AS a boy growing up in India, I never really believed that movies existed. Once my sister rolled up the edge of her textbook and let the pages unfurl quickly, trying to demonstrate how the pictures appeared to be moving. I remained skeptical until my father took me to a movie one summer; it was also the first movie for my mother, not to mention my sister, the movie expert.
On our way to the distant town, I heard the driver talk about the famed movie. Best picture of the year in all of India. Winner of the President's gold medal. Made in our Malayalam language, ``Chemmeen'' (Prawns, 1966), was now going to be shown in many foreign lands, including Russia, China, and the United States.
When the movie began all of a sudden with a loud trumpet, I panicked. The rumor is that I cried. The opening scene was violent. A shabby hut in a fishing village. Early morning. The heroine was warming her feet by the fire. Her mother rushed into the kitchen and floored the heroine with a kick to her back. Fire leapt out. It would have scalded me, but movie magic made the fire vanish, bringing in its place the raging sea.
As the waves crashed on the sand, men wearing enormous hats struggled to push a fishing boat into the water. While they clambered on to the speeding catamaran, one of the fishermen missed it. A close-up showed his sullen face, cursing. I loved the way he tossed his hat into the sea and stomped away. And I was completely immersed in the world of the fishermen.
Three years later, when the news broke out that a theater was going to be built in our village, my only regret was that I was not an adult yet. How would a boy get money for the movies?
As the theater began to rise from the ground, I watched the construction as dutifully as the owner. First, the workers erected two dozen coconut poles on an elevated platform.
Then the carpenters raised the roof, and in a week, it was thatched with coconut fronds brought in from neighboring villages on bullock carts. They walled up the building with hundreds of bamboo mats, painted black to block out sunlight. And finally, the 35-millimeter projector arrived; Thidanad Saji Theater was ready for its first show.
Before seeking permission to watch the inaugural movie, I volunteered for menial chores at home. When my father gave me the money, it was on the condition that in the future I would not ask for such permission, and that I would devote myself to my studies.
That year I got to see only two more movies. I longed for more. Tantalized by all the films that had come and gone, I ended up crawling into the banana grove behind the theater. It was a matinee. I made a hole in the bamboo wall, and for several minutes, I peeked at a movie. The fragmented scenes captivated me, convincing me that it was worth dedicating my life to the art.
I started collecting trivia and fantasized about becoming a boy director. (I didn't want to be an actor. No way would I run around trees with women.) When the drummer and his boy traveled all over the village advertising new shows, I followed them to collect the handbills.
THE drummer -- a butcher's assistant on Sundays -- always shooed me away. He gave out handbills only to the adults. Sometimes I dogged him, begging until he tossed me a sheet, out of which I copied important data into my cinema journal: a plot summary, names of actors, studios, directors, cinematographers, and lyricists.
On my way back from school, I often stopped by the theater. I would linger there, studying the posters and the still-photographs. Like a little Romeo in love with movies, I waited at the foot of the wooden ladder that went up into the projection room, pining for entry into the higher sanctum where the projectionist was constantly tinkering with the wonder machine. He seldom looked out the door; rarely did he notice his admirer.
I waited until the projectionist swept his room and threw out broken filmstrips, which I salvaged along with spent carbon rods. Once I found a strip of film several feet long, much of it depicting the same dance scene frame after frame. That moment I really understood the technology of moving pictures. The holes and the lines that bordered the filmstrip made sense.
Fascinated by the new insight, I built a projector. It was simple: a flashlight, a box, a spool, and a lens. Voila! My bedroom became my own movie hall.
In the absence of a motor, I had to pull at the reel, trying out varying speeds. But the pictures I projected on the wall never moved. I saw no dance. No sword fight. Saddened, I abandoned technology in favor of art.
I continued to visit the theater and the concession stand. Eventually, I was able to start a friendship with the men inside: the gatekeeper, the drummer, the great projectionist, and of course, the film representative, who accompanied a film from village to village, often a young man from the city; a rep's trademarks were wide chisel-shaped sideburns and bell-bottoms.
Once I confessed to my older brother that I wished to be a film rep when I grew up.
``How easy!'' he said. ``Get those big chisels from carpenter Appavan. Glue them on your cheeks. You've got it made, kid. A film rep!''
Within the first three years of my silent romance with the movies, I had memorized the names of hundreds of movies and artists, though I had seen only four more movies and peeked at a few fragmentary scenes.
The men at the concession stand never chased me away. Even the projectionist listened when I talked in enthusiastic superlatives: Satyan is the greatest actor in history; Melli Irani, the greatest cinematographer; no one will beat Thoppil Bhasi for screenplays. When I grew up, I'd write a screenplay, I bragged. For a boy who had to make do imagining movies instead of actually watching them, screenplays ought to come easy.
BY the time I was 12, modern theaters had begun to sprout up everywhere, forcing our primitive movie house out of business. Toward the end, the place was mostly empty. The drummer stopped making his rounds. It was on one of those days that the projectionist beckoned me: ``Come up the ladder, I'll show you the machine!''
It was a high point in my boyhood. I always cherish the memory of standing near the whimpering, whirring movie projector, feeling cozy and fulfilled.
That day, I got to gaze through the viewport at the famed silver screen. As the matinee started, I stood there enchanted by the rays of light shooting out of the lens gate, spreading wider and wider as they traversed through darkness, generating such robust images, such a convincing world.
Now, every time I enter an American multiplex, the first thing I do is turn back and look toward the projection room; it conjures up for me the charm of the old movie house in my village in India.