Shop Number 34

Shop 34 is an institution.

My friend the filmmaker & Professor who holds the Zakir Hussain Chair at Jamia Milia University, Shohini Ghosh (Tales of the Night Fairies) took me to Shop 34.

She’d been meaning to do this for a while. It’s in Delhi’s underground shopping complex. You descend into a world of bustling with activity and head straight for the first shop on the right. I followed Shohini.

Straight past the few people in the shop and headed purposefully to the narrow spiral staircase at the end. That’s what one does. Don’t look around. Don’t ask questions. Just climb up. They’ll immediately know you mean business.

And so I did and entered a small mezzanine with a low roof. A man was asleep across two chairs. There was nothing but upturned, rotting furniture in sight and the smell of leather coated with years of perspiration.

Another man followed us up and responded to Shohini’s query, what’s new?

Out came a stack of DVD’s. I rifled through them quite amazed at the range of titles available. All of Ozu, the entire Marx Brothers, John Wayne, Early Kurosawa, it seemed endless. Just when I thought I had seen enough the unnamed man thumped another lot and then another and another.

Hollywood musical’s from the 30’s and 40’s. Some silent films, Fassbinder, Classics of Soviet cinema, the entire Pudovkin some Eisenstein…

NO, this was not some specialist video store. This was Pirate Central. The headquarters of the real thing.
I selected about 150 titles and then began the another tale.

Me: How much?
The sleeping man awoke from his slumber.
Sleeping Man: 200
Me: (horrified) 200! But I’m planning to buy so many.
Sleeping Man: Well you tell me?
Me: I have no clue. Why don’t you suggest a price?
Sleeping Man: Listen, all the big time Bollywood directors come and shop here. They pay 200.
Me: Like who? Give me some names.
Sleeping Man: (rattles some names)
I know some of them so can take a risk with my next response.
Me: They are not directors. Name some real directors.
Sleeping Man is thrown by this comment.
Sleeping Man: Ok I’ll do this for 175 not a penny less.
Me: That’s still too high.
Sleeping Man: So give me a figure.
Me: Look in Bangalore they do it for less.
Sleeping Man: The Bangalore guys buy from me, make copies and sell for less. Name your price. I don’t have all day.
Me: (tentatively) How about 75?

Now Sleeping Man rises from his slumber. His face turns red. His eyes begin to water. His voice shakes when he speaks.

Sleeping Man Now Wide Awake: 75? Are you out of your mind? This is an insult. I’m hurt. You think these films are worth 75?
Me: What do you mean insult? Have YOU made these films? If they were yours and I was bargaining I could understand the hurt. But… sir… you’re just copying them. This is just business.

Wide Awake Man now took a deep breath. He paused and then walked me through the most amazing story of how the operation works.

WAM: Sir ji… this is not business. Do you know what I have to go through to get these titles. Eisenstein scholars come here to get their titles. I have to search for films all over the world. I then buy them and make sure they are of high quality. The DVD’s, the printing… and then there’s bringing them here. I have to deal with laws of all the countries I visit. There are the police at the airport, the precinct where I live, the one by this shop, the customs people in both countries…

He paused to wipe an imaginary tear as his story continued.

WAM: Sir ji… it’s not just business.

I paused and said I would think this over and get back the next day. Outside, Shohini thought I was mad having gone through all this. I must confess seeing all those Ozu’s and the Marx Brother’s and the profusion of titles did make me think.

But more than that I thought of the man.
He was imploring me to see the work he was doing. The passion he had. His taste in selecting the films I would want in my collection. This was not just business. He was an artist.

Even piracy is an art form.