My aunt would use her weekly half-day off from her patients at the hospital to meet us at the theater for whatever film was screening in Rex, Lido, Blue Moon or Galaxy that Sunday, every Sunday of the year. In the 70s and 80s, while I was growing up, we watched movies as a family. I don’t remember a single one of them. What I do recall, and vividly, is the red velvet curtains that rose up in neat folds to reveal the screen behind it in preparation for the film to begin. I can smell the musty seats, the popcorn that was never less delicious for costing only ten rupees a bag. The constant hum of out-sized fans lining the walls of the theater kept flies and mosquitoes at bay. If you put your bag of popcorn down for a moment while you got more comfortable in your chair, a friendly rat would come along and help itself to a few nibbles. (The rat problem was solved most effectively: the theater management turned a few cats loose inside the hall and we no more had to worry about sharing our food with the rodents! It was like watching the live action version of Tom & Jerry.)
Then, there was the Nirma ad, and the commercial for Vicco Vajradanti. Who doesn’t know them? The only things aside of cockroaches that battled their way through time and generations to present themselves in the now, unchanged and untouched. (You’re humming those jingles in your head right now, aren’t you?)
Movie watching was weekend entertainment. It was so much more than just the film. It was an experience. A way of life, a quickening of the heartbeat as Friday turned into Saturday. You see, if it’s Saturday, it means it’s nearly Sunday, and the anticipation of nearly is often more pleasurable than the thing itself. Waiting in queue to buy tickets (none of those tacky short-cut on-line bookings, no sir!) was part of the build-up. A forerunner to the delight of movie-watching itself. Oh, the exquisite, nail-biting anxiety as you counted off the number of people ahead of you and squirmed each time the person closest to the ticket window walked away with more than one ticket in hand! (That happened a lot. Like I said, whole families came to watch movies in those days. They always wore their Sunday best.) What if the tickets sold out before your turn came? Worse, what if they sold out when you were just one person away from the box office window and the ticket seller slammed the little wooden shutter in your face?
Gradually the decade turned, and the 90s ushered in the era of cable TV in India. The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara found the family sitting around the telly, blushing to our hairlines and hurriedly feigning bathroom breaks every time Brooke Logan and Ridge Forrester locked lips in unmitigated passion. Still, in spite of the inevitable embarrassment (the parents were never further than a few feet away), the nightly ritual of watching soap operas as a family had its own charm.
Now we are in the next millennium, two thousand and eighteen years into the year of our Lord, the era of multiplexes and 300-rupees-a-carton popcorn. We watch movies on laptops and tabs and smartphones, earphones crammed securely into our ears. Perhaps we’re not keeping the sound in. Perhaps we’re shutting the world out. This is a singular experience, to be sure (pun intended), in that there is no room for a second person in it. The family is split three, five, six, eight ways, whatever. As many people live in that house, those many devices become available for the viewing pleasure of its owners. Even the family toddler has access to Mama’s phone (it’s like having a service provider and a baby sitter rolled into one). The MTS ad was not exaggerating when it showed the neonate pop out of its mother’s stomach, grab the nearest smart phone and navigate its way out of the delivery room! This generation seems to have come into the world technology-enabled. Built for the internet, the ad said.
And so, movie-going is no longer an experience. It is a daily occurrence, often a four-or-five-times-a-day-ly occurrence.
The grandparents are dead and the aunts have passed too. With my generation will go the last of the urbans who could remember what a single-entry theater was. Smart phones have left us smart. If we’ve lost some of the wisdom, some of the charm of living, surely we’ve been richly compensated with entertainment at the swipe of a finger, a click of a button? It’s a fair trade-off. Isn’t it?