Kanchan and Novelty had a fond place in the hearts of the people of Kalimpong.
Dreams, songs, love, modernity - were found here. For the people of this secluded town, they opened up a magnificent world beyond the Teesta bridge.
These two entertainment hubs were situated at the two ends of the prestige area of the town. In between was the esplanade of Larks, Narayan Das, erstwhile Deepali, Damber Chowk, Main Road and Thana Dara. Groups of two or more ambled to and fro along this thoroughfare. Friends and crushes were met many times. The common excuse was to see the “Coming” posters, or to collect newspapers from Himalayan Stores.
Long before they were screened, posters of Spartacus, Mughal e Azam, Guns of Navarone, Jewel Thief, Mother India, Guide, Dr Zhivago, titillated eager viewers.
Novelty also boasted a garden surrounded by a cement parapet just in front of the curved welcoming steps.
It was rare to have a glimpse of the owner of Novelty. He was a fair, elderly man, in snow white kurta and starched dhuti, and with a cream shawl over his shoulders. He had an ethereal halo around him - so befitting of a merchant of dreams.
Parking was never a problem because only a handful of people had two or four wheelers. Walking was universal. Even after night shows, enthusiasts walked through steep paths to distant villages.
Tickets Prices : Front Stall - Rs 0.40 ( Paanch Aaney )
Middle Stall - Rs 0.65 ( Dus Aaney)
Rear Stall - Rs 0.95 ( Pandrah Aaney).
Dress Circle - Rs 1.25
Sofa - Rs 2.50
FREE shows -on Pandrah August - for one patriotic national film, with a song like “Mera Rang De Basanti Chola”. Both halls were packed because the shows were held just after the Independence Day Parade at Mela Ground.
On Haat days, Wednesdays and Saturdays, there was the extra Matinee show at 12 noon. The regular shows comprised Afternoon (2 pm), Evening (5 pm) and Night (8 pm) shows.
Girls from faraway bustees found excuse to put on lipstick and tie the newest ribbons in their hair for the grand occasion to see “baiskop”, or bioscope, as movies were then known.
The Stall ticket counters were opened just before each show. The tickets had to be bought through a hole in a concrete wall which allowed just one fist to pass. Shoving, grinding bodies made mockery of the queue line. Muscular lads from the bustees, tussled with the bazarey black wallas. The latter were notorious for raksi and chhuri. One huge ferocious looking man in black baku was given the tough task of maintaining order in these counters at Novelty. There were often, more live action here, then in the movie they clamoured to see.
Advance tickets for Dress Circle and higher classes, were also available from a shop in Main Road, beside the present SBI ATM. The coveted ticket bundle came out from a solid wooden cash box in a corner of a wide gaddi. The tickets were extra thin papers of pink, yellow and green. Seat numbers were scrawled in thick illegible blue or red crayon, which only the usher with his Everyday torch could read.
Romantic couples in a new relationship , usually took along with them a chaperone in the form of a small Bhai who was quite happy having popcorns and was oblivious to the intimate glances being exchanged above his head. Besides, while walking in the Main Road, a third person added respectability to the outing.
The more experienced and shrewd boy managed to secure two seats at the end of the last row where prying eyes could not reach. He planned maneuvers to escape the eyes of the girl’s Dad. He knew the exact price of a ‘badaam ko khhochi’ or a ‘hawa mithai’. And also, exactly, how many coins he had in his pocket. After all, in the courting game, he would have to be seen walking tall.
Advertisement for coming films was done by criers who went around the town shouting out from a big tin funnel. A loud drum and poster went with them. They created an inquisitive din, like parties asking for vote during election time. They went as far as the 12th Mile. Posters pinned on wooden boards were also placed at busy intersections of roads..
Show time meant a darkened hall where the screen ruled supreme.
Johnny Walker with his signature pencil moustache and the extra-large Tun Tun evoked great cheers. Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Dev Anand, ruled as supreme idols. Raj Kumar was the reticent hero.
Nanda, Tanuja, Asha Parekh, Nargis, Nutan, Sadhana with fringe cut hair, Mumtaz with her upturned nose, dimpled Sharmila Tagore, were the ruling divas. Mala Sinha was special, because of, or in spite of, her roots. Zeenat Aman showed girls how to assert female independence.
