Silver screen memories: How the reopening of a theatre is much more than that

Kipa Takum and his friends had just won the inter-class cricket tournament in 1999 when he made his last visit to National Cinema Hall here.

“My friends and I had come to see Baadshah,” he says. Having walked more than 10km to watch the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer back then, it was only natural that Takum, who is now a councillor in Itanagar municipality, was excited to be present at the reopening of the hall on Friday that incidentally was showing Khan’s latest, Fan.

National Cinema Hall first opened four decades ago in 1974. It was the first, and for a long time, the only movie theatre in Arunachal Pradesh. The cinema hall was built by Yimar Riba and premiered its first film on December 27, 1974. Earning his education in Basar, then Shillong (St Edmund’s) and later Jawaharlal Nehru College in Pasighat, Riba (who passed away in 2001) was a visionary and a notable figure in his community.

Not only did he open the first cinema hall in the capital, then called Youth Cine Enterprise, he was also secretary of the first Mopin celebration committee in the capital in 1975. “The hall was made from bamboo back then,” said his daughter and present director of the hall, Marbom Mai. There are 332 seats for different ticket prices and even 3D films can be shown, she added. A far cry from when it first opened its doors.

Filmmaker Taro Chatung fondly recalls that he would often frequent the hall and that he wasn’t alone as the highest dignitaries kept him company back then. “I remember (lieutenant governor) K.A.A. Raja and (chief minister) P.K. Thungon coming to the hall to watch films back then,” he said.

Another noted filmmaker, Moji Riba, remembers visiting the place countless times and that the last film he saw at National was Roja. “That song…tum miley…,” he recalls.

Once the go-to place for young and old in the capital, the hall slowly fell into disuse as it became difficult for it to compete with the growth of video halls and the advent of DVDs. “There were times when the hall would be practically empty,” says Dominic Tok, a college professor here. A regular cinephile, Tok lived through the highs and lows of the hall.

“We went every time relatives from the village came to town,” he says, adding that he had seen countless films, not just Bollywood movies but Hollywood ones as well, dubbed in Hindi of course.

In fact, Tok saw the last film that was screened in the hall on that fateful day in August 2007. “It was some B-grade English film,” he says and that the last “good film” he saw there was Anaconda, again, dubbed in Hindi.

“The seats were mostly empty during those last days,” he says.

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Cine-goers queue outside during the reopening.

Mai says she was unable to look after its upkeep since she was still in college back then and could only direct her attention to it when she returned for her holidays. “It became difficult to look after it, especially since new digital technology had affected the markets even in Lakhimpur and Tezpur in Assam by then,” she says. The old projector which played 35mm reel films had become obsolete.

Filmmakers are naturally delighted with the reopening. Chatung says local filmmakers can benefit greatly from it. “What is the use of making films if there is no place to show them?” he asks. Moji hopes that slots can be provided to show films by filmmakers from the state. “Profits may be less but the contribution to society and to art will be immense,” he says.

The Rolex Award winner is also delighted on a personal front. “It’s heartwarming to see an icon from a bygone time coming back to life bringing with it fond memories of a time and town that was far less complicated,” he says, adding that “It’s wonderful that some things will remain constant”.

Echoing that sentiment, at the entrance of the now refurbished hall stands the old projector, an exhibit of an uncomplicated era.

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The old 35 mm projector stands as an exhibit and reminder of a bygone era.

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Last of the rickshawallahs

Unsure about his age, Abdul Monan says he is around 45 or 48.

Grey-haired and bearded, the cycle-rickshaw puller’s appearance belies his assumed age. He is among the last lot of surviving cycle rickshaw-pullers in Arunachal Pradesh’s capital.

In the hilly terrains of the state in India’s northeast region, rickshaws that operate on muscle power rather than horsepower do not make much sense. Even so, such rickshaws have been a defining the character of Naharlagun, the old capital of the state which is now considered the other half of the state capital Itanagar.

Given its mostly flat topography, rickshaws thrived in the town. With time though, these rickshaws began to fade as cars and auto-rickshaws began to invade the congested roads.

Earlier, the rickshaws could be seen plying across the town, they have now been restricted to the 2km stretch between the Hathi Matha and Pachin areas.

Long since the heyday of the rickshaws in Naharlagun, only 15 now remain. The administration has on several occasions in the past tried to phase out the rickshaws.

Arif Ali, originally from Lakhimpur district in Assam, has been a rickshaw-puller for more than 15 years. He earns anything between Rs 200 and Rs 250 on most days, especially in the summer months.

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Arif Ali has been a rickshaw puller for over 15 years.

“During winter, most people walk,” he says, and so business usually is good on warmer sunny days. Arif adds that “it’s difficult to make an earning because most people have their own cars.” Apart from the house rent that he has to pay, his earnings also go towards paying Rs 100 as the road tax each month. He also pays Rs 900 as rent to the owner of the rickshaw.

Arif and all the other rickshaw-pullers all happen to be  migrant Muslim men from neighbouring Assam who came to Itanagar for a better life.

Shomuir Ali, also from neighbouring Assam, said very few of the rickshaw-pullers actually own their vehicle. “Maybe some of the older ones do,” he says.

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A total of 15 rickshaws now remain.

While Arif had been plying rickshaws for over a decade, Abdul had been doing this for a living only for the past two years.

Earlier, he worked as a manual labourer before switching over to pulling the rickshaw. The Rs 8,000 that he earns each month is used in paying rent for his rickshaw (Rs 1,000), house (Rs 1,200) and the school fees of his two sons who are in class I and IX. “My two daughters study the Koran,” he said before whisking off to Pachin with a passenger as the dusk set in.

A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph:

http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160405/jsp/northeast/story_78393.jsp#.VxIipfl97IU