Deccan Herald, Saturday, September 6, 2003

Moving pictures!
Watching a film in a small-town theatre is a larger-than-life
experience as Sheila Kumar discovers

Denizens of Bangalore, rejoice. Rejoice that when you go to catch the latest Arnie or Keanu-as-Neo hi-jinks on the big screen, it’s just another evening out. One replete with convivial company, honey-glazed popcorn, a cola if you are intrepid enough, some excellent viewing of breathtaking special effects (let’s face it, that’s what movies are all about these days), some languid socialising during the interval.

Now, from your advantaged vantage point, cast an eye on us lesser beings, who live in what our newspapers quaintly term ‘moffusil’ towns. After half a lifetime spent in these places I have come to realise that any hamlet with more than four provision stores, one Sadar Bazaar and preferably, one Clock Tower qualifies for the rank of moffusil town.

Well I live in one such now and it has its good moments. After one gets acclimatised to very hot summers, very cold winters, very wet monsoons, to the occasional tremor that hits 3 or 4 on the Richter scale, to reading shop names in Hindi and of course, to foreswearing big city doodads, it becomes quite easy to live in small town India. The (buffalo) milk is pure and creamy, life is largely inexpensive (definitely so, when compared to Bangalore) and the people epitomise rural archetypes: hospitable, simple, sincere.

And of course I had seen a film or two at the local theatres in small towns before this. Thing is, I hadn’t been in a small town for over a decade and I’ll confess, there’s much I had forgotten. All of which was brought home forcefully to me, when I went to see the latest Hrithik Roshan film at one of Jabalpur’s better theatres. (English films I catch on Star Movies simply because I do not relish watching Harry Potter speaking shudh Hindi while working the wingardiam leviosa charm…it boggles my simple mind).

Getting tickets was not a big deal; we’d sent a man to stand in the advance-booking queue for us. Mid-morning, the aforementioned man rang us. “There is no advance booking in any theatre here,” he informed us. Baffled, we asked him to stand in the current booking queue at the appropriate time and get us tickets. Which he did. And so all it behoved us was to dress up, get into the car and drive ourselves to the theatre.

Easier said than done. We’d chosen Raksha Bandhan day for our film outing and it seemed all of Jabalpur had chosen just that day to see the very same film. Traffic was jammed into bottlenecks that were worthy of Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali road or Delhi’s Pragati Maidan area. Since we had time (and tickets), we sat back to people-watch while the hapless man at the wheel of our car inched us forward a millimetre every three minutes. And soon we realised we were hopelessly underdressed for the occasion. Film-viewing is serious business in small towns and people dress up in their Sunday best, all Lurex, zardosi and neon glitter.

The theatre was our second shock. It had a funnel-shaped entrance and just before the movie, there were about 1/3 of India’s 1 billion population trying simultaneously to get in and get out. For background atmospherics, there were rain puddles filled with slush aplenty, so much of the glitter was fast tarnished as people finally made their way through the melee. The hall was a decent-sized one but with just about a handful of ceiling fans, all of it whirring half-heartedly but totally inadequately. The atmosphere was stifling. Heat, dust, noise, humidity and a stray overhead leak or two seemed to be the order of the day.

There was hectic socialising going on and clans seemed to be meeting each other after ages. The theatre had no refreshments stall but all of Jabalpur except us were savvy folk…all had come with dibbas of eats in cloth bags and were busy distributing the same to Bunty, Monty, Chotu and the adults. Bottles of home-boiled water was being passed down. And all of it continued even when the lights dimmed and the opening credits began to roll. It took me all of a half-hour to realise that exchanging hot localised gossip while exclaiming about Preity Zinta’s clothes or lack thereof…that was the stuff of Jabalpur’s film-watching.

Another shock was that most of the film ran on a jumpy projector. So we got to see stolid bodies and shimmying heads. Halfway through, the sound failed and the entire hall got to their raucous feet. Which was when I realised (an evening of enlightenment, indeed) that there definitely seemed to be more people than there had been at the start of the film.

That particular mystery was solved when the lights came on at intermission. No doubt in a fit of generosity, the management seemed to have applied the ‘bring your own seating’ to late comers. And so there were plastic white and red chairs perched on any and every available surface and in the aisles, I spotted two backless benches seating happy hordes. Quite a home away from home, this theatre.

Other experiences include the drowning out of dialogue by loud weeping (no discreet sniffling here) of sympathetic women around me, one rude comment shouted at the whey-faced villain onscreen and rebutted, equally loudly, by two people who felt the villain had his point, a romantic moment squelched by a piercing treble behind me asking, ‘Papa, yeh kya kar rahe hain?’ and the enthusiastic biting of many a bug in my seat upholstery or what there was left of it. A friend reported that a rat ran over her foot whereupon the helpful people in the seats behind us advised her to do what they did, and put their feet up, on the comfort-and-safety principle. A couple of crucial onscreen exchanges were drowned by the sharp claps --- not of appreciation --- but of mosquito swatting.

I survived it all. Forgive me for feeling just that wee bit heroic.

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