Cinephiles are fascinated by myths of origin. For example, it is a common and pleasurable ritual among film lovers to exchange accounts of formative cinephilic experiences. Often such experiences involve an intense and unshakeable encounter with a particular film—a rite of passage after which every subsequent movie is viewed and heard with a new and heightened consciousness. The film that sparked this revelatory crossing takes on an almost sacred place in our memory.
But are there cinematic experiences that precede this awakening of cinephilia, that “lay the ground” in advance for it? In other words, is there such a thing as pre-cinephilia? I believe so.
I can recall three potentially pre-cinephilic experiences from my childhood in India in the 1970s. Unlike the first films that struck me with the force of a gale when I became a cinephile at sixteen, I have—curiously—little memory of the movies that marked and catalyzed my pre-cinephilia. Instead, what I remember vividly are the environments in which I encountered cinema at this stage of my life: the spaces, the people, the machines, and the sound in the air.
The first episode occurred at home in Jaipur during my tenth birthday party. In many ways, it was an utterly familiar event: a sunny backyard, friends, food, and drink. But then, soon after the cake was cut, a surprise: my father led us all into the darkened dining room, which he had secretly set up with a 16mm projector. We plopped down cross-legged on the floor, and the projector sprang to life, training its light on a bare white wall. I can’t quite remember the film—perhaps it was the Hindi-language Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960), with Guru Dutt. What I can’t forget is the heart-quickening feeling of being surrounded by close friends and family in a small, dark, comforting space charged with possibility.
A few months later, my grandparents, who often spoke of growing up with Indian silent films, took me to a “tent cinema” in my hometown of Madras (the city is now called Chennai). A Tamil-language film was projected on a stretched white bed-sheet; I can’t recall the title or story, only that it was a period movie in black-and-white starring Tamil super-thespian Sivaji Ganesan. We sat on backless benches arranged like pews in a church. What I remember most about this evening is the predominance of poor, working-class people, mostly laborers and domestic servants, in the audience. Growing up in an insidiously stratified, caste-based society, it came as a revelation to notice the uniformity of audience response: we all seemed to explode with laughter (at slapstick comedy), cheers (at a song), or heckling (at a reprehensible “villain”) in unison. Cinema, it seemed, could bring people together. I know that, without being able to articulate any of it, I felt a tiny stir of idealism that night.
When I was twelve, television came to Madras. For the first few months, there was only one family on our block that could afford a TV set. They were kind—and invited the neighborhood to come over on “opening night.” About fifty of us squeezed together on the floor of a minuscule living room (all furniture had been moved out into other rooms of the house). No exaggeration: we spent an hour staring in wonderment at our first test pattern. We clapped when the “Doordarshan” logo appeared. (In Hindi, the word literally means “view from a distance,” but it is also the name of the state-owned TV network.) For the next two hours, we watched Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974), now regarded as a classic of the Indian Parallel Cinema, but then a disruptively new, anticommercial, and socially critical film funded by state money. It had no comedy or fights or song and dance—an anomaly in Indian cinema of the time—but it held us rapt, despite our physical discomfort.
Perhaps I’m guilty of “romantic rear projection” here, but I am convinced that before I learned to love cinema, I had subconsciously learned two truths about it: cinema has the ability to take root and flower in multiple, wildly different environments—and that it cannot live without intense social connection. As obvious as this seems, our age of increasingly atomized, solitary digital viewing appears, more than ever, to need this reminder.
Girish Shambu teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and is the author of "The New Cinephilia." He has run a community-oriented film blog for the last twelve years, and co-edits (with Adrian Martin) the online cinema journal LOLA.
Photo by Carolyn Funk