; the two films about Oscar Wilde`s trials circa 1960; the war epics The Great Escape, Lawrence of Arabia; the sci-fi The Day of the Triffids; British social dramas (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey); romantic comedies (Breakfast at Tiffany`s; The Apartment) and a whole host of others, even one or two soft porn movies!  Then there were the continental `new wave` and other foreign films, mostly with subtitles: La Dolce Vita; La Strada; Jules and Jim; Breathless; Viridiana; Last Year in Marienbad and so on, including Satyajit Ray`s Pather Panchali. 

I should also mention the Studio 1 and 2 (I think) on London`s Oxford Street, where they showed hour long news features, documentaries about recent history and weekly updates, again on a continuous roll over basis.  The aftermath of the war, which had ended 15 years earlier, was covered extensively, with shots of badly damaged buildings and infrastructure both in the UK and Europe.  More importantly, I vividly remember seeing the grim footage of what the British and allied forces had found in the Nazi concentration camps of Germany and Poland: not only the grisly remains of those who had been exterminated in the gas chambers but also the sight of thousands of malnourished and spindly survivors in their pitiful condition. Most people seeing these images were moved and left the cinema in a dazed state, as I did.  These newsreels were shown day after day, week after week and made painful viewing. 

Coming back to Kenya on the exact eve of independence was an incredibly exciting moment.  I have written about it elsewhere. And so I spent the next ten years as a young professional at a time when the country was going through momentous changes, coinciding with those in my own personal life. Vast new vistas were opening up and a lot happened during the next decade on every front. 

Right up to the end of the 1960s, Nairobi was to retain its old-world charm of an easy going midsize capital city. New cinemas had sprung up and some old ones had disappeared, and a few more were to emerge later. In those days, one could drive back into the city centre in the evenings to a late evening film show, park the car without much hassle and afterwards even have time to have a drink and snacks at the few coffee houses that kept open until late.  There was one in particular behind the City Hall that was our favourite. Then from the early `70s, parking became the preserve of the enterprising `parking boys` who would find a spot and keep an eye on your car until the show was over, for a tip which you were only too glad to give.  Late night coffee places had however gone by then. 

There were just too many memorable popular films of that period to list any of them specifically.  Suffice it to say that one saw all the blockbusters.  But I should mention the Kenya Film Society.  It was run by a dedicated trio of expatriate academic type young guys who would give a short introduction to each film.  The membership was largely confined to the capital`s growing university, home-grown professional and international elite and the venue used to be either at the National Theatre complex or one of the commercial cinemas.  Out of the many films that we saw, four come immediately to mind: Shakespeare Wallah, Hiroshima Mon Amour, The Bespoke Overcoat, and A Man and a Woman, the last at the Kenya Cinema on a Sunday morning!  These were proverbial movie classics. 

But apart from the cinemas in town or the suburbs, there were the two Drive-Ins, the one on the Thika Road and the other, the Belle Vue, on the Airport Road, which were perfect for Saturday night family outings.  The Belle Vue was the larger of the two and showed mostly Indian films. One I remember seeing there was Purab Aur Paschim (East and West), which had some stunning musical numbers.  I used to like the Thika Road one for the tasty toasted sandwiches with chips they used to serve during intervals, as you rushed in to join the queue it was amazing how efficiently and quickly the counter staff coped with the demand for varied orders during the short break.  The Drive-ins were also where men and women, whether married or not, could ensconce themselves in the back seats of their cars to engage in sexual activity of sorts.  It is impossible to say whether there were any LGBTQ couples doing the same, though I doubt it.       

I have come a long way in the 45 years since, but the foundations for my enduring passion for the cinema were laid in those far off days in Mombasa`s magical Majestic, Regal and Queens cinemas! 

Ramnik Shah




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