Friday, April 3, 2020


Cinema in the time of COVID-19: an ode to the romance of movie halls and watching films with strangers

The sun was out but it was not uncomfortably warm. Vehicular pollution was not the mass murderer that it is today, so it was natural for my parents to take the kids along – as other families did that day – on the walk from South Extension to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, for a film show. I am not certain of the year (it has to be in the 1980s), but I do recall that happy holiday as we made the trek on a service road parallel to Ring Road, from home to an auditorium on the sprawling AIIMS campus to see Manjil Virinja Pookkal

My sister remembers the film, not the occasion. She was amused earlier today as I recounted details of the outing to her. Such as the fact that it was Dad’s hand I clung to, which means Mum was most likely carrying her in her arms. That the distance felt longer to my little legs than my cellphone’s GPS now tells me it is. And that the screening was organised by a now-long-gone club called Kairali Film Society, no trace of which I can find on the Internet. 

I suspect I can picture it as vividly as if it happened yesterday because this is my first ever memory of watching a film in a theatre. There had been other films before Manjil Virinja Pookkal, viewed with the family huddled around our black-and-white TV set in the days when Doordarshan was our only salvation. This was a different world though, and I remember it all. The mass of people in the hall. The weather outside. A coy Poornima Jayaram. The villainous Mohanlal. The title song about flowers that blossomed in the dew, that I most likely did not understand but instinctively found beautiful. 

Such pleasant reminiscences have been floating around in my mind in the weeks since the novel Coronavirus began keeping me away from one of my favourite haunts: movie halls. Much before the government declared a national lockdown due to COVID-19 (coronavirus disease), my cautious nature had prompted me to practise social distancing, heeding the advice of experts quoted in the global media. This means that March 2020 will go down in history (yes, I did say that, *inserts smart-ass emoji*) as perhaps the first month in a decade that I watched just three films in theatres – each one strictly for reviewing purposes. 

A lot has happened for film buffs since a tiny girl was mesmerised by the moving images on what felt like a colossal screen at AIIMS. Colour TVs came to India in the 1980s, satellite TV followed in the 1990s, over time the stubborn exhibition sector has opened up to a point where, sitting in Delhi, we can now watch films in multiple Indian and foreign languages, not English and Hindi alone, and in recent years, the advent of online streaming platforms has left us spoilt for choice. My work primarily involves writing on cinema, so obviously I am and I am required to be a voracious consumer of films. I have no reservations about watching them on cellphones, tablets, laptops or televisions, at festivals, premieres, previews, upon their theatrical release or online, but if my schedule and budget permit it, I would pick a cinema hall over every other available option any day.

There is something magical about sitting in a large darkened theatre, gazing at a giant screen, savouring the unexplainable, precious solitude of the movie-viewing experience even when watching with a crowd. To my mind, this is why people continue to fill theatres although we all now have cellphones, which makes us all, in a sense, potential theatre owners. This is why theatres will never die. 

When I am lost in a film, I often have a blinkered vision directed at the screen. Sometimes though, it is worth absorbing the sociology and psychology lessons on offer off screen and the pockets of drama among the audience. There was that one time in Gurgaon when a massive family including grandparents and kids turned up for the Hindi version of Delhi Belly, but after an eye full of male butt cracks and Tashi pleasuring his girlfriend, the entire platoon scurried out with many a “Chhee” and “Hawww” and exclamations of disgust. Clearly they had not bothered to check the certification (Delhi Belly was A-rated) or read reviews out of concern for the children in the group, but hey, let’s not take responsibility for our own irresponsibility. Clearly too, the multiplex management, like so many others in India, had not enforced the rating – if they had, children would not have got in in the first place.

Then there was that other time, when a group of what I assume to be Mommies brought a bunch of very small children to a single-screen complex in Delhi for My Super Ex-Girlfriend starring Uma Thurman. (Don’t judge me – I was there for work.) The kids were, understandably, bored by that dreadful film and started running up and down the aisle, until that first scene in which the protagonist has wild sex and ends up demolishing a bed. At that point the little ones froze in wonderment and one of them cried out at the top of his voice, words to this effect, “Mummy Mummy, voh apni boyfriend ko kyun maar rahi hai (Why is she beating her boyfriend)?” Mummy shushed him, the kids continued to be a nuisance to the rest of us, and the show went on.

