Pattaani, Sundal, Popcorn and Cinema

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Rajnikanth, Thalapathi 1991

This is the first image I remember watching on a big screen – my one way ticket to Rajni fandom. I was two years old and fell flat in love with cinema and this man. I swore Yazhini’s (my daughter, already introduced in previous posts) first cinema experience would have been Kabali da. Then Joker (a film that has created a spark of hope in the Tamil film industry and its audience) was released and I decided that the first actor Yazhini will see on the big screen would be Guru Somasundaram who stars as Janathipathi Mannar Mannan

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Poster of Joker 2016

The last film I had watched in a theatre was Baahubali (2015), seven months pregnant. I pester my partner (Muthu) everyday to take us to the cinemas. I was really down to – it can be any film! Every time I shared this verve to watch a film, close friends retorted, ‘What about the baby?’. A few days back, a friend had shared an open letter by a mother:  Dear Parent, with the noisy kid at the movie, please stay at home. So, I sighed and celebrated piracy before sharing it forward.

She puts across a good argument explaining how insensitive such a parent is to their children and the others in the audience. Your child shouldn’t be watching everything you watch. And if you’re not sure if your child makes noise and if you can’t hire a babysitter, sit at home and watch it on TV in your private space. Wait, an obvious issue with the letter is that it is written to the multiplex audience.

Today, I gambled with taking Yazhini, who is now ten months old to watch Joker at Aaradhana this afternoon. She has already watched three plays with little noise, so small gamble in my heart.

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Find us in this selfie if you can

My parents did not act as my censorship board, but I somehow learnt from them to critically consume media. In my early childhood, we lived in an apartment complex at KK Nagar. Udhayam, Vijaya, Surya, and Indira were the cinema theatres we frequented. When we moved to Besant Nagar, Thyagaraja and Jayanthi joined the band wagon.

My elder sister and I had a great love for watching devotional films, with strong goddesses and the height of melodrama. When Amman released in 1995, our friend Dhana’s mother took us along with her children to Vijaya theatre. We managed to get the thara tickets. The theatre was so crowded that we sat behind rows of women on the floor. Incidentally, the theatre had also announced gifts to those women who danced under the goddess’ trance. We witnessed an aadi thiruvizha in front of the screen. We would rewatch this movie with the same enamour for many years.

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Poster of Amman 1995

Apart from this, few cinema theatre experiences of my childhood have had this much drama. I vaguely remember turning around in my seat for the entirety of Jurassic Park (1994). And then the one time I convinced my aunt to take me to Minnale (2001) in Vetri theatre, where a group of college students incessantly chanted, “Gili gili gili gili gili gili hoo haa hoo haa.” She returned home with a massive migraine.

In Thyagaraja and Jayanthi, my sister and I watched a whole lot of films. We would buy our usual junk food – dry pattani, kadalai, panju mittai, soft cone ice cream, and dry masala popcorn. Sometimes, crane paaku. Parents, lovers, gangs, children and loners peopled the crowd in these cinemas. There was an aging scent of paan in the mustiness of the seats and floor. Large fans were suspended from a high ceiling. Neither the air-conditioner nor the fans managed to bring a breeze. There could have been rats. I think I saw one once. I don’t really remember all the films I watched, but I do still remember the feeling of going to these theatres rich with the noises of life.

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Jayanthi theatre, Thiruvanmiyur

Cinematic experience is sensorial. So while watching Joker, I did not mind that the guy in front of me constantly yawned and threw up his arms, that my popcorn came in a cover with wheelchips written on it, that a child was nagging his parents for attention, or that a woman was translating an already subtitled film minute by minute to her friend in English. Yazhini danced and watched the film until interval and then slept well for the rest of it. The only people we probably disturbed was the couple next to us who felt uncomfortable that they couldn’t make out with a baby next to them. Good!

Going to the cinema is much more than watching a film, much like how going to the beach is not all about the sand and waves.

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A recent meme, a satire on placard politics

The film, Joker’s clever dialogues were applauded with laughs. People swayed to the music. The film attempted to dialogue sanitation, women, health, euthanasia, mafia, governmental corruption, and insanity. One is to say the script tried to digest more than it could chew and another is to say it tried to show these things are connected. The end monologue that actually tells you what the rest of the story should have told you is a writing device I resorted in my recent play. Maybe, it’s because here we are good at writing back stories and story themes, but not good at turning it in to subtext. In total, with its dignified performances Joker is an ode to comrades who fashion placards, do demonstrations, file cases and do the brunt of social work. But by the end of this speech, people were beginning to leave the cinema.

The open letter’s only other misgiving is that it forgot to mention how the audience is insensitive to the artists who have put in work to create the film. Maybe, because we pay we don’t care? Countless times even the best of movies cannot keep people in theatres until the end of the title roll. Jackie Chan could with bloopers for certain films. Anurag Kashyap once managed that with the end of Gangs of Wasseypur I by screening the trailer for the sequel. Right before the movie started a mother asked her nine year old daughter to switch off her phone, for which the daughter reminded her she never bought her a phone. Where were they at the end credits?

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So, this is not a review of a film? This is my love letter to the crowded cinema watching experience. There could soon be a day when life will give people space to respect artists, silently watch a full film and then critically discuss it.

Until then… pattani, sundal, panju mittai… Hmmm… “What to watch next, Yazhini? Kabali da?”