The first movie I watched in a movie theatre was Titanic. It was in Colaba’s Regal Cinema, one of the few theatres in South Bombay at the time that played English movies. Ask anybody who grew up in Bombay and they would say that a trip to Regal, an elegant, art-deco structure designed by the architect Charles Stevens, meant wearing your fanciest outfit.
My relationship with the movies and Bombay was largely shaped by that memory of watching a movie set in 1912 in a theatre made in 1933 in the summer of 1998. Regal’s opulent interiors, its palatial stairway that has lost its splendour to time, the coveted balcony seats and those velvety red curtains blended with the lost-in-time aesthetic of Titanic, blurring my experience of watching a film at the cinema with that of being atop a massive vessel surrounded by beautiful people and picturesque frames.
The experience is still so vivid in my mind that it has become the yardstick against which I measure all my moviegoing experiences. It also shaped my idea of what movies were supposed to look like: big.
As the coronavirus pandemic engulfs India and the world, I was woken up earlier this week by an ache I couldn’t immediately identify. For film critics and entertainment journalists, the second half of every week means stepping out for early screenings of Friday releases that are mostly held in the tony suburb of Juhu. This week, though, it was different. For the first time I can remember, theatres across my city have downed their curtains. And necessarily so.
What does it mean for a film critic when their weekly ritual is disrupted by a virus which, thus far, only existed in the realms of apocalyptic fiction? It feels like a crucial part of my identity is under threat. Of course, not going to the movies is the least of our worries at a time when countries across the world negotiate a crippling healthcare system, doctors risk their lives to treat patients and many people, who haven’t been afforded the privilege of working from home, are forced to step out at great personal risk.
Even amidst that, the joy of stepping out for the movies being taken away means confronting a void without the assistance or comfort of fiction and art guiding you through it. For, as much as movies are about escapism, they are, as we’ve realised over time, also a window into interpreting reality and clarifying the truth. Even the bad movies - and critics watch an awful lot of them - find redemption through ironic viewing.
Sure, the internet is filled with lists of ‘quarantine specials’ that can be streamed on Netflix and Amazon Prime, but for a passionate champion of the theatrical adventure, nothing comes close to the shared experience of huddling in a cinema hall. At a time when the news cycle constantly churns out urgent stories of pain, despair and hopelessness, our ability to be quietly vulnerable together, in a darkened room, may perhaps be one of the strongest sources of light in our lives.
And for that, I miss the cinemas. I miss what precedes and what follows the movie. Yes, including Akshay Kumar scolding Nandu for not buying his wife sanitary napkins while blowing up the cash on cigarettes.
At a typical preview, critics and film journalists gather before the movie starts, often speculating on its fate, swapping intel picked up from the cast and crew screening that has already taken place. There’s remarkable energy in the air as we balance samosas, Pepsi and popcorn, authoritatively dissecting the future of the movie as if it’s our money and careers at stake.
When I wound up at a private screening of a recent film, the lead actor walked up to me, bumbling with nervous energy, and said, “I hope you don’t like it, because that means people will,” before both of us burst out laughing.
Unfortunately, I did like the movie.
Even if it’s a movie that one anticipates to be bad, I never go into it wanting to hate it. Never. Movies have gotten us through a lot, healing us gently as we process grief and heartbreaks, creating spaces that amplify our happiness and lend background scores to our joie de vivre.
Which is why it’s woefully isolating to get through this time without having the original film experience to quell our anxieties and dispel our existential fears. To belong in a crowd instead of feeling threatened by it. Where do we seek comfort when the places that are usually chambers of solace themselves seem compromised?
I remember that after Titanic, watching movies became a family ritual, theatres almost like our place of worship. In Metro, we watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Ghulam, in Eros we witnessed Lagaan, in Sterling, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham in Liberty and Devdas in far-flung Gaiety.
As I came of age, the excitement remained the same, but the companions changed. Dia Mirza’s Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein triggered the sexual awakening of a generation of boys—Zara Zara is perhaps the most played make-out song of my generation—while Mallika Sherawat and Emraan Hashmi’s movies, with their titillating imagery, addictive songs and adult subjects, marked pubescent rebellion.
At 13, I remember being filled with revolutionary zeal after sneaking out of school to watch Rang De Basanti, bunking college for a show of Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na and Jab We Met and going for a ‘boys-only’ screening of Zindagi Na… Milegi Dobara because at 17, we had plans to conquer Spain but were yet to come to terms with the misogyny of #BrosBeforeHoes.
When I decided to switch careers and dump Chartered Accountancy midway to dive into an uncertain future as a writer, I found the vocabulary to argue for chasing dreams over conformism through movies: The History Boys, Dead Poets’ Society and even 3 Idiots, a film that released a week after I broke the news to my parents. As a real-life crisis was reflected on screen, anger and disappointment made way for empathy and understanding. When we watched the film at Inox, Nariman Point, my mother’s silent sobs met my quiet tears midway.
If not immediately, all turned out well, eventually.
As I learnt more about cinema, films turned into an important marker of time. In my first year of university, a young woman introduced me to the genius of Ingmar Bergman, taking me to a show of Wild Strawberries in an old Bombay theatre. Before the lights came on, we had fallen in love, with Bergman and with each other. That cinema hall would turn into the epicentre of our brief romance where we’d together discover Kiarostami, Haneke, Farhadi, Dutt, Ray and ourselves.
These experiences are instrumental in understanding why I don’t just miss the movies but why I miss them in theatres. Accessing movies is easy, but the real joy comes in accessing them in the form they are meant to be seen in. And that physical space has always defined my memory and relationship with the film.
Would my experience of Pablo Lorrain’s No and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Ruby Sparks still be the same had I not watched them at the Piazza Grande, Europe’s largest open-air theatre, in Locarno, south of Switzerland? That summer night, it rained. And in my memory, not a single member of the audience - 8,000 in all - stood up to leave, casting an indelible impact, of the power of collective viewing, on my psyche.
Months later, I’d watch a retrospective of films made during Germany’s Weimar days, a period of unstable democracy, in the cinemas of Berlin. Would my grasp of German history, as glimpsed through the movies made at the time, be the same had it not been for the highly informative sessions conducted by German historians before the movie started and the discussions that followed after it ended?
Would I remember La La Land with the kind of poetic romanticism that I do, had I not seen it in the company of the woman who shaped my idea of love and then again with strangers at a makeshift open-air theatre on a secluded beach in South Goa?
I don’t think so and hence, I ache to go back to the cinemas and collect new cinematic memories.
Eventually, the crisis will blow over, the stars and the stories will be back where they belong. And so will we.
Last night, my mother insisted we go out on a drive, armed with hand sanitisers, face masks and an iron will to defeat corona. We drove around old Bombay, colloquially known as town; its wide, expansive streets largely dug up, laying bare the cracks that plague the city in the day.
After crossing an uncharacteristically secluded Marine Drive, where the waves from the Arabian Sea angrily crashed against the tetrapod structures, as if demanding an audience, we reached the Colaba intersection. Regal still stood there, desolate and forgotten, half-torn movie posters sluggishly adorning its faded facade.
The Titanic had sunk. Only its memory remained.