She stood at the edge of the elegant Jinnah Avenue, a stone's throw away from the leafy environs of Government House, the undisputed Queen of the cinemas: Gulistan, the 'rose garden' of Dacca's cinema-loving public. She wasn't just a neon-lit symbol of the newer and modern Dacca. She was it centre. All roads led to her vicinity. "Gulistaner peechey," "Gulistaner aagey," "Gulistaner shonghay," "Gulistaner paashey"…, that's how you gave directions. Ask any Rickshawallah above 55 years of age and he will confirm her importance.
She was the focal point between old and new Dacca. Behind her lay the railway Line, Nawabpur and all of the crowded old town leading to Sadarghat and the banks of the Buriganga. In front or within its environs lay the smarter shops, offices, businesses, that had mushroomed when Dacca blossomed along with the Khrishnachura trees into a leafy, sedate capital city. Al- Amin Fabrics, Kash bakery, Baby ice cream parlour, Beauty Shoe company, Bham and sons, Ganny's -- to name a few -- all bustling with energy and the promise of prosperity for the newly created Eastern wing of Pakistan.
Built and owned by the enterprising Dossani family, migrants from Calcutta, the Gulistan wasn't just a cinema hall -- it also housed a warren of shops and offices including 'Maison Musique' where we bought our records and record players or celebrated family occasions eating at Chu Chin Chow, one of the earliest Chinese restaurants in Dacca.
Long before the advent of television and home entertainment systems that so dominate our lives today, cinema-going was a serious social and cultural event for 'Dacca-ites' of all denominations. The Gulistan with its gaily (often lurid) painted billboards, smart foyer, broad circular staircase, plush velvet seats was the place to see... and to be seen. In the early 50s and 60s English language films were all the rage: epics like The Robe, Samson and Delilah, Androceles and the Lion were much-anticipated events. Tickets had to be booked by telephone or purchased well in advance to avoid the disappointment of the 'House Full' sign. Sometimes films were designated 'For adults only' (Brigitte Bardot's And God Created Woman) but we managed to get round that by wearing sarees and pretending to be grown up! The ushers looked the other way!
Before each show, there was an excited anticipatory buzz as the eager crowd arrived, dodging hawkers, eve-teasers, black market touts and beggars. And if things got rough and the crowd unruly, order was maintained by half-pant clad policeman brandishing lathis! The well-to-do came smartly attired, fingering their dress circle, balcony or box tickets, ascending the staircase to the upper foyer, waving to friends using their candy flosses. Those of humbler pockets sat in the seats downstairs munching on chana choor.
Once the doors opened, everybody was ushered in to their respective seats by uniformed staff. As we settled in, there was more craning of necks to see who was there and with whom! Then the sound system piped in the latest foot-tapping instrumental music (Billy Vaughan's 'come september, 'tequila'by the Champs)' before the curtains parted dramatically to show the Pakistan News Pictorial ... a compilation of news events that often drew a few jeers and cheers from the more politically astute in the audience. This was the days before television news; so a glimpse of a celebrity or two or a fleeting moment of a cricket match was a special treat.
Next came the advertisements as we absorbed the benefits of using brylcream and cherry blossom shoe polish! Then the trailers began with a promise of future attractions ( Yul Brynner telling Eli Wallach to 'ride on' in The Magnificent Seven) and... finally with a swish, the curtains closing and re-opening, a grainy censor board certificate gave way to the main attraction, the much anticipated feature film.
For the next few hours the magic of the cinema had us mesmerized, the spell broken by a brief interval, enlivened by the much-welcome appearance of the potato chip seller with his one-anna bags... or if our parents were feeling particularly generous, we treated ourselves to chocolate ice cream from the soda fountain in the foyer.
In addition to the three daily shows, (matinee, evening and late- night) the Gulistan, would also have Morning Show at around 11 on Sundays. This would be a different movie to the one showing on weekdays, especially if the main film happened to be a blockbuster or an Urdu/ Bengali film (eg Talaash, Chanda, Saat Bhai Champa) that would run for months. These morning shows attracted a very select, well-heeled and educated audience. However, once the smaller, cosier Naz cinema catering to the niche market for English language films, was added to the Gulistan complex, they ceased altogether. Such was the demand for foreign films however, that Gulistan introduced the 1:30 pm show which ended just in time for the main show at three o'clock. These were finely edited to fit time constraints but with heavily discounted tickets for students we didn't care if a few scenes were chopped off.
In the early 50s, the Gulistan Management also ran a club called 'Gulistan Children's Club' which screened special films for kids. During the interval there would be a talent show. I vividly recall reciting 'twinkle twinkle little star' to a packed audience at age 5. This momentous debut is mentioned in the Club's newsletter which I often pulled out from a drawer that my father filled with such mementoes. Reading and re- reading my glowing review and mispelt name filled me with immense narcissistic pride!
In the mid 60s, as the city, traffic and the population expanded further and wider, the Gulistan lost some of its sheen and its monopoly, with serious competition from the newer Modhumita and Balaka cinemas. These were more conveniently located and also showed English- language films, but to my mind they could not be compared to the stately elegance of the Gulistan in its prime. As I pass by these days, one cringes: the original building has been torn down and in its place, there is an ugly monstrosity known as a shopping mall. Gulistan, garden of roses, lies only in my fading memory.
Ghazala Akbar was once the Feature Editor of the Arab Times, Kuwait. Now-a-days she lives in London.