Janhavi Samant’s heartfelt memoir about growing up in Dadar in Mumbai in the 1980s includes flashbacks to the thrills of being taken in a scooter with an attached sidecar, the neighbourhood reaction to the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the impact of the arrival of the telephone and the television set. Here are edited excerpts from the time when the video cassette recorder entered Samant’s life.

Betaab was the first film I saw on video. I was six. It was on my cousin Beena tai’s building terrace in Parel; all the youngsters in the building had contributed to collectively rent the video on the day the film released. I slept off during the first half of the film, but the other young adults went on to watch three-four films back to back.

Over the next couple of years, the VCR became a highly empowering gadget for my generation. For the generation before mine, film viewing was not something families did together. Theatres were places you went to with your friends, never your parents. Films were considered either corruptive or frivolous. School dropouts and jobless people went to the cinemas, my grandmother would say. My grandfather, Nana ajoba, had never seen a film till his late sixties. Although, my parents saw their own share of matinees, it was always without the knowledge of their parents. It was strictly forbidden in their day and my parents generally were of the opinion that we could very well do without all the things that they did without. I must have seen about 11 films in a theatre from my birth till the time I entered college: four of them with my parents, two with our kiddie group from the building and the rest with Nazi. Aazadi Ki Ore, Naache Mayuri, Chhota Chetan 3D, Tarzan and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak are some of them.

‘An instrument of character formation’

In those days, it didn’t matter which film you saw, as long as you saw one. The ambition was in the numbers, not in the quality. We’d go to school after a social outing and boast about the number of films we saw there all night. We’d watch an old happy family film, say Junglee, or Kashmir Ki Kali or Half Ticket, to appease the elders. Then once they finished their film and became sleepy, we’d put on the most exciting film of the night, say a Saagar or Teri Meherbaniyan or Arjun or Hero or Hatya and then end with a film like Amar Akbar Anthony or Namak Halal or Geraftaar and so on, which were okay enough to sleep through. If it was a holiday and the videowala didn’t return to claim his equipment, we’d watch some parts of the films again. Sometimes the older cousins would secretly show us some version or the other of Evil Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Omen or some Ramsay saga like Bandh Darwaza or something and then our parents would wonder why we would not go to the bathroom without their supervision.

The video proved to be an instrument of character formation for me. For starters, it opened up my social life considerably. There were weekly invitations which were only meant for children: “Megha’s renting a video this weekend. They are trying to get Mohabbat. Can I go?” “Manu kaka’s girls are renting a video this Friday. I’m going.”

Soon I began to have contacts in the local cassette libraries. From Naigaum Dadar to King’s Circle, I started sourcing titles, negotiating rates or rental times for the local gang of kids. I was the friend of kaaniya (the cross-eyed fellow) in Latest Circulating Library and he would allow me to keep an old cassette for over a week. I knew the pockmarked Irani of City Video Library and he’d keep special unopened, new titles reserved for me. And I made a friend whose father had a stake in Abbas Library at King’s Circle where I could pay after watching the film and returning the tape.

Judging a video cassette by its cover

I also realised I possessed a rare gift. Not only did I have the appetite to watch any trash dished out to me, but also the ability to guess – by just looking at the video cassette cover – whether a certain film would be entertaining or not. For instance, I had warned everyone that Loha would be an awful film, even with all that heavyweight star cast. But they wanted to see the Bombay Dyeing model act; it turned out to be a super-bore where Karan Kapoor trotted like a horse in songs and Dharmendra caught flying bullets in his hand.

Even Pighalta Aasman. Whatever does the title mean? It had an ageing Shashi Kapoor and Rakhee romancing and it really turned out to be a loser. I’d warned everyone to not let the music of Dance Dance fool them; the film had an actress crooning ‘Zoobi Zoobi’ while she’s being molested by Amrish Puri and Smita Patil in disco finery and frilly red skirts singing, ‘Aa gaya aa gaya halwa wala aa gaya’.

Govinda and Mandakini’s Pyar Mohabbat was not the film it was meant to be. It has a suhaag raat song with Mandy in a transparent nightie and Nirodh condoms floating in the air. Really! I requested people to trust my instinct on Govinda’s Hatya and it turned out to be a really good thriller.

Because of this newfound ability and confidence, I started being respected. Friends in the gully called me to make important decisions like which dress to wear at a birthday party or what song to dance to at the gully’s record dance competition and I became an important member of the panel which chose films, even if the video was not rented for my own house.

Janhavi Samant.

To their credit, when the parents entered the fray, our film viewing became a little discerning. Baba introduced me to Walt Disney, Danny Kaye, Alfred Hitchcock and the Marx Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Vijay Anand, even Bimal Roy. When we first scoffed at Dev Anand, calling him an oldie, Baba brought home Johny Mera Naam and Jewel Thief and changed our minds about him forever.

Video also brought our family closer. Many of these home screenings would be interspersed with Baba’s or Aai’s anecdotes on when they first saw the film in the theatre. How Sucheta maushi’s friend came out of a Teesri Manzil screening and bumped into Aai and maushi as they entered Minerva theatre and exclaimed, “Arre what a mast film. Till the end, no one realises that Prem Nath is the killer!” Or how Baba and his dental college friends screamed out aloud, “PISSCO” when the title of Psycho played at Regal. Or how Baba wore his elder brother Tatya kaka’s brand new grey woollen trouser when he went to watch Guide. On the way back, Tatya kaka spotted him from the other side of the busy road on Tilak Bridge and shrieked in anger. Baba of course fled even as Tatya kaka shouted some obscenities at him. Or how an admirer asked my mum out for a film, Paraya Dhan, and she took along her younger sister and forced her to sit between the two of them throughout the film.

Excerpted with permission from Faaltugiri and Other Flashbacks How I Survived a Childhood in the ’80s, Janhavi Samant, FunOKPlease Content Publishing.