Man looking at a display screen of movies outside a multiplex

From Escapist Movies… To Escapist Movie-goers

Our movies are so escapist, we moan. And merrily keep going for them. Because after all… We want to be like that on-screen person, or we want to be with that on-screen person. We want that plush house we see them in, and / or we want that Eurail trip we see them on. With or without song and dance.

I like the movies, I like them as much escapist as realist (only sometimes as the same movie), and so don’t have a problem with this. As Zoya Akhtar carped to Karan Johar on his show recently, “They say my movies are about rich people! So tell me, India goes to the movies to… see poverty?!”

However, as someone who watches his movies almost exclusively at the theatres – even when I catch them on TV, they are DVDs of flicks I’ve first loved in the theatre – and has been doing so for the longest time, across various cities (Maharashtra-born and bred, largely Calcutta-educated, and currently roosting in Chennai), there’s another kind of movie escapism I’ve noticed, which has less to do with what’s happening on screen and more with what the venue has to offer. Allow me.

Young couple getting cozy at the moviesFirst up, the ecstatic but exasperated couples, married and unmarried alike. Not finding even half a place to snog in peace, with increasingly claustrophobic metros and eternally alert cultural guardians, the dim environs of the theatre provide the perfect sanctuary for these Jacks and Juliets. And the theatre operators seem to have kept this audience segment in mind too. A popular multiplex chain in Chennai has couple seats, which seem like two seats fused into one, much like the bodies it anticipates. In Bombay, most chains offer discounted fares for morning and early afternoon shows, aimed at hormonally high college kids getting off from college or bunking it, as well as BPO millennials, getting off work at… 9am. So, while the on-screen couple wages war to land up in each other’s arms, these ones appear to have already crossed that hurdle.

Composite of repeat images of French actor, Jean Dujardin, sleepingSeeking a different kind of comfort are folk who come for some shut-eye. These are usually individual men in their early 30s or thereabouts, most probably married, but perhaps with not much room or quiet at home for a good night’s DND sleep. This is typically in the afternoon, with many also coming to kill time before a meeting. Their movie of choice is unsurprisingly not a hit one – or one before it becomes… a sleeper hit – as that means less people around to disturb and more aircon to absorb. I’ve also found many not returning after the interval, and thus not knowing whether the couple ended up with each other, or more aptly in the case of our movies, how.

This next one – to paraphrase a line from ‘Sex and the City’ (the series; the movies of course I watched on screen and soon after got the DVDs) – for the cheap seats in the front. And this might be exclusive to Chennai. Where the people love their movies and their superstars, and where the government seems to want them to continue doing so. Ticket rates have been capped at a very pleasing Rs 120 for almost a decade. (Compare this with the heartburn-inducing 500-1000 or upwards it can get to on weekends and holidays in some multiplexes in Bombay.) Here, there are seats, right in the front, kissing the screen, for as low as 10 bucks. Wooden or at least a bit humbler than the better-upholstered ones just one row behind, tickets for these are available about 10 minutes or so before the show and typically at a counter on the sidelines. These are aimed at, the best way I can put it, the man (am yet to spot a woman on these seats) ‘even commoner than the common man’, but with no less zeal for silver-screen servings. With the long-standing demand to increase ticket prices, the rates for these seats should perhaps remain where they are. Even as these folk find ways to move up the auditorium-seating ladder.

The last one took me a while to figure out. The mature / middle-aged solitary man, coming in for almost every movie. Hmm, perhaps not too different from me; and I shall sportingly come to that shortly.

I would first speculate, ‘Movie reviewer’? No, the reviewer – and I’ve bumped into and spoken with a couple of them more than a couple of times – behaves differently. They are time-strapped, most probably rushing to another movie soon after this one or to write this one’s review, and are very focused: no eats, no phone checks, no nonsense; no doubt to take mental notes of every dialogue and note.

So, is that middle-ager lone ranger a connoisseur? No, this breed is quite different too. The aficionado is usually more relaxed than the reviewer, and is more often than not open to having a casual chat with a random stranger (me) about the ongoing movie, as well as movies in general, though never during the movie. We wouldn’t be cinema-lovers otherwise.

Middle-aged man looking bored during a movieMr Party-of-One (again, these are mainly he’s), from what I’ve observed, is similar to the sleep-seeker, but with more weighing him down than just lack of space. He is perhaps seeking to disengage, if only for a while, from an undesirable situation or station in life: a fractured marriage, a joyless job, an empty nest, benumbing loneliness, or some other vex that three hours in a dark cocoon can provide some solace from. He takes his seat, watches the proceedings on screen devoid of emotion, doesn’t get anything to munch on, and leaves, with the same stoicism with which he came in. Or am I reading too much into it? Well, if there’s a better explanation, the comments section awaits.

Me now. I am an escapist movie-goer too, and not just to be transported mentally to the Swiss Alps or to Super Achievement. I have both exciting and not-so-invigorating drivers that have me heading to the multiplexes.

Exciting first. I love the variety of eats at Indian theatres. Besides the ever-popular cola-popcorn pair-up, there’s a mini-Swiggy at the concessions: samosa, chaat, iced tea, ice cream, cold coffee, pizza, burger, nachos… What theatre operators can’t get by ticket rates, they are clearly aiming to get by the palates.

Not-so-exciting now. I end up ordering and enjoying those treats mostly on my own. Over time, with more and more of my friends having crossed over to marital “bliss”, and not nursing similar “aspirations” myself, I have found myself booking fewer and fewer seats at the movies, until it has almost always come down to just one. That was in Bombay. In Chennai, where one hears as much Hindi as one witnesses raindrops, I head to the movies to get some of that tongue into my ears. (I see how that sounded.) And so, I’ve gone for the insipid ‘Irada’ and the frivolous ‘A Flying Jatt’ with the sole irada (intention) of having some Hindi flying into my ears. But these films have been so listless that I’ve promptly been lulled into la-la-land, ending up exactly like one of those dozing types I identified earlier.

Warped same-language subtitles of The Star Wars beginning text scrollHowever, like all these things go, the movies and the theatres don’t seem to be doing their escapism-providing job very well these days. Or maybe, there are just so many distractions now. Screen captures at the hero’s intro; annoying luminescence from FB / WA updates during a lull on screen, and from Temple Run playthroughs during a song; those canoodling couples not stopping at canoodling; that snoozer in the depths of slumber and the heights of snoring; businessmen conducting their business in loud monologues and telling you to shut up and mind your own business when you request them to do so; corporate have-nots having to provide updates to belligerent bosses at any required time of day, thanks to the diabolical and no-doubt HR-invented concept of “work-life merge”; invocations of patriotism just before the movie begins; fervent vigilantes doing a beacon-like eye-sweep for paraplegics who aren’t standing in honour… And if all that isn’t excruciating enough for folk like me who really like their cinema, then my pet peeve: same-language subtitling. Because people don’t have the patience to decipher a foreign accent, because 100-crore-seeking moviemakers don’t want to lose these audiences, and because when you visit the Big Apple, New Yorkers will be walking around with speech-to-text display boards around their necks.

Sigh. Maybe it’s time to escape from the movies. And maybe those video-streaming sites have come to India at the right time.

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD