MANY MANY THANKS FOR THE BIRTHDAY WISHES ( JANUARY 14TH) GUYS !!
(This is an account of what it felt like to see Star Wars the very FIRST time it was let loose in Madras on an unsuspecting public)
My friend tore the parcel open impatiently. All of us – his hostel mates – with tongues hanging out in anticipation watched him open it in excitement and half in reverence. He pulled out what looked like a small cylindrical contraption with a semi circular rotating dome on top, of ankle height. It had few attractive black and blue squares minutely painted against a backdrop of white. He instinctively figured out that it needed to be cranked and it came to life emitting a low whirring hum and walked across a few inches with the top cylindrical portion rotating periodically. We were puzzled and excited and didn’t know what the hell it was. Apparently the packaging had been removed before sending it by parcel. Even for some of the ultra rich kids who received the latest Hardy Boys and Three Investigators adventures by post at the hostel, a parcel was costly and a big deal.
This was my first introduction to a new world lurking out there.
Star Wars Moment 1
The parcel from England (my friend’s father was a journalist based there) contained other stuff. In a separate pack there were pant patches with mysterious labels – “The Force (Capital F)” and “Jedi Knights”. For the uninitiated, a pant patch was a rectangular piece of velvet with a fancy inscription to be stuck on to one’s pant, preferably at the knee cap – this was the post bell bottoms era – at the boarding school I attended near Madanapalli, bell bottoms worn by Telugu cine icons like Krishnam Raju were considered superior to the vayshtees worn by Tamil cine non-icons like B.Muthuraman.
A couple of days later, a high school senior came by Green House, the 6th standard boys hostel, and enquired after the parcel’s contents – news travelled super fast in the small school community of 300 students.
“This is great ya. We’re going to Bangalore on excursion next week. We’re scheduled to see Star Vase (sic) at Symphony theatre. I’ll let you guys know how it is” he concluded waving us incredulous juniors away.
What did he mean “Star Vase” ? The way he said it, it sounded like a relative of Keith Vaz, our own Labour MP of Indian origin.
What the hell is this Star Vaaazz anyway ?
A “knowledgeable” girl senior (by 2 years) in the neighbouring Blue House with three-fourths of her khaandaan settled in Michigan said “ I th-i-i-i-n-n-k its about a war between one tribe from the earth and another tribe from the heavens and both have a war somewhere inbetween….” She trailed off.
It sounded maha ridiculous. Being fed on an unending diet of Ram Waeerkar’s live wire Amar Chitra Katha illustrations, all I could visualize was an army with spears and swords marching on air into the heavens and being met by their opposite number , close to where Trisanku took his evening stroll. I would have put it out of my mind immediately but in the ensuing weeks, my friend’s journalist pop kept sending despatches and promotional material on the aforementioned warring tribes.
The decisive strike came when my brother in 5th grade back home in Madras, mentioned how my father had taken the family to see Star wars on New Year’s eve. That got my goat – I was far away in “Reddy” land and the folks back home were living it up in civilization while I was consigned to watching the weekly Childrens Film Foundation film screened at our auditorium sitting on a bench and then walking back in the cold back to our common dormitory – no Hoggwarts this.
After school closed for the summer vacation and after soaking in the balmy air of home, I proceeded to set things right.
It was left to my first maternal uncle to take me to see it.
A dyed in the wool Tamil chauvinist (he insisted on teaching our dog to respond to “UKKAARU !!” instead of “SIT DOWN DIANA!!”), he was also a rabid movie connoisseur. But strangely he enjoyed the Rajesh Khanna songs immensely (probably because he never understood the meaning) and used to frequent the film festivals showcasing their wares form Poland to Iran.
(Sigh) They make them only in Madras.
He also ran a drama troupe in addition to his duties as lecturer at the Central Polytechnic – he died on stage when he was younger than my current age.
It was a happy coincidence that when the next instalment of the Star Wars saga was released, (and after I was THREE years older), yet again, he was the one who took me to see it.
Nothing replaces the experience of seeing it as a eleven year old at the old Safire theatre –that treasure house of the heyday of Hollywood films.
If the Safire theatre was located in New Haven, Connecticut, it would have been designated a heritage monument.
I soaked in the white inscriptions on the wooden signboards, wide eyed.
Cleopatra – 365 Days.
My Fair Lady – 125 Days
Sound of Music – 175 Days (was this a Tamil Movie ?).
Always multiples of 25 or thereabouts.
No mention of Guns of Navarone – that was the preserve of Devi 70 MM A/C (my classmate in High School Commerce group used to read it half-in-jest as “Devi 70 MM Account “ (the italics are mine)
At the snack counters , in addition to the “puPPs” (puffs) and Thums Up (Coke was asked to pack up three years before) small water colour painting books with scenes from the movie were being sold – Star Wars merchandise, even of the non-electronic kind, was everywhere it seems.
After the mandatory Films Division newsreel and the Censor certificate (U), the now staple “Long Time Ago….In a galaxy , Far Far away…” flickered across the screen. It gave me goose bumps.
Star Wars Moment 2.
After that the cherry was hit relentlessly…. not out of the park , but out of the galaxy.
After the now mandatory opening title crawl, the camera brought us down from the height of a giant ferris wheel down onto Planet Alderaan where action was happening beyond the camera’s reach.
