I was a happy-go-lucky seven-year-old when it first happened. It was a relatively sunny, winter afternoon. We were in Dhanbad, a small colliery town in Jharkhand. You may know of Dhanbad, thanks to Gangs of Wasseypur. My mother, my aunts, my brother and I had gathered in front of the television. Every afternoon a local cable channel there used to broadcast pirated cinema. Mostly it was new stuff, which gave it the obvious edge over Star Gold or Zee Cinema. That afternoon, we witnessed Titanic for the first time in our lives.
The Leo DiCaprio- and Kate Winslet-starrer felt like a fun watch. We were in awe at the sheer size of the ship. The rich people, the music and the merry-making. It was almost as if we were there as well. Everything was hunky-dory when all of a sudden fate played a cruel trick on us.
Kate Winslet disrobed for all of us to see her breasts and Leo DiCaprio kept on sketching her. The scene had already gone too far, and it was too late for my mother to send me or my brother away to fetch water or something. The whole room had barely adjusted to the trauma of having two children witness nudity, and lo and behold, they had to sit through the couple on screen having steamy sex in a vintage car.
While I remember being fascinated by the nudity, I can very well imagine just how scarred my conservative mother and her sister were. "Children don't need to see this."
Sadly, Pahlaj Nihalani wasn’t there to avert this disaster. Had he wanted, he could and would have arrived at my maternal grandmother’s house in Dhanbad — minutes before the nude sketch scene — in the form of a house guest. My mother would have had to chat up with him and my aunt could have had rushed to make tea. And obviously the TV would not have been left on when a guest is in the same room. My brother and I would have been forced to go out and play cricket in the front yard.
Everything would have been fine, if only the man had arrived.
I was 12. We were back in Jamshedpur. Our society had a shop that rented movie DVDs and CDs for Rs 10 a day. Every weekend, dad would rent out a movie or two and my parents, my brother and I would happily watch them on our ancient computer (fun fact, can you even imagine Windows 98 anymore?)
On that fateful night it was a C-grade horror/monster flick called Python. It was a movie I had seen in bits and pieces on TV before, and was therefore adequately excited. It may have been a really bad movie, but what is a 12-year-old who does not like giant snakes eating up people?
The film began and I was horrified. Sadly it wasn’t the giant snake that scared the crap out of me. It was scene where one woman was going down on another woman (who was naked), in the middle of a forest. I mean, I had seen photos of girl-on-girl porn on the internet (dial-up), and I knew of a word called lesbian, but why would this movie do that to us? Especially when the whole family was watching it!
My mother was visibly shaken, and why wouldn’t she be? Not only did we as a family witness nudity, it was coupled with “unnatural sex” and homosexuality! We could all feel the sanskaari elephant in the corner of the room struggling to breathe. There was absolutely no excuse for this atrocious behaviour on the part of this C-grade film on a pirated CD.
My mother threw an incoherent scolding at my father; something like... "this is what happens in all English films". Clearly, this incident rubbed salt on the, now phantom, wounds inflicted by Titanic about half-a-decade ago.
As I look back upon that night, I have a sinking feeling that this could all have been avoided had Nihalani been there. He could have easily rented out the CD five minutes before dad grabbed it. He could have broken into our house at that very instant, as a thief. He could have urinated on the power supply lines and sent us all into the blissful, mosquito-filled summer night darkness. But alas!
2007 saw us as a family move to Noida. I was a fresh-faced lad at a new school, who had left his monsters back in Jharkhand. I was still readjusting, but there was a hopeful glimmer in the horizon. Barely a week in school, we decided to have our first multiplex experience. And Shipra Mall at Indirapuram turned into our unbecoming.
For some reason, my father thought we would all enjoy the just released Anurag Basu film Life in a… Metro. Honestly, despite the shoddy direction and the occasional sights of Pritam pretending to play the guitar on the roofs of high-rises and in empty street corners, it was a rather enjoyable movie. Of course, there was sex in the movie, but we, as a family, were stronger than that.
Every time Sharman Joshi lent his apartment keys to his colleagues, who for god knows what reason were all having affairs with each other (I imagine it was a horror movie for HR folks), there would be not-so-subtle indications of them having sex (no flowers colliding against each other though). But this was a Bollywood movie. Even an edgy director like Anurag Basu would not be able to slip in nudity here. We were safe.
But the strong bonds of our sanskaari family quickly came undone because we had not taken into account the newest and weakest link in the chain: my young sister.
The little bag of snot made me realise what my parents had gone through all those years ago. In one particular scene, where Sharman Joshi is dealing with a prostitute in his apartment, she brazenly asks him if he has a condom. While in-your-face condom commercials had successfully de-sensitised my brother and I, we never quite anticipated our five-year-old sister to pipe up and ask loudly, “Condom kya hota hai?”
Now, how on earth were we to explain that to her? Adding to our chagrin was low sniggers from people sitting around us. In fact, it was a teenage couple. I really hoped the guy would never have the balls to buy condoms when his girlfriend would finally say yes to sex.
It was probably the first time I empathised with my parents. I realised how distressful it was to answer a sex-related question in India. Where then were you Nihalani? Why were you not the annoying old uncle in the movie theatre who coughs like Walter White during key scenes, making even Dolby Digital fail to surround us with sound? Why did you let me down? Why?
I was 18. The world was my oyster. Well, not quite. But I was now an adult, who despite living under the roof of his parents’ house, felt that he was accountable to no one. Mom was out of station and my brother was somewhere I don’t remember. After dinner, dad asked me if I want to watch a movie. I was all up for it.
Having recently discovered World War movies, I picked a title called The Reader, which I knew was based in war-torn Germany. It was a pirated DVD that had five different movies. Yet, I picked this movie. A few minutes in, I knew I had f**ked up.
|You are an unsung hero, Pahlaj. [Photo: DailyO]|
I should not have trusted Kate Winslet again. Suddenly I found myself flushing at the sight of the actor in nude once again. I would have dealt with it had there been more people in the room, but it was just my father and I.
Suddenly I realised I was in an advantageous position. I was lying on the couch. What if I pretended to fall asleep? Dad and I would be saved of all the embarrassment. But after five minutes of lying completely still, I realised dad had not taken notice of me. Or perhaps, he couldn’t quite see that I was trying really hard to look asleep. I proceeded to crank it up a notch. I let out a loud snore.
That caught his attention.
He woke me up, and I in my trying-to-sound-groggy best said that I must have fallen asleep just as the movie started. He suggested I go and crash in my room and I left. I escaped. Or did I? Even almost a decade later, I have a sinking feeling that he knew my ruse and played along because it was that uncomfortable a movie.
As usual, Nihalani had ditched me again. He didn't come to my rescue.
Ever since you have taken up the top job at the CBFC, you have given me enough reasons to detest you. You make irrational film cuts and you drive us liberals up the wall. But of all the things you did to cinema, I will still hate you for not saving my family and me. But even though I do hate you, I know that you are important.
Hundreds of families are torn apart every day, thanks to movies that poke the weakest spots of our repressed sanskaari fabric. Every day, a child asks their parents about Basic Instinct. Every day a family witnesses an uncomfortable exchange about sexual freedom and liberation on screen, something that they are not only unprepared for, but have actually fought against in the upbringing of their children.
You are an unsung hero, Pahlaj Nihalani. If only the world had more of you. If only you were there, when Kate Winslet began disrobing!