18 years later, as my symbolic exile from Calcutta turns adult, I woke up to the news that Priya and Menoka, among other theatres, are shutting down indefinitely, unable to take the business losses due to the pandemic. I don’t get sentimental at the shuttering of bookshops or eateries or theatres. I feel a sense of guilt. It is a collective guilt that we should all share that we didn’t patronise these places enough for them to survive. Mourning a patient’s death whose survival we could have ensured is hypocritical at best and sadistic at worst.
Coming back to Priya, it would most likely be the theatre where I have watched the most movies. (Nandan – with its government-subsidised tickets – would be the other contender.) Priya had the benefit of proximity. If you drew a rectangle with my school and my home on two ends of a diagonal, Priya would be the third corner – all three corners within the range of a brisk walk. It was close enough for me to jump out of an end-term exam early and reach the theatre by 12 noon for the first day, first show. (The film was Indrajeet, if you must ask.)
Some of my happiest memories from my school days are days of walking down Ritchie Road (now called Pankaj Mullick Sarani) after school with a bunch of classmates, talking rubbish and laughing our heads off. We paused for a while in front of Priya as the Tollygunge and Golf Green folks waited for their trams and buses. This was also the time to dissect the movie(s) running and about to release at Priya, often with very little to go with apart from the posters – before sighing and trudging back home.
One of the first movies I watched in Priya was on 1st February 1991. About a month before I took my Class X board exams, Amitabh Bachchan decided to fill our lives with meaning by releasing Hum. The hit song, Jumma chumma de de, had released nearly a year earlier during a Filmfare awards show and the expectations were sky-high. Some fourteen of us classmates used the good offices of a friend’s uncle (who ran Bani Chakra, a music and dance training school, right next door from Priya) to procure the tickets. In the fairly strict atmosphere of us preparing for our first Board exams (which was later revealed to be largely inconsequential), my parents agreed that 3 hours of my watching Tiger decimate the forces of Bakhtawar wouldn’t bring the world to an end. I braved a mini-lathicharge and crushing crowds to watch the most entertaining Bachchan movie of the 1990s – screaming and jumping up at every available opportunity, cheering our hero towards a satisfying climax. I still remember the collective gasps during the Jumma chumma le le song, when Bachchan and Kimi Katkar try to embrace but they are pushed apart by the milling crowd around them.
Continuing from Hum, Priya and its spiritual twin, Menoka, were the venues of an absurdly large number of films that comprised most of my movie watching during the 1990s and shaped my cinematic tastes – for better or for worse – for the rest of my life.
Immediately after completing our Class X Board exams, a friend and I went to watch Jumma Chumma in London at Priya. Since tickets weren’t available, we ran across to Menoka for an alternative. Google Maps insists it’s a 14-minute walk but I can assure you that for two movie-crazy teens, it’s a sub-10 minute run. We ended up watching Benaam Badshah, a movie we were embarrassed about watching but didn’t dislike thoroughly. (In fact, I loved the movie’s badness enough to blog about it.)
Agneepath at Menoka. Afsana Pyar Ka at Priya. Angaar at Menoka. Indrajeet at Priya. Akayla at Menoka. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar at Priya. Darr at Priya. In a sort of a ping-pong between these two nearly neighbouring theatres, I gobbled down film after film without a thought about quality or the quantity. The choice was between Jackie Shroff and organic chemistry, and Jaggu Dada won every single time.
Priya was the more frequent destination and the memories alarmingly vivid. I still remember tagging along with two friends (whom I didn’t know were a couple then) to watch Main Khiladi Tu Anari. I am not sure why they chose this film but much fan was had, ogling at Shilpa Shetty’s impossible figure and giggling at Akshay Kumar’s shaved armpits. When Shah Rukh Khan stabbed Sunny Deol in Darr, the entire theatre cheered – the first time for a villain in my living memory – signalling the arrival of a new superstar. Andaz Apna Apna was watched with a Trotskyite friend, who refused to believe that I was guffawing all through the film in an unironic way. Amitabh Bachchan’s last film before he took a sabbatical – Khuda Gawah – was almost like a communion, a clan of fans exulting at the bouzkashi match and sighing that we just haven’t seen enough of Bachchan and Sridevi.
The adventures around Saajan would make one season of Mismatched, at least. Matches were made and broken as movie dates happened, got cancelled and happened again, with intended companions and unintended ones. A couple of friends and I were the observers in this mating game, enjoying the love polygons on screen and off it. Laughing at Salman Khan’s shenanigans (they were damn funny, okay?), sighing at Sanjay Dutt’s shaeris (they were comprehensibly flowery) and – of course – singing Dimparuti Dimparuti (you know if you know!) during Dekha hai pehli baar filled us up with giddy-headed joy. And we did all that with a community which was completely nebulous and absolutely well-defined at the same time – the Priya audience.
One of the last films I watched at Priya was Aks, for which I sneaked out of a matchmaking meeting and half-carried a friend on crutches to the theatre. These things sound crazy and memorable now but they were almost quotidian when they happened – just an irresistible urge to watch movies and there being a awesomely located, reasonably priced, well-maintained place to do so.
The owners of Priya are also well-known as producers of at least two Satyajit Ray classics, stills from those films adorning the lobby (which we missed in our rush to get to our seats before the trailers started). They braved a terrible phase of Bengali cinema, the video boom, the multiplex onslaught and what not to successfully run the theatre – one of the best-known in Calcutta. I remember Priya got a (sort of a) Jeep when Saajan completed 50 weeks there and a friend wryly commented that our gang of friends deserved at least a couple of the wheels for the number of tickets we contributed.
You know how it happens with college sweethearts. You have a great teeny-bopper romance, your friends love her and it is great while it lasts. Then you drift away and they find new admirers. You don’t miss each other and even forget about the love story after a point. It is only when you hear about that girlfriend in a debilitating disease that you think of the old times, you smile when others had praised her, you regret the times when you passed by and didn’t stop to say hello… and you promise that if she recovers, you will go out for a coffee... for old time’s sake. For me, that girlfriend is Priya.