Cities have secrets that they hide in their numerous labyrinths for their passionate lovers to discover some day. Cities tell stories to all who are listening and as long as you're listening, you'll hear new stories. Calcutta is a city that is notoriously famous for its secret stories and even more secretive lovers. On a trip to Mrinal Sen's El Dorado this summer, I heard a story too.

City dwellers, especially children, pick up images when they are being driven around. Unfortunately, this sense of imagination precedes a sense of geography among school children. I plead guilty. Traveling around in my school bus, I often saw titillating posters stuck on various walls in different parts of the city. Puberty had struck and I always wanted to visit one such cinema hall and watch one of those B-Grade movies. Then my family moved to a different part of the city and I never saw those posters again.

On this trip back home I, a college student now, decided to finally realise my adolescent fantasy; driven by curiosity more than childish excitement this time. A poster there read:

'Jawaani Ek Khilona Hai'
Dress Circle-30

The gentleman behind the counter informed me that women are not allowed inside the cinema hall. At that time I wondered why. In a 2003 article about sleazy cinema halls in Calcutta, Amrita Mukherjee and Soumyadipta Banerjee wrote: "Even more intriguing is the crowd — from the young trendy teenager, often accompanied by a curious girlfriend who has bunked classes..." (The article is interestingly titled 'Will this sleaze show stop?' city/hyderabad/Sleaze-biz-no-longer-sexy/articleshow) I went inside with a male friend.

The box office and the cinema hall are in different buildings separated by a stretch of land with scantily grown grass. The doorman of the hall informed us that we can only enter 5 minutes before the screening is scheduled to commence. We waited and looked at the various posters and the eager spectators. A school bus cruised past the box office.

The cinema hall is located in a working class locality with buildings on all its sides barring the front. The crowd naturally comprises of working class, beedi smoking, sunglass wearing men roughly ranging from 20-50 years in age. The building is a decrepit structure with huge pillars and dampened walls. Nearly half the chairs on the balcony were either damaged or missing. The place has no lights except the ones that lead to the GENTS TOILET. The screen was torn and so dirty that it is beyond me how anything can be screened on it for viewing. We took our seats on the front row of the Dress Circle. And then it began. I couldn't believe it. We stood up for the national anthem.

The first scene had two lesbians clumsily making love. I was shocked. A lesbian sex scene in a working class locality cinema hall was not the first thing I expected on screen. It took us 10 minutes to realize that there was no movie; just patched up scenes of soft-porn films from a bygone era.

Some fifteen minutes into the show we figured nobody else was watching. My friend turned around to see what was happening. So did I. We were not prepared for what we saw. There were undressed men standing in couples and groups in different parts of the dress circle. We looked at each other in disbelief. Then we looked behind us again and ran out of the building in bewilderment.

With the help of the internet we found out that the cinema hall is a popular cruising spot for gay men in Calcutta. Cruising is walking or driving about a locality in search of sex partners, usually of the anonymous, casual, one-time variety. Online blog discussions saw participation from people who recounted their sexual experiences in graphic detail. This was unbelievable. I was starting to believe that the LGBT Community had come up with a remarkable method to pose resistance against the government's decision to criminalize homosexuality by occupying and claiming spaces like this. Mayank Austen Soofi writes that the Madras Coffee House in Connaught Place had a special table with flowers as a secret symbol for Queer Activists in 1990s. I felt like I had discovered a secret like Soofi. But the truth is different.

This is not a tale of forbidden celluloid love in working-class Kolkata. It is a rather sad reality. Such cinema halls used to be very common in Calcutta at a time as the Times of India Article suggests (or rather laments). But with the advent of the internet, access to pornographic content has become far more simple. These cinema halls are running out of business and shutting down rapidly or being converted into multiplexes screening mainstream films. The internet also enables the upper-class people among the LGBT Community to have access to avenues for internal interaction and association. They have their own websites, WhatsApp groups, online communities that organize assemblies and pride marches. Of course they face problems too and their problems are no less important. But with the shutting down of such spaces, the working-class homosexuals are affected the most.

Two of the seven cinema halls mentioned in the article have been permanently closed. Three of them were temporarily shut down to be reopened as multiplexes. Then came demonetization and the renovation plans were dropped. These cinema halls have now reopened as single screens without any changes. And they screen more mainstream movies now.

When I first told my editor about this episode she asked me why I ran away. I didn't have an answer. All my life I have believed that sexual orientation is something that only the rich can care to think about. That day, in that cinema hall in a working class locality, I realized that homosexuality is real. Just like homophobia is. I may have run away because I was not prepared for what I saw. Maybe next time if I go to that place I won't run away; that is if the place continues to exist when I go to the infamous city of secrets again...