I have always been an avid reader and a quiz buff as well. So it was natural that I would devour film magazines and ferret out all kinds of trivia on movies. There was Filmfare and Cine Blitz. And in Hindi, Madhuri and Mayapuri. And Picture Post. Not to mention the movie columns of sundry family magazines, Dharmyug, Sarita et. al. Buying the magazines was out of the question, renting it out from the local circulating library was the done thing. Old man Bhatia of the local “Bhatia Book House” would even give me credit! ( As an additional revenue generating exercise he also inducted me into reading adult literature, both in Indian English, and colourful Hindi- you understand what I mean, but more about those at a later date!)
And then there was the great venerable film weekly from the Indian Express group of publications, Screen. Screen was a broadsheet and if you are not familiar with it then let me tell you about it. If you were a Screen reader, you were one of the following: someone seriously involved with film-making (making is the operative word here, this was not for actors but for people who were involved with the making process and had to keep a close track of what was happening in the industry), or a serious movie buff, or perhaps a lunatic! Maybe I was a mix of the last two. This paper carried detailed stories with headlines like “Serious Shortage of Raw Stock Facing the Industry”, “Yashraj Films’ production no 4 goes on the floor”, “Mukta Arts Combines’ 3rd schedule completed” “Last song of XYZ movie recorded” and other such matters of grave importance. Gossip, you would not find any at all. Not a word on Dharmendra/ Hema, Amitabh/ Rekha. Nothing whatsoever on Katy Mirza (oh dear!!) unless she was completing dubbing of her movie or taking part in schedule 5 of production number 3 of Banner X. All this would be read thoroughly by me week-after-week-after-week.
There was another attraction in Screen; the weekly Q&A column. Serious readers with serious intentions would ask serious questions to a serious columnist who would give equally serious answers. “Scrutator” was the columnist’s name! Not the type of frivolous Q&A indulged in by Shatrughan Sinha in Filmfare. Sample this: a reader from Kota, Rajasthan, asks, “Is the film industry closer to heaven or hell?” Scrutator’s profound reply: “It depends upon the state of the individual”. Amen! The best question of the week would fetch the enquirer a prize of Rs 25! Before you scoff at this amount let me tell you something. Those days the cinema ticket cost Rs 3.15. Add to that 15 paise for the cycle stand charges and 25 paise for a cup of chai in the interval you arrive at a per movie cost of Rs Rs 3.65. So that gives you at least six movies, and some change to spare for subsequent copies of Screen.
In an inspired moment I too dashed off a question to Screen, an inane question about popular film heroes coming from the North and popular heroines from South. And in an equally inspiring moment the columnist gives an equally inane answer about how the South Indian heroines dance their way into the hearts of people and that this was the film industry’s contribution to national integration!! But more importantly, Scrutator selected my question as the best question of the week! Good news did not end here; no question had been awarded the prize the previous week, so I was warded the jackpot, Rs 50!! “Double pagaar” as they would say in Jamshedpur! Much joy on seeing my name in print plus winning the jackpot as well! I do not quite remember what I did with this money except that I treated my sister to “Madhumati” at Regal. The rest of the money must have funded some more movies and magazines. Or some such constructive stuff.
I zealously followed this up with four questions in one postcard to Screen. All questions got published but no prize this time. And then something happened! My brother who was then studying away from home was alerted by one of his hostel-mates that one Santosh Ojha of Jamshedpur was a frequent contributor to the Q&A column in Screen. Prompt came a mail (those days mail meant a hand written letter, chitthi) to me admonishing me on such activities when I should have been concentrating on my studies! I was much chastened, but did not give up! With a never-say-die attitude I continued with my queries, but now under aliases. A couple of the aliases I remember are “O. Pandit” (as in Ojha Pandit) and “O. Santosh”! Some questions got published, some did not. But never any prizes. I could never have a repeat of the beginner’s luck, ever again!!