Rain or shine, the connection between Chennai residents and cinema is an unbreakable one.
Imagine there’s a death in the family. Some people weep and wail. Some people realise that there are practical things that need to get done. They get busy making calls, getting a photo ready in order to put out an obituary notice in the newspapers, coordinating with the crematorium. Then there are those who, after a while, find it difficult to be around visitors to whom the same things have to be said, from whom the same platitudes have to be received –and they flee the scene. Chennai residents, at some point during the last week, have found themselves being all three kinds of people. Sometimes, we wallowed in our sorrow, talked incessantly about the power dying on us, about cold and lifeless mobile phones. Other times, we went out and volunteered – within the neighbourhood (doing grocery runs for those unable to step out, for instance) and without (surely by now you’ve seen astounding pictures of relief and rescue by ordinary citizens).
And on Friday, when it all became too much, some of us slipped into a movie hall and watched one of the new releases. “Wait!,” you’re saying. “There were new releases in the middle of the rains of the century?” I wondered about that too when I looked up theatre listings, more out of habit than actually expecting to find a list of new films. But there they were, a whole lot of them, including the new Pixar animated feature (The Good Dinosaur) and In the Heart of the Sea, a man-versus-whale drama based on an a true-life adventure on which Moby Dick was based. Plus, something called Angry Indian Goddesses, which, apparently, was not about a cluster of ticked-off deities congregated over Chennai skies, determined to hose the city down. Someone outside the city may have wondered: Who’d see these films? Who’d wade through knee-deep water from the earlier rains, clutching an umbrella in preparation for forthcoming rains, and make it to the theatre? Even for the steamy new instalment in the Hate Story series, whose trailer was surely downloaded from the fantasies of a fifteen-year-old stuck in an all-boys convent.
I must admit I, too, was a bit judgmental, earlier, about films being released in the middle of all the horrible things that were happening, and when I put out a note on Facebook about this, a few friends called the decision to release these films “insensitive.” But people did not have power supply for days and wanted to be someplace where they could imagine they were back in front of a TV set again, someplace with air-conditioning, noise, life. People were sick of being boxed in by the four walls at home. They wanted to get out. People just wanted glimpses of a Chennai, at least on screen, that wasn’t filled with dark skies and downpours. And through some combination of these reasons, a lot of these people – the lucky ones, those who weren’t left marooned – converged at a local multiplex playing a new Tamil film called Urumeen.
The theatre was at least half full. It was as if it was just another day in the city, just another Friday. The movie wasn’t much good, but the experience hammered home the truth that rain or shine, the connection between Chennai residents and cinema is an unbreakable one. Viewers nudged each other and passed comments about whatever was happening on screen. They whistled and cheered when a scene featured a clip of the actor Ajith – a sure sign of some kind of normalcy. The energy was infectious. I left the theatre with at least a little gloom dispelled. Isn’t that what entertainment is about?
So here’s how I’m going to explain this away: While it is important to understand tragedy, to do the best we can to help, it’s equally important to remind ourselves that life goes on. Does that sound trite? Maybe the sentiment is trite – but I know what the atmosphere was like in that theatre that Friday. Everyone was happy to be transported to a different reality for a few hours, which is surely why entertainment is often called “escape.” And when you’re trapped, when the airport is flooded, when the trains won’t leave because the tracks are under water, how many other options are available for escape? Relatively inexpensive options at that. I know some are going to frown at this frivolity, wasting time and money on a movie when that time and money could have been better used elsewhere. But I suppose it all boils down to individual architecture, how people are built. When power was restored, at least some TV sets were tuning into channels that air film songs and comedy tracks. Enough of rain coverage, some people seemed to be saying. Let’s laugh.
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