Awake in the Dark is the title of a collection of reviews, interviews and essays by Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert. The phrase captures precisely what we do. I’ve spent what amounts to years of my life, awake in the dark.
My association with this peculiar kind of darkness started in cavernous single-screen theatres. India’s first multiplex, PVR Anupam in New Delhi, only opened in 1997 (with Shah Rukh Khan’s Yes Boss). My generation grew up watching films in large, vaulted cinema halls that had 800 to 1,000 seats.
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When I was a student at St Xavier’s College, our regular haunts were beautiful Art Deco structures like the Metro and Regal cinemas in south Mumbai. Inside these, there were ornate pillars and marble statues; wide, winding stairways; gilt-edged curtains. But each single-screen theatre had its own identity. Some were grungy and showed A-rated films. Others were cheap, with good snacks, some broken seats and always a few hits running (I remember a rat brushing against my feet at Chandan cinema. I watched the rest of the film with my feet off the ground). And then there were the ones considered a bit snooty, like Sterling and New Excelsior, which almost exclusively screened Hollywood films, and had chicken mayo rolls for snacks in addition to the usual refried samosas and pale-yellow popcorn in see-through packets.
We took for granted the size of the screen and the company of hundreds of strangers. Irrespective of the quality and subject of the film, there was something inherently joyous in the act of sitting there, with so many other people, in anticipation. There were also the joys of prepping for the movies—scanning newspapers for show timings, picking a theatre, standing in line for tickets and hoping the House Full board wouldn’t be rolled out before you got your turn (in which case, you could still resort to the black-market sellers, who plied their trade right there, reselling for sometimes exorbitant sums tickets that they had just bought at the box office themselves).
So much of that experience changed with the multiplexes and online bookings. My first multiplex experience was seeing Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth in 1998 at one such theatre in London. The film was a critical and commercial success but, that evening, there were barely four or five people in the hall. I felt keenly the smallness of the space and the absence of an audience. The film was riveting, but I missed that collective energy. This version of moviegoing seemed a little subdued. Soon enough, multiplex cinema halls, with capacities ranging from seventy-five to about three hundred, became the norm. The plush seats, clean bathrooms and shiny concessionaires, with their pizza by the slice, nachos and multi-flavoured popcorn, proved too seductive, and single-screens faded out of our lives. We now went there only when necessary.
But irrespective of the size of the hall, the ritual of going to a theatre never became routine. Travelling in Mumbai traffic to a cinema, settling into your seat to watch the trailers (I hate missing these), putting your phone away to lose yourself in another world, and the excitement as the opening titles started, stayed in place even after decades as a film critic (I don’t mention popcorn and samosas because I’m gluten- and dairy-free, so I can rarely relish theatre snacks—I always smuggle in my own!).
Admittedly, there were times when the enthusiasm was higher—perhaps for the latest film of an actor or director I admired or one of those big-budget event movies that make you giddy even before they begin. But I’ve never gone into a theatre with a bad attitude. I never became cynical about cinema. Week after week, we watched mediocre films, but I never lost my optimism that the next one would be better.
One of my fondest theatre memories is watching Star Wars: A New Hope when I was ten. As the opening scroll started, accompanied by John Williams’s expansive score, I got goosebumps. I knew little about movies but I instinctively understood that I was watching something special. Thirty-eight years later, sitting next to my teenage daughter, I experienced that same frisson as the opening scroll began in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I instantly got teary because it felt like life had come full-circle—the stories that shaped my childhood were now being experienced by my children.
I wonder if these films would have affected us so profoundly if we hadn’t seen them on a big screen. I enjoy the ease with which I can access hundreds of movies on streaming platforms, but there is no substitute for the theatrical experience. Especially in India, where audiences are vocal in their enthusiasm and appreciation. I remember a screening of Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (2012) in which I couldn’t hear the dialogue because the cheering was so loud. But the ultimate movie-as-karaoke moment was watching Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in its twentieth year at Maratha Mandir. Most of the audience had seen the film so many times, they were delivering the dialogue with Raj and Simran, singing along with the songs as loudly as they pleased, and sauntering in and out as they wished. They weren’t there for the plot. They were there to partake in the pleasure of hearing a much-loved and familiar story one more time. I admire this distinctly Indian audience behaviour. It’s what makes our brand of movie madness so special.
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The only voluble western audiences I’ve seen are those at the Cannes Film Festival. Booing is a festival tradition, as are standing ovations. The audience, made up of critics, cinephiles and industry folk, can be brutal. When Bong Joon-ho’s Okja played at the festival in 2017, the audience booed the Netflix logo when it appeared as the film started—France supports the theatrical ecosystem with restrictive streaming laws, and Netflix, which produced Okja, has a contentious relationship with the festival.
In India, the opposite happened with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which played at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2019. The film, also produced by Netflix, was screened at Regal Cinema, where every seat was packed and the viewers included Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. When the logo appeared, the audience roared its approval. They also applauded the entry of each major actor: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel. A Scorsese film became a Salman Khan experience.
Movie theatres are my office and my place of worship. As The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis so eloquently put it in a column published on 19 March 2020: ‘So much of my life has been defined by—and literally organized around—watching films in theatres. Moviegoing is who I am.’
Excerpted with permission from ‘A Place In My Heart’ by Anupama Chopra, published by Penguin Random House India.