I meet Sharma Ji in my search for a minor electrical item. His is a small shop of electrical gadgets and accessories, but he doesn’t have in stock what I am looking for. Before I can ask him when he could get it for me, he gives me directions to the nearest shop where I can buy it. I am surprised at his selfless attitude, his focus on the customer’s need rather than his own profit. 

The shop doesn’t look very old. I ask 62-year-old Sharma Ji what he did before. “Bahut lambi kahaani hai (it’s a long story),” he says. This piques my interest more. 

Deepak Sharma was born in the Panditwari area of Dehradun, close to the Forest Research Institute (FRI), which is famous for its Greco-Roman and colonial architecture and sprawling campus. His father, respectfully called Pandit Ji by villagers, owned a bicycle shop, and his mother worked in the local health department. Pandit Ji tried to get his two sons secure jobs in the FRI or another government unit, but the script progressed differently. 

As a youngster, Sharma Ji helped with farming after school. He was in the 7th grade when his elder sister got burns in an accident and was in the hospital for 6 months before she died. His mother was often away for training and Sharma Ji had to drop out of school to take care of his sister and the household. As he came off age, pushed by his father, he worked in the FRI as a gardener for a month, for a salary of Rs.110. Had he continued on these monthly contracts for some months, he could have been hired for a long-term job. But he had the “filmi bhoot in my head” (was crazy about films).

Even as a child, Sharma Ji loved watching films, on-screen and off-screen. Pandit Ji’s life beat to a different drum, but he’d still take his children to films as part of the village group. Sharma Ji recalls the time he went on a bicycle with his father to watch Manoj Kumar’s Shaheed in a night show. Another time it was Son of India, Mehboob’s sequel to his classic and famous Mother India. Sharma Ji accurately remembers the lyrics of the patriotic song “Nanha munna rahi hoon desh ka sipahi hoon”, which is the only memorable bit of the sequel. 

There were also exciting scenes in the surrounding villages when Bollywood films were shot in the beautiful grounds of the FRI. He has a photographic memory of the shooting of the song “Ek haseen shaam ko dil mera kho gaya” in the Dharmendra and Nutan-starrer Dulhan Ek Raat Ki: the cameras rolled back and forth on the tracks laid among pine trees, and it was several re-takes later that the director was happy with the shot. Happier was our 7-year-old Sharma Ji, watching from behind the trees with his village folk.  

In a few years, Pandit Ji’s elder son was working as a movie projector operator in the “picture hall” Filmistan Talkies, one of the 17 cinema halls in Dehradun at the time for a population of less than 350,000. The younger son’s job was to bring lunch to his brother at the cinema every afternoon. The regular visits only strengthened the craze for movies in the younger boy’s mind.  

The informal training from his brother eventually landed Sharma Ji a job as a gate keeper at Prabhat Talkies. But the good times didn’t last long, as he was laid off. Another new cinema, Krishna Palace, had opened in 1977, and he got a job there to manage the cinema gate, the box office counter, and the cash collected at the counter. When he had to work the late night show, he stayed back at the cinema overnight. The monthly salary was Rs. 90. 

Those were the pre-digital years, when movie reels were projected with the help of arc lamps — an electric arc between two heated carbon rods produced the light. Whenever one of the rods failed, the light would be out and the movie screen would turn black, and movie-watchers would be shouting at the projector operator. 

One fine evening at the job, Sharma Ji answered the telephone and froze. He ran to fetch his friend, booking clerk Mahinder Singh: the caller identified himself as Raj Kapoor, who you would hear about a lot but not hear from. It transpired that the larger-than-life film director and producer had called to speak to the owner of Krishna Palace about organizing the shooting of his next blockbuster Ram Teri Ganga Maili in the mountains.

Sharma Ji’s job had obvious perks: he could watch all freshly-released films for free, most of the time on the first evening itself. He has lost count of the number of films he watched in his “picture hall” career, but says that like everything else in life, too much film-watching was no fun either. So, contrary to popular expectations, he didn’t watch the films repeatedly night after night. 

