The Sunday Evening Movie, Blues-Killer Sans Pareil

It’s a strange business to have written about ‘The Sunday Evening Blues‘ on this blog, in such plaintive fashion, because for many years, Sunday evening was the time of the week that promised a very particular form of entertainment: the Sunday evening movie, for many years, an institution in the life of any Indian household that owned, or had access to, a television. Long before the video cassette recorder, before hundreds of channels and endless movies playing around the clock became de rigueur on Indian television, there was only one way you could see movies outside the cinema: on television, on Sunday night, via a Bollywood offering broadcast on the one and only channel, the national one.

The Sunday evening movie began promptly at 6 and ran without commercials, with one break for the evening news at 8 PM. It then resumed, ending around 9:30 PM or so. (Most Bollywood movies then, as now, ran over three hours). But what made the Sunday evening movie distinctive was that for many years, my family did not own a television. So we had to travel, perhaps to a neighbor’s house, perhaps to a school friend’s living room, but most commonly, it meant visiting my grandparents’ home, several kilometers away. My two uncles–my mother’s brothers–lived there too, so it was a relatively large family gathering. Every Sunday evening followed, roughly, the same pattern: departure from home in well-timed fashion (my father, as noted before on this blog, was an Air Force pilot, so punctuality in this regard was never a problem), arrival at my grandmother’s home, a quick procurement of seats before the movie started. At my grandparents’ first residence in New Delhi, we watched the movie in the living room; at the second, we congregated in my grandparent’s bedroom. Somehow, quite effortlessly, the eight or nine or ten of us would seat ourselves and enter movie-land. Talking during the movie was discouraged; my grandmother was especially strict in enforcing this rule. If the movie happened to not be of interest to me–perhaps a tearjerker, perhaps a ponderous, meandering romance, as opposed to a thriller or comedy–I still felt strangely compelled to keep watching: it never occurred to me to leave that gathering alone and go bury myself in a book, the way I did when confronted with many other family-centered social occasions.

Perhaps the most dramatic effect of the Sunday movie was the way it cleared the city’s streets, markets and parks: cricket, soccer and hockey games were suspended as was housework and homework. Somehow, mysteriously, Indian parents knew there was no point in trying to get schoolchildren to do their assignments at that time, or perhaps it was considered cruel and unusual punishment. The desertion of the normally bustling streets was uncanny and made even more so by the movie soundtrack that could be heard on them; sometimes, if the resonance and amplification came together, you could hear line by line, the progression of the script as you walked down a street. Perhaps the closest Indian streets came to this emptiness was when a big cricket game was on or when election results were being announced. But even those didn’t quite match the effect of the Sunday movie.

The Sunday movie as a social event disappeared quickly with the advent of a television in our house. The trips to other movie-watching destinations ceased; the family gatherings became more nuclear. Later, with the VCR, the novelty of the movie at home completely wore off. But what really killed the Sunday movie for me was growing up, the sense that responsibilities had to be taken on come Monday morning.

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