Whatever happened to those film ticket touts?

April 28th, 2008 - 10:38 am ICT by admin  

(Commentary)
By Jivraj Burman
Until a few years ago, the Hindi words “bees ka challis, balcony ka saath” used to be regularly heard in the precincts of crowded cinema halls. It was the punchline of those selling film tickets in black as played to perfection by Aamir Khan in “Rangeela”. These black marketers would move around suspiciously, but self-importantly, carrying wads of tickets. Their looks might not have been inviting, but the gathering crowds looked at them expectantly.

To all those who were unable to procure tickets at the counters, these men were most sought after. Never mind if they sold the tickets by adding their own exorbitant price, calculated on the basis of the star-cast of the movies.

Deals used to be quickly struck - without bargaining. With tickets in hand, when the men who bought them trooped into the theatres triumphantly, the man who made a killing by selling them would troop out to a nearby tea stall to count the loots and plan his operation for the next show.

In the era of single-screen theatres, the black marketers - or touts - were ubiquitous in the cinema hall precincts, plying their trade surreptitiously, making quick bucks in a matter of few hours, especially on Fridays when new films are released in India.

As a matter of fact, the number of tickets they sold predicted the fate of the movies on show. If they sold less, those were doomed to be failures and if they sold more, it was an indication that those would be hits.

The black marketers were virtually the best judges of movies, more accurate than the hallowed critics - because they had the uncanny knack of guessing whether a movie would click at the box-office. Even the distributor, who had much at stake, would wait with bated breath to get his hand on the first day’s collection sheet.

Time was when some unscrupulous distributors often encouraged the touts to add a jacked-up price to the ticket rates to make it out to trade circles that their new releases had taken a good ‘opening’.

Since in those days the movies were not released simultaneously all over, “a good opening” that a movie got in one territory made a good impression to boost its ticket sale in those territories where they were waiting to be released.

In that sense, these touts were very much a part of the film trade even though they made a living out of fleecing people who could not wait to see a movie featuring their favourite star.

To many of these movie buffs, it was a prestige issue to see a “first day first show”. They did not mind paying twice or thrice the prescribed admission rates.

The breed of touts mushroomed when the stars became more popular than the movies they starred in.

In the silent era of movies when Charlie Chaplin became the craze throughout the world, he never advertised his productions in the US. When his movies were released, he would simply put up billboards in the foyers of cinema halls with the words “I am here today. Charlie Chaplin.” His name itself worked like magnets to draw crowds in hordes.

Similarly, though in a small measure, that kind of craze was witnessed in India from the time Rajesh Khanna shone bright in the film firmament and the age of superstardom arrived in Bollywood. Rajesh Khanna’s name sold cinema tickets. And the touts took full advantage of that. Never before had their “business” thrived as roaringly.

Though they were seen as anti-social elements, a whole generation of touts fed their families on the money they earned by selling cinema tickets in black till the early 1990s.

They were driven out of business - first, when with the advent of the electronic media the attendance in cinema halls dwindled. The second factor to deal them a blow was when, in order to pre-empt video piracy, distributors released the maximum number of prints.

The third factor was the multiplex boom, when movies began to have the maximum number of shows, unlike the three to four shows a day of the past, so that tickets were never in short supply.

Moreover, the rates of admission are so high in multiplexes - sometimes hovering around Rs.175 - that there is no scope for touts to add their own prices.

The new economy took a toll on the trade, illegal though it was. Today, in the swanky precincts of the multiplexes one never hears the droning words of “bees ka challis, balcony ka saath”.

(Jivraj Burman can be contacted at jivajburman@gmail.com)

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