Gone to the Pictures

Source: Hilda Lewis, Gone to the Pictures (London: Jarrolds, 1946), pp. 23-27

Text: Suddenly Lena stopped. Here was another of those blacked-in shops like the one opposite Mr. Dicks. The window was pasted all over with bills; but they were so dirty and dilapidated, it was impossible to read what they said. A dark and dirty boy was standing and yelling, All the latest … all the lat-est! Every time he bawled late he gave the open door of the shop a thwack with his stick. When he caught sight of Lena and me he changed his tune, bawling out that there was No waiting – ebserlootly no waiting … ending with an invitation to Walk in, walk in. …

We walked in.

It was very dark inside the shop and the smell was horrid. If it had not been for Lena, in spite of all my joyous anticipation I believe I should have turned tail – especially as we had not yet paid.

I stopped at the front row, but Lena said you could see better at the back so we pushed our way through the darkness, stumbling here and there over people’s outstretched legs and finally sat down on two rickety kitchen chairs.

“We haven’t paid yet,” I reminded Lena.

“Don’t you worry” she said, “they’re not here for love!”

In front of us, against the blacked-in window, hung a small greyish sheet on rollers, like a blank and crumpled map. “You keep your eyes on that!” Lena said.

I kept my eyes on that, and since nothing seemed to happen, or even to be about to happen, I looked about the dark shop. I could make out the shapes of people sitting here and there, with sometimes as much as an empty row of chairs between them.

We seemed to be sitting there a long, long time. My chair got harder and harder.

“They say continuous,’ I said fretfully. “It hasn’t begun yet, let alone continue. …”

“Got to wait till it fulls a bit,” Lena said cheerfully and diving into her handbag she produced a twisted paper of fruit-drops. I amused myself by trying to recognize the flavours on my tongue. I recognized lemon, orange, blackcurrant and possibly greengage, and then my palate being somewhat jaded, I turned my attention once more to my surroundings.

“Why don’t they light the gas?” I was bored with the darkness.

“Film might catch fire.” Lena explained.

“Oh,” I said. “Then why do people smoke?” I was coughing a little.

“Not supposed to,” Lena informed me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Shan’t be long now,” she promised after what seemed hours. “Going to collect now.”

The dingy curtain that hung in front of the open door was pushed aside by a man carrying an open cigar-box. He shoved his way through the now-full rows and the fall of clanking coppers went with him.

He retired. And with his retiring came silence. For as though it were a signal, a ray of silver light fell upon the hanging sheet.

I sat there forgetting to breathe, forgetting to finish the sweet that lay unheeded upon my tongue. I sat entranced. I remember how I kept saying to myself, I don’t believe it!

And all the time upon the silver screen people ran and walked and laughed and cried.

Living Pictures. Alive.

I remember every incident of that day. Even now, as I write, if I choose to shut my eyes and send my thoughts backwards, I am again that child sitting in the darkness of Cohen’s shop; and I see every shot in my first living pictures.

The first film is very sad. An old man lies in bed and he is very ill. The room is almost bare except for the bed and a chair and there is no doubt at all that he is very poor. An old lady who is presumably his wife goes to the cupboard and opens it. Empty. Nothing but bare boards. She wrings her hands. She points to the old man. The tears run down her thin old cheeks.

It is all terribly sad. The blurring of the screen is not entirely due to bad projection.

But stay. All is not lost! In the depths of her apron pocket the old lady finds a few coppers. Now she is going out. She is in the street.

It is, I think, a French street. Now the old lady is in the market. She is buying flowers. Why on earth flowers when there isn’t a thing to eat?

Oh, clever! She is going to sell them!

She stands at the corner of the street holding out her flowers. No one will buy them. No one will even stop to look at them. It is a cold day. People hurry by in their good boots, or in their handsome carriages. The old lady in her thin shawl shivers on the pavement.

It begins to rain. The pavements grow greasy. The old lady goes on holding out her bunches; the flowers are beginning to look bedraggled. The rainy street gets emptier and emptier. Rain falls upon the old woman standing in the deserted street holding out her unwanted flowers.

At last she sees it is hopeless. With a sad and helpless gesture she drops the flowers into the gutter. She hurries home. The old man is dying. I have never seen death before, but I know he is dying.

I try to turn my face away. Death is so frightening. But I must look. I have to look. These Living Pictures are so much stronger than my fears… they drag my fascinated eyes from the safety of my hands.