Mehmood, I S Johar and Om Prakash evoked quite a lot of laughter.
Poor Pran, never was a man more reviled and cursed than him, and how the crowd hated the way he twirled a biri in his smirking mouth.
Nirupa Roy was the ultimate mother.
All problems on the stage would be solved by the ever so decent Ashok Kumar and Hangal.
And then came Helen. Only the discerning few saw the perfect artiste beneath her skimpy costume. This cabaret beauty’s solitary dance scene would often be the sole reason for many to buy a ticket. And buy it many times over.
Bald David was the elderly darling with a pivotal role. Shashikala and Lalita Pawar often played the evil mother-in-law. Balraj Sahni was liked a lot.
Kishore Kumar was an actor then, and not yet a singer.
Dara Singh was looked at in awe by fledgling body builders. He was the Tarzan and the Sikandar E Azam.
Simi and schoolboy Rishi Kapoor did a hill scene in ‘Mera Naam Joker’.The scenes were shot in St Pauls and North Point, Darjeeling.
Dev Anand’s ‘Ishq Ishq Ishq’ was shot in Dr Graham’s Homes.
After Shammi Kapoor’s ‘’Junglee” film, screams of “Yahoo .. !” were heard even in distant villages. His signature gyrations with a narrow necktie and pointed shoes were adored by many.
Raj Kapoor’s epic film ‘Sangam’ with Vyjayantimala, had Mukesh’s hit songs, like ‘dost dost na raha, pyaar pyaar na raha’. The film had a record long run.
The whole town went crazy with the film ‘Aradhana’ where Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore enacted the song ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani Kab Aeyegi Tu’- complete with dhaka topi and toy train.
After watching ‘Bhoot Bungla’ and ‘Woh Kaun Thi’ one had to act calm while walking in dark lonely places and control the urge to look behind and run.
Eyes were wiped, noses blown, and sobs repressed by ladies while watching the orphan boy and his friend in the film ‘Dosti’. And Mohammed Rafi’s ‘ Jaane Waalo Jara, Murkey Dekho Muje’ did nothing to stop the tears.
All of Lata Mangeshkar’s songs were well received. Asha Bhonsle’s ‘Chura Liya Hai Tumne Jo Dil Ko’ made her a seductive singing star. Mukesh, Manna Dey, Mahendra Kapoor, had a considerable following.
Madhubala’s legendary loveliness bloomed in black and white prints with hardly any photoshopping. It was much later that Eastmancolor from Kodak, and Technicolor brightened the small screens which later expanded into the grand CinemaScope.
The two duos of Shankar Jaikishan and Laxmikant Pyarelal made a gamut of popular melodies. R D Burman also stood tall.
Another duo, Salim Javed wrote memorable screen dialogues which were quoted everywhere. Sahir Ludhianvi’s words in many songs , like ‘ Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein’, and ‘Chalo ek Baar Phir Se’ enraptured hundreds.
Kalimpong wore a festive look during the screening of ‘Maiti Ghar’. Mala Sinha carried the film well. The mystery of “Bik Malai Nirmaya ..” still remains.
Chinky eyed teens, student lamas, elderly ladies in woollens, even taxi drivers, sang with considerable skill, the hit songs like ‘Chaudavi ka chaand’ / ‘Sau saal pehle muje tum se pyaar tha’ / ‘ Taarif karu mai uski’. Their Hindi diction and words were perfect. It was remarkable how people in remote mountains, who had never even been to Siliguri, could relate so closely with the national mainstream sentiments on the big screen.
It was not at all quiet on the western front. The Guns of Navarone’ roared with the screen giants Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven. Block bookings by schools were done for ‘The Longest Day’.
The magnificent Austrian mountain slopes in ‘The Sound of Music’ opened up to people who had momos or ‘sungoor ko maasu’ in their tummies. Everyone, everywhere sang the song ‘Do Re Mi’, and the lusty singers didn’t bother whether it was a “Doh a dear” or a “Doe a deer”.
“Somewhere my love”, Lara’s Theme in Dr Zhivago, was more popular than the movie. Everyone tried to play the tune in guitars, flutes, harmonicas and pianos.
Hill boys loved cowboys and the wild west. ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘ The Good the Bad and the Ugly’, ‘They call me Trinity’ were seen multiple times. Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Yul Bruner, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, - were easily recognised, and adored.
