You wait in a queue leading to the counter. It maybe a short queue but the wait is long enough to bother you. Sometimes, it’s the excitement, the build-up to the show that keeps you hanging there. You do a rapid scanning of the seats and choose the center-most and the farthest from the screen available. You then swipe the menu and end up buying something to munch through for the next 90 minutes. You carefully stack those snack boxes and soda cans in your hands pressed against your chest and pace yourself towards the entrance of the hall. When the ticket-man verifies and lets you in with a pass chit along with your ticket, you feel you are totally legit.
While walking up to your row, you see the faces of those already seated and settled well into the cushion. After a lot of sidestep walking so as to avoid stamping others’ feet, you find your seat and settle down. For the next few minutes, it’s only the buzz going on around in the hall: people trying to take their seats, fiddling with their cell phones, talking about reviews they heard so far until the screen lights up. Repeated Ads, flamboyant movie trailers and less engaging documentaries make the wait even longer. After enduring the bits, eventually, the moment comes. Lights in the hall fade out with gradual elegance and the surround speakers take full effect just before the credits open. This is exactly when the buzz in the entire audience spirals into complete silence. We all know the importance of that silence; it is packed with anticipation, excitement, a sense of a great fantasy waiting to reel out in front of our eyes. What is going to unfold here? Is it good vs. evil? Or right vs. wrong? Or a David vs. Goliath? Or a mystery that we can solve for the characters? Or conspiracies we are victims of? Or sentiments we believe in? Or a great character that we want to become? How is my favorite star going to perform? Would the movie be a huge break for an actor? Is it going to be a sensational hit? Or a critical acclaim? With all these questions popping in your mind, the film opens. That is the moment your heart transforms and starts beating at 24 frames per second.
Since the early 90s, as a kid growing up in Chennai, films have deeply impacted me. No wonder. If films cannot get to you when you are in Chennai, they cannot get to you from anywhere. Chennai (known as Madras back then) was where most South Indian films spawned until the late 80s. Most old film industry workers have established their livelihoods here. Youngsters from any generation mesmerized by the glamour of cinema and the lifestyle it offers continue to elope from down south to Chennai and make it big here. Film stars are worshipped like demigods. It’s a fan-driven industry where films are made to cater to a layman’s utopian dreams, and their social, political and economic fairyland. The state’s politics is closely bound by popular Tamil cinema and its stars. To be precise, Tamil Cinema is inseparable from our daily lives. At least once in a day, we think about what’s cooking hot in the industry or when the next big thing is stated to release. We either aspire to watch great movies or make them.
My home has always been film-friendly. My parents are big film-lovers and they knew I’d turn out to be one too. If there is a 3-hour free time on a given day, I’d watch a movie with them. All our weekend nights ended with a movie and long discussions into sleep. Those days, it would take a year or so for a new movie to come on TV. New movies are enjoyed only in theaters. Apart from that, we had a VCR at home that can record programs on television. Not only was it so heavy, it needed heavy maintenance too, often involving cleaning the HEAD of the player with a spirit solution.
We used the LP mode aka Long Play wherein you could record 6 hours of material in one cassette. Standard Play mode recorded only 3 hours of material but with better quality. Quality took precedence only for our favorite movies. Otherwise, volume mattered a lot. It had a great timer feature and we never missed our favorite programs when we were away. It was simpler times back then with Doordarshan being the monopoly in Indian Television. We had recorded a huge collection of cartoons from Sunday evening telecast and old Tamil movies shown during the weekends and holidays. We segregated the collection into Movies, Shows, Songs, Cartoons and Cricket. I remember only Sony, Panasonic, JVC, TDK cassettes mainly available in India at that point in time. We still have them 200 cassettes ridden with fungus on the tape, stacked up in the loft as part of the treasure trove.
VCR and theaters were not just our gateway for movies. We used to rent in numbers from parlors. I remember my father riding with me on his Bajaj Chetak scooter through the scorching midday streets of Chennai all the way to big rental stores like R.I.C Video during weekends. It was a far more spacious and sophisticated store at that time with extremely rare collections of both Indian and World Cinema. They used to have these bulky catalogs with about 500 pages of movie labels. We sat there in leisure and flipped them through, finally picking 2 or 3 movie cassettes filling the quota. I used to look forward eagerly for those monthly trips we took to R.I.C Video. Sometimes there were big sales announced by major Tamil Video cassettes production companies like Raj Video Vision or Eknaath. People thronged to their sales houses and grabbed whatever Tamil films they liked for nominal prices. The amusing fact is that R.I.C Video was operational until 3 years ago in Chennai. Through all these years, it had endured the rapid technology upgrades from Cassettes to CD to DVD to Blu-ray.
One of the lovely memories I have and still reminisce is going to the Safire Theater complex in Mount Road. It was demolished during mid 90s and the place is still a barren land staring into empty space. It housed three screens – Safire (first 70mm Screen in India), Emerald and Blue Diamond. They offered tickets for hours instead of shows so you can get in even during the middle of the movie and watch multiple shows together. My father and I on our days out never missed an opportunity to park the scooter in the complex and catch a show to kill time between shopping schedules. Short Circuit, Willow are a few of the films that hit my memories. Though Safire is a great nostalgia for generations previous to mine, I am still glad that I was at least part of the experience on the brink of its demolition.
Growing up with movies has not just been entertaining but educating too. I owe Tamil films a lot in that aspect. It did not just make me laugh, cry or feel happy. It showed me my language’s nuances. It taught me the diversities in my culture and values of the different lands. It introduced me to great philosophies. It showed me how emotions buried deep down can become effervescent in split seconds and define great moments in my life. It gave me a wide gateway to imagination that still drives me towards another bigger investment – imagination.