The lockdown due to the global Covid-19 outbreak has only meant that we are craving for something we can't have right now: Going to the movies. In our new series, we write about our most memorable cinema hall experiences.
It was August 1986. Don't quote me on this, but I think the exact spot I was standing on was outside the McRennett on Mount Road. I used to love that place. It was near school, and every time the door opened, you'd get the smell of hot vegetable puffs. That was a time the "veg puff" was a thing. So anyway, here I was, in utter anxiety. I was waiting to cross the road (the divider did not exist back then), race across Peters Road, and get to Sathyam theatre. I had a ticket for the 6.30 screening of Subhash Ghai's newest film, Karma. Yes, I said "a ticket" — as in, one ticket. Even then, even in school, film-watching was never a thing you did with others.
I was getting impatient. I got crazy. I did some insane mental arithmetic about the speed of oncoming buses versus the distance I had to cross, and I just made a dash for it. I still hear the whizz of a bus whistling past me, behind me. Had I miscalculated a bit, I might have been a chubby splotch on the road. I made it to the film, but I recall this incident because it's what movies meant to me, what movies still mean to me. There's a craziness that kicks in, a good kind of crazy I think — though some readers may not agree. I think the point is that the movie theatre has always been a refuge, the calm in all storms.
For a while in the 1990s, I was staying with friends in Panvel. I was supposed to be "looking for a job", but I was… okay, let's keep this family-friendly. Anyway, I'd make a list of the films playing in Bombay, take a State Transport bus that would drop me at Dadar (that would give me an hour-and-a-half to plough through a big, fat book, which would take me months to finish today), and then take a train to Eros or Regal. Or sometimes, even Sharda Talkies in Dadar. I remember my excitement when they screened a restored 70mm print of Mother India. It was spectacular. So many songs — and yet, how beautifully they are integrated into the screenplay. People around me were humming those songs.
Let's go back to the 1980s, to Kanpur. My uncle was stationed there, and he took me to see Ashanti, which was a desi version of Charlie's Angels. Three women get screwed over; they take revenge. The Shabana Azmi character gets screwed over because someone doped her and shot nudies of her. I still recall the line: "Woh meri nangi tasveerein thi." Am I remembering the line right? It doesn't matter. Nostalgia exercises aren't about exactness. I think the theatre was shaped like a ship. Or maybe it was named after a ship.
Now, Jaipur. It's the 1990s, again. I am in Raj Mandir theatre, with friends. You cannot always avoid people while movie-watching, at least not if you don't want to be labelled a sociopath. We are watching Jaadugar, and the Amitabh Bachchan character is singing Padosan apni murgi ko rakhna sambhal / Mera murga hua hai deewana. My friend is giggling into my ear that "mera murga" is actually referring to… okay, let's keep this family-friendly. Sometimes, you do need friends around, like when I saw Amaram, at Safire. I didn't know Malayalam. I pestered the poor chap throughout. What's Mammootty saying now? What's happening on that boat now?
Is there a definitive movie experience? For many Tamilians of my generation, the answer is obvious: walking out of Anand theatre after a screening of Nayakan. I am not exaggerating; we were stunned. You know that expression "left speechless"? It was that. Mani Ratnam + Kamal Haasan + Ilaiyaraaja + PC Sreeram + Thota Tharrani = What the fuck did we just see! Anand theatre used to have these bas relief carvings on the walls. Safire theatre used to have a fantastically curved screen, and wonderfully plush seats. Every time I heard about one of these theatres being demolished, it was like someone dying.
Oh, I cannot wrap up this piece without mentioning the second-run theatres, where I saw — on the big screen — so many old films. MGR films. Sivaji Ganesan films. Jaishanker films. You know what your priorities are when you cannot remember birthdays but remember that you saw Kudiyirundha Koyil and Thudikkum Karangal in the Theyagaraja theatre that is now a Sathyam property. Opposite the road, there was Jayanthi theatre. I saw Varumayin Niram Sivappu there, after it had completed its round of the first-run theatres. Ten minutes before the screening began, my sister asked if Sridevi would be applying lipstick. She probably thought it was like a play, and the actors were getting ready.
There are some advantages of being — what do the kids call it? — a boomer. Whenever there were no new releases, theatres would screen older films. I've seen Mackenna's Gold on the big screen. I've seen Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen. I've seen Gone with the Wind on the big screen. I've seen Mughal-e-Azam on the big screen. Even before I knew the movies would become my profession and movie theatres my de facto "office", the space was special. Of course, over time, I've become used to seeing films on smaller (and smaller) screens, but — say — Nayakan isn't Nayakan unless you've watched it on the big screen.
A few years ago, in Delhi, there was an event. I think it was a Mani Ratnam retrospective, or maybe they were just showing Nayakan along with a bunch of other films. I had gone to the Madras Talkies office and picked up a DVD that had been made from the original negative. When I saw the film projected, I was blown away. After years of watching it in washed-out colours on TV and YouTube, the sharpness of Sreeram's chiaroscuro lighting was a shock. The blacks gleamed. The golds shone like jewelry catching the sun. A small part of my heart breaks when they say, post-COVID, movie-watching will gradually move away from theatres, but you get used to change. You can't be heartbroken that, say, no one writes letters anymore. You just hold on to the hoard of letters you've saved up and feel happy you have them.