Sometimes an audience seems like a microcosm of the world outside, sometimes inhabitants of a universe far away. In the summer of 2017, as the results for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections were being announced, I headed out to watch the Malayalam film Oru Mexican Aparatha in a multiplex in a state bordering UP. While the sweep of UP by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party was becoming evident, I was startled and then amused to hear audience members raising the Left’s favoured slogan, “Lal Salaam”, in support of Oru Mexican Aparatha’s Communist hero.

The research for my book, The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic (Om Books, 2012), included watching every single Bollywood film released in a theatre in the National Capital Region in one year. The project resulted in numerous occasions when I found myself alone in a theatre – because there are that many unknown, unmarketed films produced by the Mumbai-based film industry, some terrific, some terrible. Watching the good ones among them all on my own only served to underline for me the romance of the big screen and the reason why I became a critic: to inform people about great films they may not otherwise have heard of or considered watching.

My library of anecdotes – about empty and packed halls, fights I have had with managers to get them to start shows they were hoping to cancel because no one other than I had bought a ticket, parents who refuse to control their restless offspring, and couples making out – is a testament to the number of trips I make to a theatre in a week.

In recent weeks, as dread and uncertainty over COVID-19 have clouded our lives, as the lockdown appears to have unlocked further reserves of online hate, as those depressing images of the impoverished masses trudging hundreds of kilometers to their villages have been unleashed on us, I have, as always, taken refuge in reading, writing, films and TV shows. Now, more than ever before, I am grateful for the likes of Netflix. There is no getting away though from the fact that my glucose is community viewing in a theatre.

Where else can you watch a live show of a couple squabbling over whether or not they should give up on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life? For the record, he wanted to leave, she wanted to stay as I gathered from the fact that they had a furious whispered exchange of words part way through the film, he stormed out, returned to coax her to leave, stormed out again, returned, then stormed out again, before giving up and sinking back into his seat because the young woman refused to budge.

A friend wrote on Twitter the other day that once the Coronavirus pandemic is over, he doubts he will ever again feel safe in teeming public places. Me? I am dying to get back – to hugging loved ones and holding hands, to walking down streets and train stations, to flights and the Delhi Metro, to scouring well-stocked markets and bustling malls. And of course, it goes without saying, to watching films in the dark with strangers at multiplexes.

This article was published on Firstpost on April 1, 2020:

Photographs courtesy: Wikipedia


Lessons from Parasite: Let’s talk about 1917, Marriage Story and the art of Oscar-nominated closeted conservatism
So Parasite won, history has been made, and an international film in a language other than English has finally bagged the Best Picture Oscar.

This momentous victory will of course spawn worldwide conversations about cinema without borders and South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s inventive, startling take on socio-economic divides. Hopefully, it will draw further attention to the subtlety with which Parasite manages to hold the wealthy accountable for their blinkered existence, the blindness to their own privilege and sometimes even unconscious, unintentional cruelty, all without demonising the moneyed classes or canonising the poor.

And if we are lucky, maybe, just perhaps maybe, a discussion will begin on other nominees in the Best Picture category that preferred to speak in binaries while pretending not to do so and that faked nuance while in fact telling a one-sided story.

Have you ever watched a film that completely drew you in, yet even while being thoroughly engrossed by it you were aware of its deeply troubling aspects?

In 2020’s Oscar season, 1917 did that to me. Roger Deakins’ cinematography in this British film directed by Sam Mendes has rightly won an Academy Award with its purposeful creation of the impression that the entire story had been shot in one take. It is an experiential venture, the sort that justifies the existence of giant screens and cinema halls in this age of cellphone viewing, as it transports audiences to early 20th century Europe and the brutality of the First World War.

Unfortunately, the talk surrounding 1917 has been focused primarily on its technical achievements and secondarily on its unequivocal opposition to war, without a whisper about the doublespeak in the film’s claims of noble goals.