I look again. The old man is still a-dying. His thin chest jerks up and down; in and out it goes like a concertina. Suddenly his head falls backwards.

Dead.

His eyes are staring, staring in his head.

Do dead people’s eyes stare?

I turn to ask Lena. I am hoping she will say No. But we have started on a new picture. I must try to put those dead eyes out of my mind.

This time it is “a comic.” There are two gentlemen and a lady and they all look what Mamma calls “common.” Lena is smiling already.

The two gentlemen have each a bunch of flowers for the lady. The lady is very fat; she is as tall as a grenadier. She takes the flowers from each of the gentlemen.

But do dead people’s eyes …?

The fat lady invites the two gentlemen to have a piece of an enormous melon that is on the sideboard. She cuts a huge slice for the fat gentleman, a huge slice for the thin gentleman; and then she takes the biggest slice for herself.

They rub their stomachs, they roll their eyes, they grin all over their faces to show how good the melon is. Then they all have another slice. And then another and another. There is no melon left.

They don’t look so happy now. The fat lady gets up and steals away. The thin gentleman gets up and follows her. Then the fat gentleman follows them both.

Now the two gentlemen are standing outside a shed at the bottom of the lady’s garden. There is French writing on the door of the shed. I am not good at French but for all that I know perfectly well that this is a lavatory and the fat lady is inside.

I am beginning to feel uncomfortable; and all the time there is a pricking in my mind…. Do dead people’s eyes …?

The lady is still inside the lavatory and the two gentlemen are walking up and down quickly as if they dare not stand still. And all the time they are holding their stomachs and making uncomfortable faces. Now they begin to thump upon the lavatory door.

It is queer seeing the thumps and yet not hearing them… .

Tt is all rather horrid and quite stupid. I begin to think that perhaps Mamma is right. And yet everyone else is enjoying it.

Someone behind me is stamping on the rungs of my chair and jarring my spine. And Lena, even Lena is laughing … and … Do dead people’s eyes …?

There are three or four more pictures. There is no writing to explain, and no one to tell you what is happening. But then the stories are so simple.

There is one that I like best of all. It is another French one and very exciting. It is about the Devil; and it has the most lovely colours.

The Devil in a gorgeous red cloak and long black tights does magic tricks; and it is a thousand times more mysterious than Maskelyne’s. He sprinkles magic powder in a bowl and great flames leap up. He waves his hands over the flames and there are tiny people dancing — fairies and elves.

The Devil keeps walking about and his red cloak flows out behind him. Suddenly he begins to walk towards us and all the time he gets larger and larger; and nearer and nearer … it begins to look as if he will walk right out of the picture, right into the dark shop where I sit clutching hold of Lena. …

The earliest close-up in the world! I know that now. And it wasn’t accidental, either. Old Méliés who made it knew all the tricks.

It is absolutely terrifying seeing the Devil walk straight towards us – possibly my guilty conscience has something to do with it. I sit there, clutching, until the Devil moves slowly backwards, getting smaller and smaller as he goes … I am not at all sorry when he proves himself too clever and, pop—up he goes in flames himself!

And that is the end of the show. The screen goes dark. Lena says that when it lights up again it will start with the dying man in the place that perhaps is France: if we stay, Lena says, we shall have to pay again.

Pay or not, I don’t want to see that one again … and the question is back again, teasing at me, Do dead people’s eyes …?

Comments: Hilda Lewis (1896-1974) was a London-born author of children’s and historical fiction. Her 1946 novel Gone to the Pictures tells of a young girl growing up in London’s East End, where she is entranced by motion pictures. The film show described (recalled?) here is set in the East End (‘east of Aldgate’); from the description of the films the date would be the early 1900s. The novel has several subsequent accounts of film exhibition in London, as the heroine goes from film fan to cinema owner and then film director and producer in the period before the First World War. Méliés is the French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliés. Lewis’s 1947 novel The Day is Ours was adapted into the feature film Mandy (1952) about the education of a deaf child (Lewis’s husband Michael Lewis specialised in the education of the deaf at the University of Nottingham).

