When days rolled on videotapes

Second take

Reflecting on what seems to have completely vanished from old Bangalore, you can’t think of something more extinct today than those video cassette libraries. There are, after all, some remnants of the old book circulating libraries in the city but video cassette libraries are all gone.

I will always remember with great fondness and much thrill the almost daily visits to my regular video haunts, and all the discoveries I made here – for which Bangalore cinephile from those days can deny the way these video libraries impacted our intensifying cinephilia? 

There were so many video libraries I patronized on a daily basis– starting with Appu in Indiranagar, then Lovetts on Castle Street, Sandons on Mosque Road, Habitat on Church Street, Maruthi in Cambridge Layout, Videowalla on CMH road and Channel 9 in Jayanagar. Of all these, the one that I remember with the most affection is Appu. (You might have expected me to say Habitat – because a lot of wonderful cinephiliac things did happen there but that is another chapter). 

Lovetts for me will always be associated with the two-part true crime series that the owner, Nadine, urged on me and I got hooked to, Habitat of course was when we were in the full bloom of cinephilia and there was no end to making brilliant discoveries here, Channel 9 was full of hidden gems ripe for raiding, Videowalla had many early Woody Allen films nobody had and Sandons – the library I patronized the least – stays memorable for me because it was here that I stumbled on David Lynch’s mesmerizing, ground breaking Twin Peaks, and to which our family (my sister, brothers and a cousin staying with us at the time) made long and daily –and I mean daily –trips to be able to quickly finish seeing all 25 or more parts of Twin Peaks to find out who had killed Laura Palmer.

But Appu above all not just because it was the first video library that I had access to but also because in the early days of the VHS phenomenon Appu had the largest and best collection of movies I had ever seen under one roof. Also, Appu belongs to those strictly VHS days –before libraries morphed into VCDs (remember those?) and DVDs rentals. Another observation I’d like to make about the early days of VHS libraries is that the stock were all master prints (not copies) of a solid, classic collection of good cinema– the camera print nonsense came later, along with the soft-porn and a lot of Hollywood trash.

 In the company of Ramana, a passionate film buff and a very close friend who joined me in these movie hunting expeditions to Appu, we would often, over the years, be given to discussing how breathtaking their collection was, and how we got our real taste of  film culture here. We would bunk classes and turn up at Appu bright and early as the shutters were being rolled up. We had hit on another jackpot: right in Indirangar lived a very dear, generous and hospitable cousin who threw the doors of her house open so we could watch these tapes in luxury on their large screen TV (those days these bulky monsters were imported, this one from Japan or Germany I think), and this enhanced the whole experience for both of us.

This was also before all those video guides (Leonard Maltin et al) came out and you could take those with you to the library to see what star rating a movie had or if you didn’t have one, libraries stocked up copies of these guides. Talking of guides I can’t resist digressing to an anecdote: a young girl working at Videowalla took on the task of copying down the synopsis, the ratings and the brief review from the video book on to a label and pasting them on to each respective VHS movie cassette. She did this so faithfully that for many movies she blindly copied down negative ratings – the poor star rating, the critical thumbs down and the strong recommendation to skip the movie!

So, when we walked into Appu each morning, Ramana and I weren’t armed with a video guide but just our movie instinct sharpened over years of addictive theatre movie-going, and our slowly growing film knowledge, and this is what we would use in choosing a movie to rent. Often we knew nothing about a film except the bare details that Appu had noted in their (extremely thumbed) pages and pages of typed catalogue of the director and the actors in each movie. I remember how excited we were when the end credits rolled for Gregory’s Girl, the little Scottish gem from Bill Forsyth that we first discovered at Appu.

We charged back to Appu the same afternoon to see if they had anything else by Forsyth and lo and behold to our utter delight sitting on the shelf was Local Hero. In this way, we stumbled on many offbeat movies that would shape our film experience. I happened to recently be in that part of Indiranagar and was somewhat assured to see Appu was still there in the same place – even if it is just a gym now! These video libraries were the first to give many of us access to hundreds of movies that had never shown in our movie theatres, and this included cult and genre films, foreign language, classics, and small, independent cinema. 

It filled the large gaps in our film education. Before video libraries came, we were more or less at the mercy of the highly bureaucratic, yearly film festivals (access restricted to passes that you had to beg, borrow or connive to get at) and film club screenings (scratched prints, run-down venues and frequent power cuts or projector breakdowns) to catch up with international or independent cinema that often made for frustrating, uncomfortable viewing. 

The video cassette libraries changed all this – at least for some of us who didn’t mind trading the large screen and an impersonal setting for the smaller but intimate one at home. Not everyone had a VCR player even if they had a TV, and that meant a band of friends – anything from two to three to five people -ganging up to watch a VHS movie at the house of a compatriot who was lucky enough to own a VCR. And this created a community of films buffs – actually, pockets of them all over the city.

Later, when we could afford to buy a VCR and perhaps a better TV, we still called each other up to watch a movie together. And quite apart from creating this home-grown culture of cinephilia, the rich, wide-ranging material found at these video libraries inspired some of us to think of a career related to cinema – or to at least draw closer in some way to film professionally. T.B. Srinivas became a filmmaker, Jayadev, a remarkable film scholar and writer (who wrote and edited for Deep Focus and tragically ended his life some years ago), Naman went on to write for Sight and Sound and I began reviewing films for this very paper. It was at the video library that we met often to shoot the breeze as it were, though most or all of the time the subject was just one –cinema: in particular, what we had watched last night and what we were going to watch next.

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