Too many screens have timed out: Poonam Saxena on cinema halls
What I miss most about the grand old theatres we’ve lost, Saxena says, are the large crowds (they could seat hundreds), rock-bottom prices, and their promise of dreams and fantasy escapes for all.
As audiences trickle back into cinema halls, I’ve been thinking of how different the movie-going experience used to be. My single most precious theatre memory is of watching Lagaan in a grand single-screen cinema, the then-jam-packed Shiela near the New Delhi railway station, in 2001. Multiplexes were less than five years old in India. We still used terms like matinee. There were no online bookings. Tickets cost a few rupees.
At the climax of Lagaan — the cricket match between Bhuvan’s ragtag team and the arrogant British side — the tension reached boiling point. The fate of the village hung on the last few deliveries. The hall erupted as the last ball was played and I found myself on my feet, along with the rest of the audience of 1,000 people, shouting, “Come on! Come on!” It was electric, it was exhilarating. It was like being in a frenzied stadium.
Watching a movie on the big screen used to be such a participative experience. The slow burn began with a close look at the newspapers to see what would be released that Friday. Theatre ads would offer the cryptic but promising “Plans Open”, which meant that tickets could be booked in advance (if one could find someone to go there and do it).
Miss this window and one had to jostle about in line at the box office, watching in envy as others walked directly in with their pink ticket slips. Sometimes, the jaunty “Houseful” board would be rolled out, and you’d feel a pang of disappointment. With a highly anticipated release, crowds would remain densely packed and heaving towards the door even after all the tickets were gone; in such cases, the police would be called in and would gruffly shove their way through, telling everyone to get going.
If you did get in, feeling unaccountably victorious, there was the shuffling and confusion of finding one’s seat in the cavernous hall (seat numbers were tiny; each theatre seemed to follow its own logic; no one had cellphones, and the usher’s torch was in great demand).
Finally, one could settle in to watch the trailers. There was no other way to access previews at this point. So the nemesis of every cinephile was that one friend or family member who delayed everyone “and now we won’t get there in time”.
During interval, everyone hurried off to the loo, and to buy snacks (somehow, one never bought those before the film back then; it was always at intermission). There were delicious, greasy hamburgers and samosas paired with an odd orange-coloured pumpkin sauce. Sometimes, an attempt at a frothy “expresso”. And always, those see-through packets of haldi-yellow popcorn.
When the film ended, we’d file out, a little dazed and pleasantly exhausted by the rollercoaster of emotions and unusual sensory overload. If one went in for the matinee, exiting was particularly disorienting because we’d entered in daytime and were walking out into the night. The streetlights were on, there was the roar of traffic. It was always a bit of a jolt, returning to reality. Which is why we usually made plans to go for a bite somewhere, to prolong the high (and to discuss the film).
What I miss most, I think, is seeing all of the city represented in the box-office queue. Tickets were so inexpensive; they were designed to draw masses, not repel them. For a few rupees, anybody could escape into a private world of two seats; or an alternate reality where things always worked out in the end.
That changed with the arrival of the multiplex in the late 1990s. Today a trip to the movies can set you back by thousands. No more hand-pasted bills on upcoming films, or familiar, friendly ushers who also loved the movies. It’s now a world of gleaming granite, plush seats, and polite but distant concessionaire staff.
Shiela, India’s first cinema hall with a 70-mm screen, shut for good in December 2020. It was fun while it lasted.