Dark hall, bright future: Anupama Chopra on the return of moviegoing
At the screening of the first major Hindi film to be released in the pandemic, viewers kept their masks on and were excited to be back. A look at what has changed, and what should.
There was no one in the theatre when I entered. Le Rêve, a 259-seat single-screen in suburban Mumbai, was sanitised and ready on the morning of March 12, ahead of the first showing of Roohi, the first major Hindi film to be released in the pandemic.
This would be my first theatre experience in almost a year, so I arrived full of enthusiasm, 10 minutes early. I wanted to soak it all in.
I know this sounds dramatic but I got teary when the programming began. As PVR promos about hygiene and Covid-era etiquette played, I found myself becoming emotional. It was the size of the screen. To see human beings as larger-than-life again was exhilarating. As was sitting in the dark, knowing that for the next few hours this was all there was.
A few minutes later, a dozen or so people sauntered in. Many kept their masks on through the film (I was checking on those closest to me). Initially, I was nervous to be among strangers, but soon enough the film started and we were immersed in the troubles of Roohi (Janhvi Kapoor), a small-town girl who also happens, occasionally, to be a fearsome chudail.
Through the last year, as theatres stayed shut and audiences adapted to watching films on OTT platforms, there has been much debate on how tastes will evolve. Will the increased exposure to international storytelling make viewers more sophisticated, more eclectic, more picky? Will the plethora of options on personal devices make viewers seek out theatres only for big-budget, “event” movies? Will standards automatically rise? Or, after a year of anxiety, trauma and uncertainty, will viewers seek out comfort viewing — stars and stories that amuse and entertain without demanding that we think beyond the frame?
It’s early days but numbers for Roohi suggest that audiences are eager to get back to the big screens. Harminder Sandhu, editor of Box Office India, described the opening weekend as “decent, considering the lockdowns and restrictions in many cities across India.” He added that while “the younger audience is coming back, the big box office is driven by families across cities in India,” and star-led films like Sooryavanshi and Radhe would be a “better test of that audience.” Sooryavanshi (directed by Rohit Shetty; starring Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif, Ajay Devgan and Ranveer Singh) is set to be released on April 30, while Salman Khan-starrer Radhe has blocked the Eid weekend, with a release date of May 13.
I will be there on Day 1 of every new release, perhaps double-masked as the audience grows. The movie theatre is my sacred space. As The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis so eloquently put it: Moviegoing is who I am.
What I am fervently praying for is strict hygiene protocol, and better quality. At my first theatre outing, my enthusiasm waned as Roohi descended into tedium — despite the strenuous efforts of its lead actors, Rajkummar Rao, Kapoor and Varun Sharma. The size of the screen can’t shore up sloppy writing. If anything, it reveals the soft spots in a film more harshly. And there are no distractions. Unlike with streaming, you can’t pause or fast-forward or try something else and return to it after a break.
When someone buys a movie ticket, they are promising something invaluable — focused attention. In addition to which, the past year has heightened the commitment and effort that theatre-going requires. I hope filmmakers reciprocate by delivering on the implicit promise of the big screen — that the stories will transport and transform; that there will be, ultimately, some kind of magic.