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The old box of wonders: Salim, Kolkata’s last bioscope man and his love for the art

Kolkata’s last bioscope man clings on to the past, even though the mobile phone has completely killed his trade.

Written by Premankur Biswas | New Delhi |
Updated: December 6, 2015 1:10:22 am
Mohammad Salim shows film reels on his bioscope at the recently-concluded Kolkata International Film Festival. (Source: Shubham Dutta) Mohammad Salim shows film reels on his bioscope at the recently-concluded Kolkata International Film Festival. (Source: Shubham Dutta)

In 1902, less than three km away from Mohammad Salim’s one-room residence at Marcus Square in central Kolkata, the first bioscope show in India was held for the crème de la crème of Kolkata society. “It must have been a grand affair,” says Salim, 62, hunched in a corner of the large bed that dominates most of his 8×10 room.

Not much is known of the grandeur of that event, but it was quite clear that theatre magnet Jamshedji Framji Madan, who was one of the first people to introduce the bioscope to India, moved to Kolkata from Bombay that very year, to join the motion picture business. Soon, he would make enough money to build India’s first permanent show house, Elphinstone Picture Palace (later renamed Chaplin) in Chowringhee Place in 1907.

Salim, popularly known as Kolkata’s last bioscope man, doesn’t have a shred of property to his name. He shares his room with seven other people — his wife, four sons and two daughters — and has a 100-year-old projector, a sewing machine-like contraption most youngsters will mistake for things-you-find-at-the-kabadiwallah, which occupies half the room. Salim and his sons barely manage to make ends meet; three of them are labourers in various markets around the city. One of them helps him out at his tea shop.

Still, every few months, Salim takes his projector on a cart, accompanied by his reluctant son, to “air it out”. In his heydays, back in the 1970s and 1980s, he would travel all the way to Metiabruz in the western fringe of the city, calling out to the children of the neighbourhoods he walked by, to show seven-minute clips of Jeetendra-Sridevi starers that were all the rage.

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Salim remembers how the children, tightly clutching on to 25-paise coins in their sweaty palms, would rush to his cart. They would then crawl under the musty black cloth, and watch grainy images of their favourite stars move to the metallic whir of the projector. The science behind the magic, would be equally fascinating for Salim’s little patrons. The idea that hand-driven projector with a low-watt bulb could create something so beautiful, would leave them squealing with delight. Those days are far gone, says Salim. “Today, when we set up our stalls in a fair, we earn about Rs 500 a day. That’s barely anything,” he says.

Salim’s love for his bioscope has endured despite the low returns. The new millennium was tough on him, as mobile phones became cheaper and people were no longer drawn to the call of the bioscopewallah. “Even when television came to most households, our business was not that affected. People wanted to see trailers of new films or clips of their favourite films. But with the mobile phone, everything was a click away, even for children in the remotest of villages,” says Salim.

When he started his career as a bioscope operator in the early 1960s, Salim was barely in his teens. Dilip Kumar was ruling the marquee and his father, also a bioscopewallah, was a staunch Ashok Kumar fan.” His favourite clippings were songs from the 1943 Ashok Kumar-starrer Kismet. “I was a big Dilip Kumar and Manoj Kumar fan. I wanted to play clips of Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966) and Gunga Jumna (1961) but he wouldn’t agree,” says Salim. His father, like his grandfather before him, was an employee of Hira Lal Sen, who started the Royal Bioscope Company in Kolkata sometime between late 1800s and the early 1900s.

Soon, almost every locality of Kolkata could boast of a bioscopewallah who made the rounds in the afternoon so that children who had returned from school could cajole their mothers to give them money to watch the shows. “Mothers would be only too happy to get rid of their children for half-an-hour or so,” says Salim with a smile. That has changed. Today, most mothers are suspicious of bioscopewallahs, says Salim. “I don’t blame them, times have changed drastically,” he says.

But is Salim aware of the historical import of his glorious legacy? Does he know that without his help, and help of countless others before him, Indian cinema wouldn’t have been one of the largest film industries of the world? “I love cinema and I love the science that goes behind it. I feel bioscopewallahs like my father were men of science and technology, they never received any recognition for that. Over the years, I have had many foreign magazines writing about me, people have made movies about me as well, but why should the world care about a technology that is obsolete?” he says.

In 2007, Tim Sternberg shot a short documentary film. Salim Baba follows Salim as he plies his wares in the streets of Kolkata. The following year, the film was nominated for an Oscar, but it did little to change its subject’s life. “All I ask for is the freedom and the platform for me and my sons to pursue this trade without worrying about our meals,” says Salim.

He also wonders if the bioscope can be contemporised. “In the 1980s, I approached an engineer to help create a machine that will sync sound with the images. That worked and we started getting more customers. Before that, when we realised that people were getting bored of the same old trailers of films, my father and I went to the now-defunct market in Murgighata. We bought rejected film prints at Rs 5 a kilo, cut scenes from them to make our own little films. I am sure we can find a way to make the bioscope relevant again,” says Salim.

Two weeks ago, when he set up his bioscope tent at the recently-concluded Kolkata International Film Festival, hundreds thronged to the Nandan complex to watch a seven-minute concise version of Ajay Devgan’s debut film, Phool Aur Kaante. “Nostalgia is a very seductive thing. It transports you to happier days for a few minutes. Maybe we can have a corner in cultural complexes such as these, where we can hold our own seven-minute nostalgia trips,” says Salim.

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