Video Night in Kathmandu

Source: Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu, and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East (London: Bloomsbury: 1988), pp. 241-243

Text: The moment was tense; a group of well-dressed dignitaries had assembled in the imperial palace. The country was in the midst of crisis; turbulence was all around. Then, suddenly, out into the center of the hall came an enormous birthday cake, and out of that popped our strapping hero, dressed as a Jesuit father and playing an antic tune on his fiddle. As soon as she saw him, our sultry heroine fell pouting to her knees. At that, the redeemer ripped off his disguise to reveal a white tuxedo, and the two began blurting out a duet while shaking their hips together in a copy of Saturday Night Fever. Instantly, there was joy all round. Scores of onlookers turned into blazered men and bangled and bejeweled houris, writhing and wriggling in unison. The lead couple shimmied and slithered through a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routine, arching their hips and flashing their eyes as they went. And everyone was happy, everything seemed good. There was plenty of singing and dancing.

Hero and heroine had met only shortly before. He had chanced to see her dragging an old woman through the dust of her palace grounds from the back of her snow-white Chevrolet. Hating such injustice, he had leaped into a horse cart and given chase. In the blink of an eye, he had overtaken the convertible and stood in its path and rescued the old lady. Little did he guess that this was the mother he had never known! And the girl was a princess, pale-skinned, pantsuited and voluptuous, while the man was nothing but a low-caste “tonga wallah.” Yet when her eyes flashed with rage, he stared back unterrified. And so it was that their eyes locked and their hearts beat as one and they knew they could never live apart. The rest, in its way, was history.

Meanwhile, the entire country was ablaze with the flames of strife! For its people were under the thumb of a race of wicked despots from across the sea, white of skin yet black of heart. Already, the cruel tyrants had killed a thousand brave fighters at Amritsar; now, merciless fiends, they wished to drain the blood of every Indian in order to sustain their own soldiers. Outside their opulent club hung a sign — “Dogs and Indians Are Not Allowed.” Inside, the shameless imperialists sat around a swimming pool, sipping wine as they ogled slinky girls in bikinis.

And then, without a warning and out of nowhere, who should come to the rescue but Our Hero? Sending his tonga crashing through the club’s french windows, he rode into the pool to deliver an impromptu sermon in his heroic baritone; then, striding out, he seized a shaven-headed villain by the throat, forced him to drink Indian beer, kicked him into the water and began playing the drums on his head. And by the hero’s side came Moti, the Wonder Dog, and behind them both the Wonder Horse, a silver stallion willing to risk anything in the cause of freedom. The Wonder Dog lifted his leg on the Empire. The Wonder Horse galloped this way and that. And the Wonder Man rubbed a foreigner’s bloody nose into the detested sign until it blotted out one of the hateful words. Now the sign read: “Dogs and Indians Are Allowed.” Jubilation! Ecstasy! Liberation! Joyfully, the crowd jumped up and followed its hero through a great deal of singing and dancing!

And so the humble tonga wallah led the downtrodden masses to freedom. He rescued poor babies, he lectured the oppressed, he brought speech to the dumb and made the lame to walk. He even, in the manner of a holy man, broke a coconut on his head. The dastardly British tried everything they could to stop him. They locked him up. They tied him up. They beat him up. They made him enter a gladiatorial arena and fight to the death the father he had never known. But nothing could stop him, neither Man nor Nature. Fearless in the fight for freedom, he burned effigies of Dyer and smashed a statue of Curzon. Like a good son, he embraced his father when he learned that he had been exchanged at birth for another. Like a good hero, he was ready at a pinch to wink and wiggle with his beloved. And like a good Hindu, he was as pious as he was playful: at his foster mother’s grave, he sorrowfully performed all the appropriate devotional rites before scattering her ashes on the Ganges.

And so, like a god from the heavens, he brought justice and democracy and happiness back to the afflicted land. Right beat Might. Love conquered all. The people were redeemed. And always there was plenty of singing and dancing.

The masses called him “Mard” (He-Man).

Mard was the cultural event of the season when I was in India. “Mard,” shouted the monstrous, many-colored hoardings that towered above the streets of Bombay. “Mard,” proclaimed the huge trailers splashed across the newspapers. Mard was the subject of passionate debates and diatribes. A single name was on a million minds and lips across the country: Mard.

Comments: Pico Iyer, full name Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer (1957- ), is a British essayist, travel writer and novelist. Mard (1985) was a hugely popular Hindi action drama directed by Manmohan Desai and starring Amitabh Bachchan and Amrita Singh.