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

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