Coming soon to a screen in your pocket

Sandip Roy | Updated on January 27, 2019

If anything has changed dramatically in the last 25 years, it is in the way we watch a film. Tickets in black, single-screen halls and VCRs have vanished. Movies are now streaming on your phone

I still remember when my mother put her hand into the pocket of my jeans and said, “What are these?”

For the record, I was not wearing the jeans at that time. She was about to throw them into the wash and was checking my pockets before that. Like I should have done but did not.

Now she had some six stubs of tickets to a noon show at a movie theatre on a day when we should all have been in class like good boys.

Oh? I said, looking at the tickets as if they were alien droppings, some fantastic flotsam that had floated inexplicably into my pockets. To this day my friends like to remind me of my ineptitude. Also, they say, do you remember when all of us got thrown out of that A-movie because the usher thought YOU looked underage despite the straggly moustache? We eventually snuck back in through a different door with a different usher.

In those days we would sneak out of a boring class to catch a movie. Now you can just watch videos in class, on your phone with headphones. Why bother with the skullduggery?

Watching films used to be a production. Tickets had to be purchased from the Advance Counter unless you were just trying your noon-show luck like we did. Then you went to Current. If it was sold out you went to the black-marketers hanging around. What happened to them, I asked once at a shut-down movie theatre. Some drive autos, I was told. Some opened chowmein stands. Others are muscle for the local party.

There were entire neighbourhood outings for landmark films. We knew the theatres like we knew our living rooms. In Kolkata’s Tiger, on a rainy day, you needed to take an umbrella into the urinal because the roof leaked. You kept your feet up at Chaplin because mice (or a cat) could scamper over your toes. In Pradeep you put your legs up when the tide came in as water seeped into the theatre. The movie hall was a cocoon of darkness and, when you emerged, you felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle.

The VCR was a revolution. Not only could we watch a movie at home, without having to sit through the NFDC documentary on tuberculosis prevention, it also exposed us to a world of films that never hit our movie theatres. My uncle had a guy who would come to the house on a cycle with a basket full of video cassettes. Video lending libraries sprouted all over the neighbourhood the way beauty parlours are mushrooming these days. At some of them, if you knew the right code words you could get something a little more X-rated. But that was not without risk. I remember the time school friends gathered together for an illicit video afternoon until a power cut ruined our plans. Then we realised the video cassette was stuck in the VCR and the parents were due home any minute.

And just as we figured out how to run the VCR, the DVD showed up. Meanwhile the snobs had bought Blu-Ray and laser discs, which they insisted were the next big thing in movie watching. Every Indian immigrant home I went to in Silicon Valley had a giant home theatre with pulsating sound.

And then, suddenly, it was all gone, vapourised it seemed. Movies arrived in pen drives. They are downloaded in a Torrent. They are streaming to smart TVs. Everyone could be watching a different movie at the same time, some on TV, some on their mobiles, some on the laptop. We were watching movies together but not together and not the same one. The group experience had been distilled into the intensely personal.

But then a couple of years ago, stuck in a small town in Assam with nothing to do, I wandered into an old-fashioned single-screen movie theatre. It even came with a couple of black-marketers. The movie starred Sunny Leone. The audience was almost entirely male. The fans whirred noisily. Some people stripped down to their vests. Others were just sitting on the aisles. As the lights went down and the movie began, the audience started to rumble. When Sunny Leone appeared in a trademark swimsuit, the hall erupted in hoots and wolf whistles. All her dialogue was drowned out but, in that shimmering wall of testosterone-fuelled sound, I realised once more the terrifying power of watching a film together, bound to each other in the brotherhood of the communal dark.

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Published on January 27, 2019
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