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"Walk Down Memory Lane… The Once Ubiquitous Video Cassette"

Post on: May 13, 2023

The video cassette recorder may have died a natural death, but the memory is very much alive. I vividly remember my maiden movie watched via the VCR. The year was 1979 — my brothers and I were over the moon as we gathered in my home to watch Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky”. In the spirit of camaraderie, we invited a few friends from the Redhill estate I grew up in.

To mark the occasion, we served our chums hot piping samosa washed down with Bandung (rose syrup with carnation milk). It was a memorable experience — Rocky was so aptly chosen as our first movie. It catapulted Stallone with accolades and went on to win the Academy Award in the best movie category.

For a ten-year-old boy like me, the video cassette recorder was the greatest invention of humankind. It revolutionised how television programme is to be watched. My brothers and I began recording our favourite musical shows like “Solid Gold” and the “Sha Na Na”. This was followed by the wrestling series, “On the Mat”. Very soon we had a compilation of more than 100 entertainment programmes at our disposal.

The millennials may not appreciate the magnitude of this phenomenon and the accompanying joy it brought us. In the present times, movies can be watched literally at our fingertips via mobile phones at one’s convenience. This wasn’t the case back then. We had only two or three channels on TV. And the channels were scheduled according to timing, oftentimes beginning at 5 p.m. and ending before midnight.

With so few choices, our favourite movies cannot be missed at any cost. As such, the VCR came to our rescue – we could record automatically by setting the timer and watching it later. The two major players who conquered my neighbourhood market were Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS. Almost every household had these cassettes on standby.

Enterprising citizens capitalised on the videocassette’s popularity to create employment for themselves. My neighbour, Aunty *Meenatchi was a classic example. She would borrow five videocassettes from a video rental shop. The mass rental enabled her to keep them for ten days instead of the usual two days per tape allowance.

The enterprising lady would then spring into action – sub-renting them to all the families in the neighbourhood using the mathematical system which she designed to coordinate it efficiently. Her business acumen permitted her to watch them free and make a lucrative profit! We were too happy to oblige – we got to watch the latest movies through her and could keep abreast of the Bollywood extravaganzas and WWF wrestling.

The innocuous machine taught us resilience and patience. Sometimes, the cassette would get stuck in the recorder or the reel got jammed in the cassette mechanism. In an era where “Internet Search Engines” was unheard of, we could not get help at our fingertips. Instead, we had to rely on our ingenuity to solve the problem. It meant painstakingly inserting a pencil into the socket to fix it manually. It was a laborious job but greatly satisfying as it worked miraculously all the time.

As with most things in life, there were negatives from using the video cassette recorder. The greatest complaint was the cassettes getting mouldy. It was common to hear friends lament that their birthday recordings had been permanently ruined. The humid climate accentuated by the stuffy enclosed area was ideal ground for the cassettes getting damaged. However, the positives and joy outweighed such occasional bugbears.

Today the video cassette recorder is a thing of the past and we hardly hear people talk about it. The popularity of the antiquated gadget had waned over the years due to technological advances. And I wonder if it is still available in the market. Nevertheless, it served its purpose well during an era when things were so much simpler… the videocassette recorder evokes fond memories. One feels so much at home reminiscing its wonders and the joy it brought us.

By: Shaji Thomas Varughese 

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