Memories of the Movie Theatre: A Sriram Raghavan Film, With A Salman Khan Audience, Film Companion

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. It is the theme for our new series, where we write about our most memorable cinema hall experiences. 

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve hated being in a movie theatre. How do you deal with a crying infant? (Tip: Shame the parents so that they leave the theatre). What do you do about the sheer bad luck of sitting behind someone with a spiky haircut that obscures your view of the screen? (Advise: Don’t do anything). What does one do about the cell phones? Even if they are being used by strangers who are sitting far away from you, the glowing screens get into your field of vision. Or people who feel entitled to do as they please because they have paid for their ticket. Because let’s face it: watching a film in a theatre can be harrowing in this country, especially if you are a fussy audience like me.

I thought I was in for another bad experience when the curtains rose for AndhaDhun at Liberty. Although that’s not how it started. It was a post-work movie date, on a late autumn evening. And what better venue than Liberty? That grand old dame of South Mumbai theatres, with its lovely art deco architecture and exquisite lighting, as if it’s always dressed up for a big splashy premiere. Traveling from our respective offices in rush hour traffic, we even made it in time. I was not going to miss the beginning, as I had for Sriram Raghavan’s last film Badlapur, which had the tagline: “Don’t Miss the Beginning” — a misery worsened by the fact that I had joked to my friends that it’ll be ironic to be late for the film. Well in time to go to the washroom and grab something to eat.

Everything was perfect—until it wasn’t. The cup corn was the worst I’ve ever had. The seats were shockingly uncomfortable, with the kind of leg space that can put Spice-jet to shame. And Liberty seems to have the same problem with acoustics as some of the old theatres; the sound seems to travel from the direction of the screen and not from speakers around you. But worst of all, we seemed to be in the company of an audience who had no interest in the film. It was not the usual crowd you see in a PVR or at the Mumbai Film Festival. A large part of Liberty’s clientele is the working class community, with affordable tickets at Rs 100/180/200.

Now, I’ve had past experiences of watching the wrong movie with the wrong audience. I remember watching Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai at Gaiety, where a large part of the male-centric audience kept commenting on the Emraan Hashmi character to make a move on Kalki, probably disappointed that the film didn’t have any kisses. I thought I had learnt my lesson: Never watching a film like Shanghai in a theatre like Gaeity. Don’t get me wrong, I love a wild front row going bananas over an ‘entry’ scene. I have seen Navina cinema in Kolkata turn into a mosh-pit on the First Day Second Show of Dabangg, where Salman Khan fans who didn’t get tickets got in anyway, watching the film from the aisles.

But this was not a Salman Khan film. This was a Sriram Raghavan film, playing in front of a Salman Khan audience. Yes, Raghavan’s films aren’t the serious, boring kind. He is a fan of Hindi crime films, but in a nerdy way. He is the filmmaker’s filmmaker, darling of cinephiles. AndhaDhun is built on a premise taken from of a French short film. In interviews, the director has cited Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player as one of its influences. Did the audience in attendance even care about these things? Their jokes and banter carried on even after the film had begun. I was freaking out. Bad seats, bad acoustics, bad audience, and the worst cup corn in the world: This is a disaster in the making.

Fifteen minutes into the film, none of that seemed to matter. The action on screen became the only important thing. A twist you expect in the end is revealed in the beginning: The Ayushmann Khurrana character is playing bluff. 2 hours of the movie still remain. What all does it have up its sleeve? And how wrong were I? The same audience that I had thought would be unreceptive to Raghavan’s smarts were gleefully participating in this amazingly dark and twisted game of cat and mouse. How quickly had the energy of the place changed. We were now all one unit, laughing at the same places, on the edge of our (bad) seats, bound by something very basic: the curiosity to find out what happens next. 

That night at Liberty got me off my snob cinephile high horse, and humbled me a little. It played out like a middle finger to preconceived notions, making a mockery of created labels like multiplex audience and single screen audience, class and mass. Families and young people in groups had come for a movie to have a good time. I think they went home happy. People clapped in the end. We all did. And Raghavan had done something special: he had made a film for everyone.

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