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Opinion | Through a glass, darkly

When you watch a film as a child, and later as an adult, you are seeing two entirely different filmsyou're another person now

A still from ‘Gali Guleiyan’.
A still from ‘Gali Guleiyan’.

These CCTV cameras aren’t capturing anything," a bewildered man named Khuddoos (Manoj Bajpayee) says in Gali Guleiyan, which released in theatres this month after having been on the festival circuit for a while. “I need other cameras."

Khuddoos doesn’t know this, but no available lens—however sophisticated—will show him the footage he wants to see; what he needs is a magic looking glass. Gali Guleiyan, a haunting film about the nature of memory and childhood trauma, is set in grimy Chandni Chowk, but when it ended, the question that crept into my mind was from the realm of science-fiction or fantasy: What if we had cameras that enabled us to peer into our distant pasts? What would we learn about our child-selves?

Given such a device, one thing I would want to revisit is how much I relished being scared in my early years as a movie buff: how a nascent interest led to a full-blown obsession with many varieties of horror films. And how being scared often went hand in hand with being confused or disoriented.

Consider two scenes—each involving a figure in white, each misleading in its way—which terrified me as a child.

1) A photographer leads a group of children to a snowman sitting on a bench. “This guy can’t see or hear," he says, “so let’s make eyes and ears for him." As he scratches away in the vicinity of the immobile figure’s head, a chunk of snow falls off to reveal a dead body sitting stiffly on the bench—a murder victim, covered overnight by falling snow.

2) A character played by Amitabh Bachchan has died in a film’s climax. Along the way, he made friends with a little boy. The film is about to wind up, we are watching the obligatory cremation scene, my attention is already elsewhere and I have exited the room—but glancing back at the distant TV, I see that Bachchan has returned and is holding the child. He is wrapped in white bandages and is watching his own funeral pyre. The boy looks content and sleepy-eyed. And none of the adults watching the film even comments on this bizarre ending!

These visions gave me nightmares as a child, and much later, long after the fear had gone, I remained puzzled about what I had seen. Especially since I never encountered those films during my growing-up years (the internet hadn’t yet made it possible to research just about anything)—as the memories grew mistier, I began to wonder if they had even existed or came from a childhood fever-haze, perhaps during one of those dull summers when I was bedridden with mumps or chickenpox.

It was years later that I connected the dots and found the scenes on YouTube. The snowman film was a thriller called Kaun? Kaisey? (1983), while the Bachchan film was Faraar (1975). And in both cases, the scenes playing in my head all those years were very different from what I now saw.

The snowman scene was much tackier. The image of the photographer’s fingers scraping at the figure was followed by a clumsy cut to what seemed a completely unrelated shot, with different lighting: a close-up of a human eye. And the photographer was played by the great comedian Deven Verma, who often showed a genially dark sense of humour, but whose presence added nothing to this kind of scene.

The Faraar ending was even more perplexing. The bandaged Bachchan ghost whom I thought only I had seen (and had long been haunted by) turned out to be a widowed grandmother dressed in a white sari, who picks up the boy and holds him in her arms, turning away from the camera, in the last shot. Looking at the scene in the light of day, on YouTube, I couldn’t for the life of me see how I had been fooled; apart from the child and the old woman, Sharmila Tagore and Sanjeev Kumar were in the scene too, and the camera kept cutting to their reactions. There was nothing ambiguous about it.

Anyone knows that when you watch a film as a child, and later as an adult, you are seeing two entirely different films—you’re another person now (not always wiser or more discerning. But... different). This seems to apply in special ways to viscerally scary scenes. Others in my private memory bank include the werewolf film Silver Bullet (1985) with its grisly opening image of a decapitated head squished by a passing train (and a creepier moment where we see the blood-soaked kite a slaughtered boy was playing with). And Khamosh (1985), with its eerie scenes involving the Shabana Azmi character sleepwalking.

I’m not sure how I would react to these scenes today, but I know they instilled in me the sense that there was something inherently magical and fearful about cinema. And that obsessive movie-buffs are movie-makers too, constantly constructing and reassembling things in their heads. Like Gali Guleiyan’s protagonist, keenly looking at available footage but also wanting impossible new camera angles.

Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.

He tweets at @jaiarjun

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