Movies at Home

If you were born in the early eighties, you would understand the excitement.

Movies at home meant cozy nights spent around the idiot box, dinner and chores completed earlier than usual and in full cooperation, past curfew time in pyjamas and blankets, with only TV rays illuminating the room, to watch a Hollywood or Bollywood movie till more than one of us fell asleep. Promptly thereafter, we were ushered off to bed by Mom, the remainder movie carried forward for the following afternoon after lunch. Those were the last invaluable family moments that we took for granted, before the smarter pocket sized idiots made way for individual private entertainment. Where I was raised as an expat, cinemas were scarce in the 80s, ill- conducive to families, open air and re-ran old, unpopular reels for as low as 5 bucks. Additionally, you were bitten by bed bugs, and suffered a bout of food poisoning if you attempted to eat at the dilapidated canteens.

Our ‘cassette shop’ was just a stone’s throw away, with it’s musty smelling carpets and wooden shelves lined with infinite rows of video cassettes. It was a profitable business then, and every street corner had one. There were films for children, few Hollywood (or English movies as we would call them), mostly Bollywood, Malayalam, Tamil and other regional languages, and rarely some Pushto hits. You could choose as many you liked, watched for as long as you wanted and returned them when you grew tired or wanted another. However, soon this turned into a menace.

Many customers began to own more than a single video player for the sole purpose of re-recording these cassettes, either to keep the originals as collectibles or for further distribution. The ones returned to the shop were the re-recorded versions, with chopped scenes, fast forwarded songs and missing endings. To curb this malpractice, shop owners resorted to the distribution of one cassette per customer, on a first come first serve basis, for a limited time of 1-2 days, and customers were required to have a membership plan to avail the service. Delays in return, lost or damaged cassettes were penalised with forfeited tapes from the membership. This meant spending many restive weeks while we awaited a new release due to popular demand, and like many others, we found our appeal in dish TV subscriptions. Few cinemas also arrived, but were expensive, and a family movie night meant spending more than a 100 bucks, not counting snacks. We had to smuggle our McDonald’s and Punjabi samosas in large handbags, concealing their mouth watering aromas from unsuspecting cinema ushers with layers of towels or tissues.

The mid-nineties thankfully introduced CDs, which soon evolved to DVDs making VHS players redundant. These were handy, light and could be played on your home PC and later over laptops. My Dad refused to give up his VHS players for sale, and until his retirement, they continued to collect dust at the video cabinet. He still owns more than a dozen tapes of some good classic movies, musical hits and cooking videos. Grandma too had a penchant for these videos and refused to part with them, neither did she attempt to learn the operation of a CD/ DVD Player. Great effort was required to maintain these antique gizmos – cleaning the VHS player with a ‘head cleaner’, re-running of tapes from time to time to prevent it from catching fungus – the white, spidery like substance that lingered on the rolled up film and could be seen through the cassette cover windows. Grandma assiduously did all these, and was heartbroken when her favorite recorded series – the Thorn Birds caught that ill-fated fungus, leading her to discard the precious collection. After her death, the DVDs that I sent for her birthday of the same series, remained unopened and intestate.

The millennium gave rise to new and improved cinemas, multiplexes at malls and shopping outlets that were hygienic, family safe, a profusion of shows and show timings, and upsized and downsized menus to choose from. Weekends would now be incomplete without cinema time and the concept of ‘watch at home’ was nearly extinct. So were the cassette shops, we once couldn’t do without. By now we were adults and afforded our own movie tickets, so family movie nights were no longer a worry for Dad. He continued to smuggle his McDonald’s anyway.

Since my son arrived in 2017, I have not seen the insides of a cinema hall. Friday nights were rain checked every time in favor of some thing / someone else. I kept promising myself that this would change once he’s older and the sights and sounds would become more enduring to him, only for the pandemic to arrive and re-instate my skepticism. Though I am a vaccinated individual, it will be a long era, before I can regain trust in that big warm bucket of pop corn atop my lap in front of a large Dolby.

This blog is an ode to the humble tape and a huge thanks to Netflix and other reel providers who made Stay at Home sustainable and a lockdown survivor’s hack. Founded on 29 August 1997, California by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph, this smartphone miracle keeps us going and thriving amid the pandemic. Until the days when the silver screens finally find their silver linings, let’s wear our headphones and chill!

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