A huge starship destroyer ambushed the top of our heads and we were introduced to never before seen pyrotechnics of feisty X-Wing fighters maneuvering in an out of the destroyer’s nooks and crannies.
Star wars Moment 3
It helped that the Safire’s sound system was upto date.
This was an intro to a new world out there where the world was less complicated. You had the good guys and the bad guys behind the Iron Curtain.
Barely did we recover when Darth Vader stepped in – the mother of all masked villains with his sinister breathing and golden diction.
After taking in the sequels, if you go back to see this first edition, it would look slow moving and not as exciting.
But the pace of the movie was also dictated by the audience’s lack of familiarity with this new world.
It was Lucas’ deliberate slow way of taking the audience into his private world which had its origin in the Flash Gordon episodes he used to watch as a sickly teenager with his pet cat sleeping on his shoulder.
The audience needed time for each new concept to sink in, whether it is that marvelous energy field called The Force or the weapon called the light sabre, before he unleashed the final climactic battle for the Death Star.
The hero, Luke Skywalker is introduced as an orphan working on his uncle’s farm on the planet of Tattooine (that’s great ! we still need farming and agriculture !).
On Tattooine, we are momentarily shown 2 suns setting at the same time – a set piece similar to Spielberg’s shot of the typewriter, seen through the rim of Roy Scheider’s spectacles in ‘Jaws’. The latter shot got more claps in the theatre.
(Sigh) They make them only in Madras.
Luke (like all human superheroes) has no inkling of his destiny till he buys the droids, C3PO and R2D2 at the droid market.
The story seems to be lumbering along when Luke accidentally triggers a message – a cry for help – from Princess Leia to Master Jedi Obiwan Kenobi stored in the droid R2D2.
This was a moving blue-white holographic image of the ravishing Princess Leia clad in her chaste white robe which could have only come out of the senate of Ancient Rome and a hairdo resembling 2 giant headphones.
“Who’s she ? …..She’s beautiful….” croaks Luke. An unnecessary observation since the audience is playing out the same line in their heads. Captivating stuff.
But for all its futuristic technological wizardry, where was the science fiction here ?
It is a rocket propelled fairy tale with knights, dragons and a damsel in distress (clad in chaste white).
Once Luke’s uncle and aunt are disposed off in Marvel – DC comics fashion, the tale gains momentum.
Enter Han Solo, the space buccaneer, played by Harrison Ford. An itinerant carpenter (in real life) from Los Angeles who could go from mending a child’s hurt finger to saving a galaxy (in reel life) with the minimum of fuss and expression.
Like Rick C.Blaine of Casablanca’s Café Americain, he is a soldier of fortune who sticks his neck out for nobody and he is the only cause he is interested in.
In short, he is the right person to ferry the rebel group to Alderaan on his space ship, the Millennium Falcon.
While on the Falcon, Luke’s Jedi training begins under old hand, Obiwan Kenobi, and who better to play a Jedi knight than an actual knight ! Sir Alec Guiness,, who had great instincts and extra sensory perception even in real life.
A quarter of a century earlier, he had told James Dean, the star of Rebel Without a Cause, “Please don’t drive that car. I don’t feel good about it. Its dangerous”. Dean was a racing aficionado. A week later James Dean died in an accident in the same car.
The New Toy
If there was one thing, teens all over the world desired to own above anything else, it was a light sabre.
The light sabre had a peculiar electric drill like hum (more like an OM) which seemed to send the combatants AND viewers into a trance. And when 2 light sabres rubbed against each other in combat, they really didn’t touch – they seemed to rub over each other like 2 magnets repelling each other and therefore slipped off each other’s blades.
No friction in this fiction.
Star Wars Moment 4
The captivating choreography of the final battle, when Luke gets rid of his sensory helmet is almost like the boy jockey getting rid of his riding gear when he rides the Black Stallion (a visual treat produced by ‘Godfather’ Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Carol Ballard) to victory on the home stretch – with now dead Obiwan Kenobi’s reassuring voice ringing in his head “The Force will be with you…..ALWAYS.”
So far so good. Lucas visualized something never seen before and translated it brilliantly onto the screen.
It would have been just an outstanding visual spectacle – like an outstanding imax show plus a cute story.
But what really churns the inner core of our being and blasts our guts into outer space is John Williams background score.
The opening trumpets literally herald A New Hope (what Star Wars was labelled after the sequels made their appearance).
The legend “Long Time Ago…” seen for the FIRST time elicits some curiosity but taken together with the knowledge of the opening bars of the score to come, the tag line induces a fever of excitement.
The title track and background music which has sailed down the years, still serves as the theme music for every other event.
The final march composed by Williams when Skywalker and Solo are feted by Princess Leia after winning back the kingdom of Alderaan could’ve been the national anthem of any small nation.
Only one thing frustrated me.
The space ships flying from under the audience into the middle depth of the screen towards the planet seemed to disappear into the distance. I could still see the planet but I could never see the space ship zoom into the docking station – it just seemed to get lost in the vast black galactic expanse.
After THE END, I floated out of my seat on an intergalactic cloud.
After coming out of the theatre, we picked the wrong auto to get back home.
Our auto driver apparently had also gone for the same show because he went hell for leather trying to mimic the X-Wing fighters on the screen.
(To be concluded)
Next Episode : The Story of Ralph Mcquarie