In an interview to Time magazine in the US, when asked why he made 1917 now, Mendes said: “In war, you see human beings pushed to their extremes and forced to confront what it means to be alive, and what it means to sacrifice yourself for other people.”

His co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns informed the UK’s Guardian newspaper that one of her  grandfathers told her “understanding history is the only way to avert future catastrophe. The first world war was the stupidest thing humanity ever did to each other”. And Mendes explained to the same journalist: “People who are attached to some sort of nostalgic vision treat these wars retrospectively as triumphs. In fact, they were tragedies.”

Yet, whether unwittingly or with insidious intent, 1917 repeats the mistakes of the past by taking sides despite making a great show of being objective and neutral. Throughout the narrative, there is no question that the German – evil, scheming and alien – is the other, while the British are helpless participants in circumstances not of their making. This is not the point of view of the characters but the point of view of the film itself.

At the centre of 1917 are two young British Lance Corporals traversing war-ravaged terrain on their way to deliver an urgent message to a senior officer who might otherwise fall prey to German strategy. In the miserable position that they find themselves in, I am not suggesting at all that Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay should have found space for well-considered, impartial chats between these two fictional men about the accountability of all the countries involved in WWI. Of course it is very likely that two youth terrified by gigantic rodents might tell each other, as Tom Blake and Will Schofield do in the film, “Even their (German) rats are bigger than ours.” A soldier’s antagonism towards or suspicion of the party responsible for decimating their fellow nationals makes for a believable portrayal of real life. The film reveals its own position though (spoiler alert) by choosing to feature a scene in which a German airman, in the midst of being saved from death by one of our heroes, turns on his saviour with brute force. (Spoiler alert ends)

The First World War was triggered by a complex set of circumstances, none of which was the virtuousness of the countries that fought Germany. To reduce it to that though, to single out one country as the devil incarnate, is a simplistic and lazy recounting of that ugly history. This revisionist retelling, it must be said, is no different from the othering that plagues the contemporary world, overcome as it is by a wave of Islamophobia and hatred for immigrants.

The kind response to 1917 would be to say that perhaps Mendes and Wilson-Cairns are themselves victims of propaganda and conditioning. Perhaps. But no such kindness can be extended to Noah Baumbach whose Marriage Story is decidedly sneaky in the way it purports to give us an unbiased view of a crumbling marriage but pulls every trick out of the bag to lean imperceptibly towards the man’s side.

In Marriage Story, Scarlett Johansson plays a woman suffocating in a marital relationship that has revolved around the husband’s needs, wants and career dreams. It begins well enough, but just when it seems like it will fairly show us how one partner might, by not openly communicating with the other, end up encouraging his unintended selfishness, it sets off on its actual mission. Having lulled us into buying into its apparent sense of justice, Marriage Story metamorphoses into a tale of how nasty Nicole traumatises and almost bankrupts the well-meaning Charlie through the divorce process. It does so by showing us more of him than her, by highlighting instances of her lawyer’s meanness in contrast with his first lawyer’s incompetence and showing little to none of what must surely have been his own second lawyer’s machinations, and by intentionally suggesting an equivalence between the complete marginalisation of Nicole’s dreams during their marriage with the inconvenience of Charlie forced to live in a bare-bones flat in a desperate bid to get joint custody of their only child since Nasty Nicole spirited him away to a new city.

The really epic moment comes though when Charlie absolves himself of his infidelity by pointing out that he could have done so much more – yes sir, I kid you not, he tells Nicole he had ONLY one affair although he could have had so many more because he was young, hot, successful, intelligent and scores of women were interested. Be grateful I did not cheat more, is all he skips saying, but he may as well have said it anyway.

The problem with 1917 and Marriage Story is not so much that they take sides, but that they camouflage their aims. The problem with them is not that they are prejudiced, but that they are dishonest, clever and dangerous because of how convincing they are.

Somewhere in a cinematic paradise of my imagination, Bong Joon-Ho and Taika Waititi, the writer-director of the delightful Jojo Rabbit – which was also in the reckoning for a Best Picture Oscar – are holding a master class in what it means to be non-judgmental and truthful for Messrs Mendes and Baumbach.