MUMBAI: It’s shortly after 9:00 am in Mumbai’s red light district and about 100 men are jostling at the box office window of the New Roshan Talkies cinema to buy tickets for 15 rupees (30 US cents) each.
The film hasn’t been listed in any of the day’s newspapers and it’s soon clear why: the movie — advertised by a poster of two busty women alongside a muscle-bound hero — is a “morning show”.
Indian cinema’s sub-culture of titillating “morning shows”, which are often seen as soft pornography but are mostly no more explicit than an average Hollywood film, have attracted a lot of mainstream interest in recent weeks.
The focus comes ahead of Friday’s release of a new Bollywood film, “The Dirty Picture”, inspired by the actress Silk Smitha, who was a favourite among the erotic movie-going crowd in the 1980s.
Her sexually suggestive outfits, dancing and brazen attitude shocked straight-laced audiences used to Hindi-language Bollywood’s traditional portrayal of chaste, romantic love.
The bustling red-light district on Falkland Road in south Mumbai used to be a hub for films starring Smitha and other B-movies but now there are only about half-a-dozen theatres left.
“These theatres are called sexy theatres where we show these morning shows for a certain class of audience,” said Raju Singh, manager of the Silver Cinema on nearby Grant Road.
In the days before the Internet and cheap blackmarket X-rated DVDs, erotic films were hugely popular in the area, he said.
So-called “English movies” — an illicit montage of censor’s cuts — were also shown during intervals at the travelling cinemas that tour the Indian countryside, bringing films to the rural population.
“Now the government and censors are very strict,” Singh told AFP. “They want to see every film that we screen and they do come for surprise checks. So, we don’t show them any more.”
As a result, audiences for “morning shows” are dwindling, adding to the decline of single-screen cinemas in the face of competition from new, glitzy multiplexes run by big film studios, bootleg DVDs and cable television.
New Roshan Talkies is a prime example. It is in urgent need of renovation but the owner seems to have abandoned the idea long ago.
Seats are stained and paint has peeled from the walls. Even the fans attached to the crumbling ceiling seem to protest at having to stir the fetid air ripe with the overpowering smell from the building’s toilets.
Outside, a group of women in colourful saris stand on the busy pavement, making lewd remarks at men and occasionally groping them.
“Hey, handsome! Fancy a quickie?” one heavily made-up sex worker asked a male pedestrian, as the rush-hour traffic crawled by at walking pace.
The day’s film is badly-dubbed and badly-produced, though the audience — most of them poor, daily wage earners — tries its best to enjoy it, whistling at glimpses of the pneumatic actresses.
“Half the time we never understand the story but visually the film is very exciting,” said Ashok Vithoba Pawar, a labourer who has been living on the streets of Mumbai for the last 10 years.
“There are lots of good-looking women and they take you to a different world altogether,” he told AFP.
Bollywood’s Vidya Balan, who stars in “The Dirty Picture”, has said she hopes her film will encourage a debate about attitudes to women and sexuality in conservative India, where sex is still largely taboo.
For the audience who come to “morning shows”, though, moral concerns are immaterial: instead it’s more about breaking the monotony of daily life — and cost.
“I come here to pass the time,” said Pawar. “I want to be entertained and that’s why I’m here. Anyway, who’s going to entertain you for two hours in the morning for 15 rupees?”
Prashant Kumar, who works on a funfair at Mumbai’s popular Chowpatty beach, agrees.
“If I go to watch any film in a big theatre it will cost me 100 rupees… I can get a day’s worth of entertainment for that,” he said.
“Even if I don’t like it, it doesn’t matter because it hasn’t cost me much. It’s better for people like us to get a place to sit somewhere indoors rather than being outside on the street.”