Long before BookMyShow, PayTM and TicketNew (ok maybe not too long ago), the process of getting a ticket for the first day first show of any major star required the focus and planning of a military exercise. You needed to work out an extra five minutes during lunch breaks in school to spend time with that "friend" who becomes important because his father works in a theatre. You also notice how you've suddenly become nicer to a friend's sister or that jolly cousin because you know how much shorter (or virtually empty) the 'ladies lines' are at the theatre's ticket counter. Planning finances too takes a bit of visionary thinking. 'If I cycle to tuitions for a week instead of taking the auto, I can save that much more,' because come release day, one has no control over the capitalistic forces that decide the price of a movie ticket in black. And if you were lazy, without the ability to preempt the film's buzz, you'd be stuck having to wait in line, like everybody else, trying to somehow get your hands on a ticket…just one ticket (except the front two rows).
As I walked in this morning with reasonable ease to watch the 4 AM show of Ajith's Nerkonda Paarvai in Chennai's Kasi Theatre, I was reminded of a day from twelve years ago when I had to stand for hours to buy tickets for Ajith's Billa. As I stood there waiting, I remember overhearing the guy behind me mulling the idea of coming dressed up as a woman, because, like I said, their lines were practically empty. In a sense, the FDFS of any major superstar's movie was hardly a place where you'd find women, and curiously, that was especially the case during Ajith's films.
But this morning was very different. The gender distribution may not have been 50:50 like in an Arvind Swamy film in the 90s, Madhavan in the 2000s, or Vijay Deverakonda today, but for a 4 am show, that too for an Ajith film, the fact that 20-30 percent of the theatre were women is a tiny miracle.
Of course some of that has to do with how easy it has now become to book tickets online. Another reason for the crowd could also be Pink or at least people who've heard about the Hindi original. Pink is good…Pink is great, but is it wake-up-at-3am-hoping-to-find-an-Uber-when-it-could-be-raining good? I don't think so. Because I feel there are only three factors that can really motivate someone to wake up that early for movie—a major star, a star director or a star franchise.
With Nerkonda Paarvai, we don't just get a superstar playing the hero— we also a get a superstar playing a feminist. This, in an industry where people think that's what the "F" word stands for.
Nerkonda Paarvai is also a film of two halves; the first half rewired to cater to the conventional young male 'Thala' fan. Ajith gets a smartly planted fight sequence where he beats the pulp out of faceless, nameless bad guys. He also gets to deathstare a hospital attendant who doesn't seem to know who he is. And most importantly, he gets to ride a bike (and pop a wheelie), which is the Ajith equivalent to Salman taking off his shirt.
But when the aforementioned fight gets over, Ajith's Bharath Subramaniam tells the villain character played by Jayaprakash that their issues are no longer going to be dealt with on the streets; the battle field is the court now. You can almost hear director Vinoth telling the fans, "I gave you what you wanted. Now let me get back to some serious business."
In a sense, even the scene where Meera (Shraddha Srinath) gets abducted was a hint. In a usual mass hero movie, Ajith's character would have easily chased and tracked down the van with the abductors to save her. The moment Bharath takes the cover off his jeep in pursuit, the theatre was filled with loud cheers and whistles expecting this very outcome. But this film is more ambitious. The issue at hand cannot be dealt with punches or brute force.
Which is why it has no space for conventional heroics or "theatre moments" in the second half. Don't get me wrong, Nerkonda Paarvai is most definitely a star movie, unlike Pink. Despite Amithabh Bachchan's presence, he was very much in the role of an effective character actor in the film. Which is why there was a debate about how a female lawyer should have represented the three women, in a film that talks about gender equality. But if the film stars someone like Rajinikanth, Ajith or Vijay, there's no space for that debate because their character is obviously going to play a saviour figure in the film.
But the real surprise was how the entire mood in the theatre changed as the film moved into the courtroom. There was no hooting and no whistling, not because they were bored, because it is a film that needed listening. For those who haven't seen the original, Nerkonda Paarvai is like a source text explaining the concept of consent to these young men, perhaps for the first time. And unlike in a regular mass movie, the hero's "speech" doesn't apply to just the bad guys who do the wrong things. Consent is a lesson for everyone.
Yet what was most amusing is when the cheering and whistling came back on. But this time it wasn't the men.
When Bharath Subramaniam questions society's gaze is stamping a woman as immoral just because she drinks, or wears jeans, I wish you'd been in the theatre with me. I've never heard so many women hooting and cheering so loudly during a movie. It gave me the goosebumps.
This is also true because the film's not about the hero playing a vigilante who beats up men who treat women badly. Because the film's not about a superhuman police officer who takes it upon himself to "save" every woman. The hero here is a lawyer, the kind we all have a chance of meeting in real life. Unlike the fantasies of the first two cases, the solution this film provides is honestly the only hope we too have if such a situation were to arise. Which is why watching the first day first show of Ajith's Nerkonda Paarvai was unlike any other FDFS experience. Such early morning shows were never seen as a place for a woman. With this film, we not only get a feminist male hero film we can celebrate in true style but it also has the power to throw open the culturally significant first day first show culture, making women a central part of it. Do you wan't first day first shows of mega movies to be limited to the male audience alone? No means no.