Memories of movies, and the theatres that played them
Our correspondent in Mumbai writes about his movie-watching experiences in 2018
Here's what we don't talk about when we talk about movies: the theatres themselves. This article is intended as a roundup of my year at the movies — and for the most part will be just that. But I wish to begin by dashing off a quick tribute to the dwindling structures that still house our favourite dreams. This is partially fuelled by the recent announcement of the shutting down of Mumbai’s iconic Chandan Cinema, to be redeveloped into a high-rise and multiplex. The rest comes from my own guilt of not watching enough movies in theatres this year, waiting around for them to pop up on (legally accessible, subscription-
So here goes: Cinema halls are the bellies of dirty magic. They are amusement parks, taverns, dust-hazed dungeons, schools, rehabs, warzones; they are attics and basements, rooms you shouldn't be in; they’re submarines, immersed yet peeking out. It's not just how they look but how they smell — a mouldy, musty smell swimming down the end of the lobby and threatening to pull you into another time. (The smell worsens in the restrooms, especially in single-screens, where you must stand during the interval with blinkered eyes, slightly perturbed by the man in the next stall flashing you a grin. Maybe he just wants to discuss a plot twist.)
I recently spoke to filmmaker Vasan Bala about these feelings and this is what he had to say: “I come from a generation that enjoyed the ritual of going to the movies: looking at the posters, buying a ticket at the box-office, going inside the theatre or simply listening to the audio leak out from the auditorium. It's an experience that the internet cannot replace — that sense of physical interaction with a cinematic environment.”
I bring up the romance of the big screen for another reason. The communal experience of consuming a piece of art — any art (think concerts, book readings or performance poetry) — has obvious and invisible ways of feeding into our final assessment of the work, assessments we look back upon as deeply personal ones. I first caught Pa Ranjith-Rajinikanth’s Kaala, released on June 7 this year, at a suburban multiplex in Sion, Mumbai. It was a first-day morning show and the rows were packed with Tamil-speaking youngsters, all roaring and bringing the house down even before Thalaivar made his entry. Now the film was playing without subtitles, and I claim no knowledge to even broken Tamil, but I was readily swept up in the energy and the verve. I roared, teared-up and headbanged riotously to Santhosh Narayanan’s electric soundtrack. It was a mad rush, religious even. Some weeks later, when I rewatched the film online — this time with the aid of neatly matched English subtitles and an optional Hindi audio track — I quite missed the original impact.
There are other times when the mood of a film spills off the screen and swamps the aisles, like at the premiere of Kabir Singh Choudhary’s Mehsampur at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. The film follows a neurotic wannabe filmmaker, Devrath, as he goes about scooping up a documentary on slain Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila. I’d read some good reviews and was aware of the film’s generally spoofy mood; Mehsampur looked to satirize the desperation of a talentless director in order to expose the farcical nature of filmmaking itself. Strangely and fittingly enough, before the screening began, a skirmish broke out between the organizers and some guests. A group of angered festival-goers, who’d been queuing for the premiere since morning, complained they were being denied seats in favour of the cast and crew of the film. The argument picked up steam and heads turned disapprovingly at each other. A particularly agitated guest alleged classism, and I saw the film’s director step up to resolve matters, even offering to vacate his seat. It was an intense moment of disruption that nicely preluded Mehsampur’s many themes: the foggy borderlands between life and film; artist and audience.
A flipside of the communal viewing experience, though, is a confusion of feeling. I remember watching Satyameva Jayate — a vigilante thriller film where the cop-killing hero (John Abraham) stakes out police stations based on a game of scrabble (‘S’ for Santa Cruz, ‘A’ for Andheri, ‘T’ for Thane...) — and being almost enticed by the film’s manic drollery. Yes, we were laughing at the film instead of with it, but we were laughing all the same. And the shared ecstasy of jeering at a bad film can be as real as gaping at a good one.
But not all theatrical escapades are collective. Some are personal, at times quite literally when the occupancy’s low. This happened when I walked into a night show of Vikramditya Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, at one of the Gs inside G7 Multiplex in Bandra (Gemini, if I remember). The film was riddled with flaws: the editing was a slog; the social-relevance bits didn’t belong; the main villain was a bore, though his dance bar-frequenting minion was big fun. What changed my mind about the film, however, were the closing few moments, the brisk ending montage where our desi, stick-wielding hero — now turned into a superhero by his resilience — faced off his nemesis against a thundering night sky. It was a classic comic book moment, soaring soundtrack cutting to a tight closeup of the hero’s mask, and it made my chest glow.
Walking out of the theatre, I watched storm clouds gather in the sky and neon signs blink seductively at me. I realised I was turned into a five-year-old who wanted to go out into the night and ‘clean the scum off the streets’, maybe shoot off in a Batmobile and grow a gruff voice. It was a supremely childish feeling that lasted a good five minutes. Then I jumped into an Uber and called my mom at home.
Something quite different happened when I came out of the press screening of Zero and was quizzed by my rickshaw-driver, a middle-aged man from Mirzapur living in Mumbai for the last ten years, how I liked the film. I was still collecting my thoughts and asked him if he intends on watching it. He answered “yes”, but only on Monday or Tuesday since weekends are marked strictly for business. The man kept peering at his side mirror, waiting for me to answer. Not wanting to break his heart — why though? Did I assume he loves Shah Rukh Khan? He never said he does — I blurted out that it’s a good film and he should take his family along. The man then told me he’ll catch it in Chandan Cinema, even though he stays nearer to 24 Karat Cinema, because he really likes the “mahaul” (environment) of the theatre. He also told me that the best theatre in Mirzapur is Rajshree Starworld Cinema (I cross-checked, it is) and moaned about the growing prices of tickets.
As I write this piece, I have no means of finding out if the rickshaw driver who dropped me that night has seen Zero or not — or what he made of my hurried recommendation to him. But I hope he had a good time and really took his family along. Cinema must always remain a shared experience, even as those modes of sharing evolve.