The first day of a retrospective of German film classics begins with a beautiful restored copy of FW Murnau’s archetypal horror movie Nosferatu (1922). The richly tinted images drawn from German Romantic and Expressionist paintings, the exquisite music score and the mystic overtones of the vampire story stir me deeply. The next screening is of Josef von Sternberg’s early sound masterpiece The Blue Angel (1930), adapted from a Heinrich Mann novel. I briefly ponder whether I should stay because this is a more familiar film to me – though not seen for many years. But the quality of the print and projection promises to be excellent and so I hang around.

From the moment Emil Jannings appears as Professor Immanuel Rath, ceremoniously preparing to leave for another day of teaching in the local school at the stroke of nine on the clock with Gothic figurines in the small medieval town square, I am sucked into his upright and ordered world and the sheer anticipation of his mighty fall. Then the risque postcard of Lola Lola with her flapping feathery skirt is found in the classroom and his destiny is sealed.

Soon he is at the nightclub and Lola – sensual Lola – comes on stage. She is played, of course, by the great Marlene Dietrich. Shimmering with carnality she begins to sing They Call Me Naughty Lola. And the world – Professor Rath’s and somehow mine as well – is no longer the same.

The Blue Angel (1930).

Watching Professor Rath and Lola – Jannings and Dietrich – I am gripped by an irresistible sense of nostalgia. This word – from the Greek nostos, a return and algos, pain – is here understood as the wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life. The time I’m speaking of is the discovery of the cinema medium in my youth. These two forces – the attraction to movies and the experience of youth – coincided and fed one another in my late teens. This is the time I suddenly long to return to. But as everyone knows, no stage of life can ever be fully regained. Nevertheless, by writing about it I’m trying to relive that thrilling early encounter with the cinema and the first awareness or experience of youth: the heady mixture of the world of art and life was opening before me.

When film captures a part of the self

It goes without saying that one is talking about films that were not seen in the digital formats and carriers now available, but mostly in movie theatres and auditoria where film societies and the cultural institutes in Mumbai screened movies in the 1960s. Often, the print or projection quality was of an indifferent nature. But each film satisfied one’s hunger for emotion and spectacle expressed in moving images and sounds that cinephiles everywhere speak of as ‘the magic of cinema’.

In an enthusiastic early piece titled Occasional Notes of a Constant Filmgoer, I had written, “Films… seize for all time, in life-like and perpetual motion, the mutability of the physical world … (they) preserve in movement, sound and light and shade, real and tangible images of the actors and people who appear in them. In film the dead live again.”

I did not realise then – as I do now when I am again face-to-face with Professor Rath and Lola – that my own mutable self is, in a sense, also preserved in this film; that a part of me too had been captured – so deep had been the impress and capacity of cinema to nurture and fire my imagination. And so I watch with amazement as Sternberg’s magnificent tragedy unfolds and the cuckolded Professor Rath is reduced to selling the same naughty postcards and forced to go on the stage of the same nightclub in his hometown to play a clown and mimic a crowing rooster. At that terrifying moment he goes mad with impotent jealousy and tries to strangle Lola. We last see him in a reverse tracking shot clinging to his Professor’s table in his old classroom as he lies dying while the clock chimes nine.

I stagger out of the auditorium muttering under my breath “Brilliant! Brilliant!”, thinking that perhaps never since those days and films such as The Blue Angel had cinema shaken me so profoundly. In complete thrall of the film, I think and read about it for several days and realise that for the first time in my life I am truly nostalgic for an earlier time in my life and the films I saw so many years ago.

The cinephilia hubs

Mumbai of the late ’60s had a handful of focal points of cinephilia. There were the morning shows at Dadar’s Chitra cinema for Bengali films (by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak or Tapan Sinha), film society screenings at Tarabai Hall (which was generally used for music concerts and wedding functions) and the foreign cultural institutes such as Alliance Francaise and the American Library at New Marine Lines and Max Mueller Bhavan at Kala Ghoda. To catch up with the golden years of the 1950s of Bombay’s own cinema, one went to the cinema district of Lamington Road and the shady theatres like Alexandra in the red light district near Byculla.

And what films we saw: Ray’s Apu trilogy and Charulata and Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, the best of American and French classic films and the French New Wave. Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth at the House of Soviet Culture at Pedder Road, and the splendid Ealing comedies at the British Library at Nariman Point.

East European films – as they used to be called – were a staple of film society programming and the great Art Deco cinema halls like Regal, Metro and Eros gave us the final glimpses of classical America Cinema and the excitement of the new Hollywood’s resurgence. The few international film festivals that came to Mumbai provided a taste of the contemporary world cinema.

I particularly remember the International Film Festival of India in the mid-60s where I first saw Akira Kurosawa’s superb thriller High and Low and Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet – the latter probably the best Shakespeare film adaptation ever. And never to be forgotten is the 1967 French film festival which screened among other epochal titles Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar, Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet, Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin and Alain Resnais’s The War is Over. One saw two or sometimes three shows of each of these movies day after day with fellow teenage film enthusiasts who became friends for life.

Among the host of films I saw in those enchanted years, one of the most enduring memories is perhaps of the re-runs of Guru Dutt’s great melodramas Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz ke Phool (1959). Their unique balance of the personal and popular was even then evident, but as the years went by their poetry and pathos struck one with even greater force. Each time we see Guru Dutt disrupting the barsi function being held in his honour after his mistaken death at the end of Pyaasa or descending from the deserted studio catwalks to sit for one last time in the director’s chair in Kaagaz ke Phool, one is profoundly moved. The music and lyrics, the actors and the settings have a power akin to those of The Blue Angel that I began this essay with.

Kaagaz ke Phool (1959). Courtesy Guru Dutt Productions.

To me these films have become a bridge to return to what I once was, and in a sense, still am. Re-viewing them, my past and present seem to flow into each other, and the screen is like a membrane through which I slide between two sets of time and two stages of life. Apropos this, Arthur Waley, the illustrious translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, once said that poets make it possible to live many lives besides one’s own. It seems to me now that they also make it possible to live one’s own life more than once.

The monumental size and blazing colour of the cinema hoardings, the delectably spread out lobby displays of posters and publicity stills of ‘Now Showing’ and ‘Forthcoming Features’ and the soda fountains with fizzy synthetic soft drinks and stale potato wafers are also an integral part of this lost world. I must also mention the bi-annual visits to Pune’s Film Institute and the National Film Archive of India then under Mr PK Nair’s benevolent charge. One saw there for the first time Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari, Yasujiro Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game in pristine 35 mm prints. I can also never forget sleeping in the Film Institute’s mosquito- infested infirmary after a late night screening of Roberto Rossellini’s sublime Francis of the Flowers.

Each generation of moviegoers certainly has a precious magic moment and a myriad of similar memories. But can their memories yield a comparable string of cinema masterpieces that are so timeless and true?

But so much for the nostalgia for my discovery of cinema. What then about the return to my youth? Oddly, by recalling those years and films, I feel as if I have regained a fragment of it. I can’t remember the movie that first cleverly substituted the title ‘The End’ – customary in earlier times – with an optimistic title stating ‘The Beginning’. But that’s how I feel today. And like Lola in The Blue Angel I am ‘Falling In Love Again’.

This essay first appeared in The Indian Quarterly and has been reproduced here with permission.

Suresh Chabria is the former director of the National Film Archive of India and author of Light of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema 1912-1934. He has been a professor of Political Science at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and Film Appreciation at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.