In Anurag Kashyap’s Dobaara, released last month, a boy in a hoodie cycles down a street at night. This past week, viewers could see the source for that reference on the big screen: young Thomas Henry pedalling furiously as he tries to get the alien in his basket to safety.
Since there’s no tradition of repertory cinemas in India, one usually sees only new films on the big screen. I therefore jumped at the chance to watch E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), which had a 40th anniversary revival in IMAX. Late last year, I’d watched the rerelease of The Matrix (1999) and marvelled at how little the film had aged. E.T., though, was made in an era of practical effects. The creature still has a creaky wonder, but you have to give the flying bicycles and the spaceship obscured by mist some leeway. It proved too much for a group of college-age kids, who left the hall somewhere around the hour mark, leaving me with three other people who were clearly, audibly enjoying the film.
It’s possible the viewers who gave up would describe the special effects as cheesy. But I think they might also have been unnerved by the storytelling patience and moments of quiet. Commercial Hollywood films today are so busy that there’s rarely a moment untouched by music and talk and action. Audiences in the 1980s would almost certainly not have found E.T. restrained, but it felt that way when I watched it in the kind of voluminous theatre where a superhero film would normally play.
E.T. had three shows a day in four National Capital Region theatres, two in Delhi, and one each in Gurugram and Noida. It wasn’t much, but it’s still more than what Natchathiram Nagargiradhu managed. The Tamil film, released a couple of days before E.T. last week, didn’t show at all in Delhi or Gurugram. It had a single show in a small PVR theatre in Noida. Mercifully, that show was subtitled. And so, for the first time, I crossed a state border for the express purpose of watching a film.
Natchathiram is about a theatre troupe in Puducherry, centred on a young Dalit woman, Rene, played by the luminous Dushara Vijayan, and her mopey upper-caste ex, Iniyan (Kalidas Jayaram). It’s directed by Pa. Ranjith, who’s become one of the most important film-makers of his generation. His films are exuberant, teeming and confrontational, especially on matters of caste. He’s very much a commercial film-maker, using mainstream idioms and actors. His Kaala (2018) was a watershed moment for Dalit representation in Indian cinema. His boxing film, Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), was by some distance the best Indian film I saw last year.
Natchathiram is a truly intersectional film, with characters and arguments across caste, gender, social and religious lines. The endless debating can seem impossibly idealistic and a little pretentious at times—though no more than it would be in a group of young artists speaking their minds. For a film of ideas, it’s relentlessly dynamic. Ranjith has few equals in moving people within a frame, or inserting a prop or a bit of scenery to enrich our idea of a character.
The film’s politics is staunchly Ambedkarite, queer-friendly, feminist and anti-Hindutva (the only real villain in the film dubs himself the “master cat” and rants about how the company is mocking his traditions). Did this outspokenness give distributors cold feet? Or were they just cynical about the chances of a Tamil film with no major star in Delhi? After all, two Tamil films in the last couple of weeks, Thiruchitrambalam, starring Dhanush, and Cobra, starring Vikram, had a reasonable number of shows in the NCR. The audience I saw for Natchathiram didn’t need the English subtitles. They had a great time, whooping and repeating lines back to the screen. It’s easy to imagine similar groups would have gathered in Delhi had the film released there.
This was, in theory at least, a break week, a lull before Brahmastra, in which less outrightly commerical films might reach a niche audience. It’s symbolic that E.T. managed more shows than Natchathiram, but perhaps not that significant. That an “extended cut” of Spider-Man: No Way Home was running with close to a dozen shows is more to the point. Post-pandemic, audiences—Hindi-speaking ones in particular—have shown an appetite only for spectacle. It’s easy to ignore a film that asks difficult questions when you have a steady supply of films with ready answers.