There were exceptions, of course, for his favourite films such as Dillip Kumar’s tear-jerker story of a simpleton Gopi, which he watched 6 times just to tear up. Sholay was the other special film. This super successful film had simultaneously released in 2 cinemas in town, Luxmi Talkies and Natraj Cinema. Young Sharma Ji went to Luxmi but found the tickets were only available “in black”, at a premium he could not afford. He pedalled fast to Natraj and his efforts were rewarded: not many people knew the film was playing there too, so Sharma Ji could enjoy the film in the first week itself. The film played in Natraj for only 1 week but continued in Luxmi for 29 weeks. It kept doing rounds of the cinemas in Dehradun for several years and later came to Sharma Ji’s home ground Krishna Palace for a free repeat watch. 

Left unemployed at his age, Sharma Ji now passes time managing his son’s electrical accessories shop. (Photo: Kanti Kumar)

With video cassettes and DVDs flooding the market, watching films at home anytime and any number of times became possible. The attraction of going to cinemas disappeared. Most of the cinema halls shuttered. As business dwindled, the owner of the cinema where Sharma Ji worked last reduced the workforce from 10 to 3. He had to work more and more for the same pay, so eventually he left when it became an “unfair” deal. 

Cinema houses suffered further losses when multiplexes were built inside shopping malls. They made evenings more social and entertaining for middle class and rich people, but remained inaccessible for the poor and underprivileged people. After sacrificing sweat and blood in different “picture halls” for 3 decades, when Sharma Ji finally said fini to the film world in 2004, his salary had grown to a paltry Rs. 1200 (approx. Rs. 3780 today). 

Life has not been necessarily fair for Sharma Ji since then. He remained unemployed for some years before getting a job in a foreign liquor godown. He lost the job again after 5 years due to downsizing of the workforce. Desperate to earn a living, he opened a paan shop not far from where he lives. But the shop had to be torn down in a couple of years to give way to a modern market complex. He lost his wife to kidney failure in 2011. Finally, his son who works as an electrician opened the electrical accessories shop 3 years ago.  

Sharma Ji has not entered any of the shopping malls in the city, let alone watch any films there. He doesn’t watch films at home either; maybe catches an old classic on TV at times, but he finds the song-dance routines of today’s films too base for his taste to watch with his son, daughter-in-law and 2 grandsons. He laments the absenceof legendary singers like Mohd Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Lata Mageshkar and Asha Bhosle, and past actors of the classic Bollywood films. 

Sharma Ji believes that life gives everyone an opportunity and if you don’t take it, the consequences can be life-altering. He regrets that he didn’t continue in the FRI and wait for a long-term government job that would have given him good salary in later years and pension in his old age. But he also laments that fate deprived him of other possibilities. If he had studied further, he could have progressed more in life. He gives the example of his booking clerk friend Mahinder Singh, who had completed up to intermediate college years, studying under a street lamp. He landed a job in a bank by conversing politely in English with a gentleman who had come to watch a film. Singh is today a branch manager at the bank. Another colleague landed a job in the soil conservation department. 

Forced to remain without an income in his early sixties, Sharma Ji is now reconciled to passing time. He displays paan masalas, cigarettes and bidis in his shop. A strange combination of merchandise in an electrical shop, I observe. There are no frequent customers for electrical items, he explains. “There are two things that are totally unpredictable: customers and death,” he says philosophically. The consumable items like cigarettes displayed prominently in the shop attract more customers. His gain is not pecuniary alone. “It helps me to pass time well,” he adds. Does he smoke himself? “Yes, only bidi, not so much now as before when I worked, as the family doesn’t like it. I smoke a few, only to kill time.”

Sharma Ji gives direction to a customer for another shop. (Photo: Kanti Kumar)

Among the customers today is a young couple looking for an emergency light. Sorry, out of stock, says Sharma Ji, but immediately maps out on a piece of paper the directions to the shop where they can get it. His helpful attitude surprises the couple. Sharma Ji is nonchalant and is worried about the disappearing sense of brotherhood. Education is so expensive now that parents cannot send their kids to school and there is no source of income for younger people, leading to a self-centred lifestyle breeding jealousy and enmity, he mourns.     

As the customer couple leaves in the direction Sharma Ji has given, a pensive mood grips his face. I realize his is an extinct type, as is the “picture hall” career he had. It is time for lights out and time pass.

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