In The Telugu Film Industry, You Either Need Wealth Or A Weapon: Adivi Sesh

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. 

When Baasha released in 1995, I was not old enough to go to the movies by myself. So, I had to wait for my parents to take me. Usually, it was either a Rajinikanth or a Sarath Kumar film. They were considered family-friendly, as they rarely upset the toddlers in the group and, therefore, left the grownups to enjoy the film in peace.  I couldn’t care less what the film was. I didn’t have a choice, anyway. I went to the movies for the inexpensive, fake-shiny and tempting-looking snacks that were otherwise out of my reach. 

Baasha was playing at the Rolls Royce of local theatres: Pambaiyaa. It’s what is called a C-center theatre, located 50 kilometres from Tuticorin, the nearest tier-3 city. It was ahead of its time, and had cushioned balcony seats. I sat in the first row, right behind the parapet that had holes the size of one’s palm; the bass would boom through these during songs and fight sequences. 

This was my first Rajinikanth film at a theatre. I had seen parts of his films such as Raja Chinna Roja and Athisaya Piravi on Sun TV. Raja Chinna Roja had a cool song with animated characters, and Athisaya Piravi had a fun sequence in which Rajinikanth’s character died and struck a deal with Yama in heaven. While I thought Rajinikanth was a good diversion, none of what I’d seen till then prepared me for Baasha. The audience at Pambaiyaa theatre did!  

When the individual letters that made up the word ‘Superstar’ appeared, the crowd was in raptures, as if in the presence of divinity. I was confused, more because I wasn’t exactly sure when to join them in prayer! However, by the time the film had reached the scene where Manikkam charismatically stoops over a table and tells a corrupt college owner that he has another name, I figured it out.

When Manikkam yanks the handle of a water pump to beat up men who tried to harm his mother, I was at the forefront of the screaming. I had become an expert masala film viewer thanks to coaching from my fellow audience members. They amplified the high that I was feeling, and I knew I was doing the same for them. We were on the same team.

Seconds before I was going to hear the legendary ‘Naa oru dhadava sonna, nooru dhadava sonnaa maadhiri’ punchline for the first time, a rat ran out of one of the holes in the parapet. And then came the punchline that I now forever associate with a rat. Probably because of the rush of dopamine from actively participating in a film with the audience, I seem to remember everything that happened during the film, and after it, that day. 

I still fondly think of the rat when I rewatch Baasha. In fact, I missed it when I recently watched a 25th anniversary screening at Satyam Cinemas, a more plausible Rolls Royce of movie theatres. But I didn’t miss the Pambaiyaa audience. Once the lights were dimmed and the film started, I had exactly the same experience. I don’t know if notes are handed down from parents to children as heirloom, but there is a mimetic quality to how Baasha continues to be received by audiences today.

By 2003, I was old enough to go to the movies with a friend. I went to the evening show of Anbe Sivam on the day of its release at Thangam theatre, the Maruti 800 of local theatres. I enjoyed Kamal Haasan’s Nallasivam; he was the antithesis of the masculinity projected by Rajinikanth and Sarath Kumar. The audience kept mocking the film, though. It seemed like they were not on my team anymore.

Even eight-year-old me could fathom the simple emotions in Baasha. Little was lost in interpretation. I just had to tap into my in-built intuition. In contrast, the audience watching the cerebral Anbe Sivam might have felt that it was not ideal for a community viewing experience on a festival day. 

Some films benefit from individual viewers developing a considered response to it over a longer period of time. So, instead of keeping us waiting, I hope the lockdown is a nudge for makers to release such films straight to OTT platforms. Though its theatrical run was interrupted by the COVID-19 lockdown, Dharala Prabhu seems to be enjoying a warm reception after its OTT release.

But the lockdown has been more than a nudge for me to often wistfully think of watching a ‘first day first show’ of Master or Soorarai Pottru at a theatre, whenever they release. The need to keep alive the rush of watching a ‘mass’ hero film in a dark hall filled with like-minded strangers has become even more urgent. It would feel great to be on the same team as the audience once again.

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