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.
The theatrical experience of film watching is not supposed to make sense. Every individual aspect of this act defies the fundamental conditioning of human nature. We spend hours in the dark, but wide awake. We dream, but with our eyes open. We sit in a large room with a few hundred people, but in silence, without speaking or socializing with them. We travel to different cultures and corners of the world, but without moving an inch. We feel intimate emotions, but pay to do this in the vicinity of strangers. Yet somehow, it all adds up. Somehow, the cumulative consequence is a magical sum of disjointed parts. Somehow it's the one space where, despite my inherent dislike for people, I like the idea of being around people.
My earliest memories of going to the movies feature everything but the actual movies. I remember, for instance, developing a lifelong fondness for pav bhaji while watching Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge at the local drive-in theater. Growing up in a town that thrived on an open-air cinema culture made my peripheral vision broader than the modern multiplex goer. I noticed the family in the car next to ours: The pot-bellied patriarch returns from the canteen with a dozen packets of fresh bhaji, but in the distinctly Gujarati pursuit of trying to customize their comfort and adjust the slot's speakers by the window, he drops all the plates smack onto the bonnet. For the entire second half of the movie, our section of the parking lot smelled delicious. Even today when I see Raj and Simran stealing glances in Punjab for the fifty-third time, I am overcome by a crippling craving for buttery pav bhaji. When I see Kuljeet's gang beat up Raj and his pop at the railway station, I still hear the motorous symphony of a hundred ignitions being turned on together – the cars often made a beeline for the exit upto half an hour before the end credits to escape the rush. For DDLJ they waited a little longer, reluctantly snaking toward non-existent corners, lest they miss Chaudhary Baldev Singh's iconic change of heart. I asked my father if he could drive around the giant screen. I don't think he corrected me when I told him why: Aged 9, I was still convinced that the actors performed on a dynamic stage in a room behind the transparent screen, and I wanted to congratulate them before they left for Bombay.
That's not to say my experiences became less memorable once multiplexes hijacked town at the turn of the millenium. They just weren't as innocent. I have a permanent scar on my face that I solely attribute to the adrenalin rush of watching Lagaan and Gadar on consecutive evenings. I was so inspired by the raucous stadium atmosphere during both films that my only means of real-life expression – Sunday cricket – ended with a leather ball having a violent rendezvous with my unprotected nose. In some cases, the experience resembled the movies: I remember my heart beating rapidly during Shah Rukh Khan's unnerving cameo in Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega because, unbeknownst to my group of male friends, I was about to catch a pre-arranged glimpse of the mysterious girl I had developed an online friendship with. At the snack counter, we stood silently, shyly, waiting for popcorn, revelling in the teenage hope of a romance that never materialized.
My obsession with M. Night Shyamalan began because I was the only kid in the hall who understood the twist of The Sixth Sense. While walking out, I explained the ending to anyone who could hear – parents, children, ushers – with the eagerness of a nerd discussing the question paper right after an exam. The scenes of Shayamlan's second film are seared into my eyes because, minutes after the 2001 earthquake, as we stood on the street waiting for our trembling apartment to stabilize, I reminded my father that we had watched a film called "Unbreakable" the previous night. He wasn't impressed.
One can argue that it has taken a global lockdown for us to recognize the intangible relationship between watching movies and the way we watch them. We still spend hours in the dark, but wide awake. We still dream, but with our eyes open. We still sit in silent rooms, without speaking or socializing with people. We still think about different corners and cultures of the world, but without moving an inch. We still pay – mentally, physically – to feel intimate emotions in the broad vicinity of strangers. Yet, this time, none of it adds up. The cumulative consequence is a disjointed sum of surreal parts. As a result, we're suddenly nostalgic about the irony of a public place elevating the palate of a personal experience. But there's also a cruel irony in how a cinema hall – which, at its best, is a wildlife sanctuary of minds momentarily freed from the shackles of survival – is now a space that directly threatens survival.
When this pandemic ends, perhaps I'll learn to remember my return to the movies. Maybe I'll remember everything but the actual movie. Maybe, like my favourite movie character, I'll admire the flickering faces of spectators in the dark theater. And maybe, if I'm lucky, I might smell the pav bhaji.