Drivers and helpers in the Motor Stand could be seen enacting a Laurel and Hardy scene or trying out a Charlie Chapman shuffle.
Cliff Richard’s ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Summer Holiday’ were runaway hits. So many people hummed his songs ‘Bachelor Boy’, ‘Travelling Light’ and ‘Evergreen Tree’. Elvis Presley did his first ‘pelvis’ thing in ‘Jailhouse Rock’.
The cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’ before the main film was hilariously watched.
Alfred Hitchcock mesmerised the town with his ‘Dial M for Murder’, ‘The Birds’ and ‘Psycho’.
Charlton Heston could never have been replaced as the hero in ‘Ben Hur’, ‘Ten Commandments’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’.
Musicals like ‘The West Side Story’ were sparse. Christopher Lee was the quintessential Dracula.
The sensual waterfall girl in the Liril soap advertisement was, proudly, one of Kalimpong’s own, by marriage. People hurried so as not to miss her clip.
When the sound system failed, there was always one person from the audience to carry on with the high notes of the Lifebuoy jingle. The crowd joined vociferously in the Vicco Vajradanti song.
Colgate went all out to promote its Hair Oil and Tooth Powder. Different beauties and hunks paraded Lux, Palmolive, Binaca, Keo Karpin and Himalayan Snow Cream.
One grandmother stubbornly refused to return home without buying a bar of 501 Soap she had just seen being advertised on the screen.
From huge framed portraits which lined the staircases, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Tony Curtis, surveyed the motley crowd with a hint of amusement. Few people knew that Vivien Leigh who also smiled along with the other stars was born and schooled in Darjeeling.
Films could be good or bad, but the extravaganza on offer during the Interval was always exciting and hurried. Long tapering badam ko khochhi were bought by nearly everyone. Brown fried chana in green saal ko paat, adorned the numerous stalls around the hall. Alu Dum, reddish yellow, looked tempting. Boiled whole eggs, fried brown, beckoned first timers. The hard chhurpi was widely sold. Bataarey and Khurma were taken inside the hall. For the seriously hungry there was the hot, hot momo, or simo, which had to be gobbled up before the last of the three bells rang.
The Paan Dokaaney’s shop was always crowded. Suparis, plain or sweetened, dried nariyel, NP chewing gums and bubble gums beckoned from inside glass jars.
Cigarettes like Scissors, No 10, Chancellor, Four Square, Panama, Gold Flake, Cool, Wills filter kings, Charminar, were hurriedly huffed and puffed in the washrooms. Peeing was also done with much force, so as to be on time for the vital opening scene.
Fancy jackets, bell bottoms, jewel thief hats, long sideburns, folding umbrellas from Hong Kong, and overcoats and boots - the latest ‘in’ things in fashion were seen in these two halls.
And unlike in Facebook, here you bumped into real-time, flesh and blood beings with whom a host of emotions were expressed in the brief “Hello” before the screen took over. Even years later, these hurried encounters with certain people would be remembered in far away places.
Wrinkled, forsaken and demolished now, Kanchan and Novelty, were pretty maidens who charmed the hills, once upon a time ....
DR. J. S. SIMICK
Dr J. S. Simick has his roots in Kalimpong, where he was born and schooled. He did his medical graduation and post-graduation in Surgery from Calcutta University. He served in a central government hospital in Kolkata for many years. He was the chief surgeon there for more than a decade before his retirement.
He visits Kalimpong occasionally, and divides his time between India and Canada.
The photo project of documenting the pre - as well as post demolition process of two coveted cinema halls of Kalimpong was undertaken by Praveen Chettri in 2018. Praveen Chettri is a photographer based in Kalimpong, West Bengal. He was honoured as the
Photographer of the Year for winning the EPSON-PHOTO OF THE YEAR 2012 and has worked for Numero-French fashion magazine as in-house photographer in Thailand.
With more than 10 years of experience, he is involved with The ConfluenceCollective, an initiatives to educate and bring awareness in the Darjeeling hills and Sikkim through the medium of photography.
Content Copyright ©J.S Simik / Photo Copyright © Praveen Chettri. All rights reserved. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at firstname.lastname@example.org