Circa 2004. Kerala, India. It was a hot, sticky April evening. The sun was beginning to set, yet the air around us reeked of sweat, mixed in good measure with some cigarette and beedi smoke. Saree-clad women, having braved the milling crowd and settled into a good spot for themselves, fed their cranky children peanuts and biscuits. Men who were stuck towards the end of the long-winding queue expressed their frustration by incessantly scratching their heads, checking their watches or adjusting and retying their loose mundus (a sarong-type garment worn by men in south India). And, there we were, somewhere right in the front of the queue—a bunch of teenagers, three women and a few kids, bundled together, with aching legs and sweaty pits. We were in the parking lot of one of the single-screen theatres of Ernakulam, my hometown in India, to buy tickets for a much-awaited “superstar” film.
This was the second hour of the wait to get tickets for the prestigious “first day, first show.” There was a separate queue for women and children, which was also protected with a cage-like enclosure, probably to protect them from unwanted advances of unruly men. For extra protection, the men who came with these women stood guard for them, right outside this cage. Tickets would go on sale only about 20 minutes prior to the screening, but, thanks to the limited seats, the wait would begin well in advance. Especially if it was vacation time or a movie starring any of the famous leading actors.
While waiting there, we saw how single men tried their luck at convincing one of the women well ahead in the queue to get them a ticket, too. Some men and boys would walk up to us to ask us whether we would help them out, and we, put in this unusual position of power, would outrightly deny it.
Finally, the ticket collector entered his tiny room with the bundle of yellow, pink and blue tickets. The crowd cheered loudly and all of a sudden, the crowd turned hysteric! Policemen with lathis swooped down from nowhere and struck every man standing anywhere close to the women’s counter. One of my uncles and cousins, too, got struck, while my mother’s brother slipped away from the lathi like a pro. There was peace in less than two minutes.
The tickets were finally on sale. Fans thumped huge drums to celebrate the opening show. Those who managed to get tickets squealed with joy as they ran into the cinema hall to get hold of the best seats. The long line of men still waited patiently, in the hope that their wait wouldn’t be a waste.
Hailing from a region that takes pride in its cinema, it was hard to not fall in love with films. New films opened every Friday and it was almost a family tradition to catch them as soon as we could. Most of my cinema viewing experience till up to a decade ago began with this enjoyable struggle. Long waits, hysteric crowds, ogling men and lathi-wielding policemen. All this added to the thrill of the cinema outing.
We, of the virtue of belonging to what the majority of Indians are—the middle class—would always watch the film from the balcony seats. That was the family zone. Because the first class, or seats on the ground floor of the theatre, were mostly shabbily kept and infested by men.
When it was time for the show to begin, the huge maroon curtain would roll up on its own. A slideshow of advertisements for local businesses would be played, accompanied by an exaggerated voiceover. This was followed by a few for-TV commercials, mostly of jewelry stores or real-estate businesses. Once the film started, the much-awaited moment was always the “introduction scene” of the hero. The crowd in the first class would cheer, sometimes throwing confetti around, dancing and applauding to show off their excitement. The "families" in the balcony had learnt to reduce their joy to maybe a clap or two, in their effort of staying "decent."
No matter whichever movie we went for, the most anticipated moment of the screening for us was the interval. In India, movies are still shown in two halves, with a 15–20 minute snack and loo break between them. We would stock up on snacks like cone ice-creams, the orange soft drink Gold Spot, peanut packets, cotton candy and popcorn, preparing ourselves to watch the second and more crucial half of the film.
With the arrival of multiplexes, things have changed quite a bit in my rapidly developing town. Tickets are now booked online or via apps. We no longer go to a cinema hall to watch a film, but instead we go to the mall, where most of these multiplexes are housed. The film gets clubbed with the weekly grocery shopping and is now just another thing we do at the mall, as if as an afterthought.
Ticket prices have rocketed, which means we can enjoy well-cushioned reclining chairs, on-demand catering and the company of the upper-middle class and the rich. The remaining few single screens are soon getting converted to multi-screen, hi-tech theatres. From four, the number of daily shows have increased to at least seven or eight. The intimacy, the collective excitement, the noise, the passion and the joy have been sucked out only to be replaced by an air of practiced silence. I mourned the long queues and the energetic crowds of my childhood, but soon got used to and spoilt by convenience of the multiplexes.
After having moved to Prague three years ago, my husband and I were in for a pleasant surprise as we walked into a smaller, more intimate cinema hall to watch our first film here. It was as if I had taken a trip back in time. Although there was no cheering during the screening, damaged upholstery or a snack break, my Prague experience reminded me of my hometown movie halls. If not in kind, at least in spirit. It brought back memories of the long-winding queues, the cigarette-smoking men and, most importantly, that indescribable feeling of belonging, yet being all alone in the dark room, watching the film unfold in front of me wide-eyed.
As technology progresses, the cinema viewing experience is only getting better by the day. But watching a film, after having earned a ticket, in a room full of people who unabashedly expressed their love for cinema, is something that multiplexes will never be able to recreate.
The only remnant of those memories I had preserved as a young girl, lay forgotten in some corner of my home—a box full of old, thin colorful movie ticket stubs with faded ink and ball-pen scribbles.