Decades ago, every Thursday night, Mom gave my siblings and me supper early to tuck us in for the late-night Hindi movie on Channel 33 – the only English channel in Dubai in that pre-satellite age. It was a ritual. We laid out comforters in front of the TV in the darkened living room and crawled into the sheets for an immersive experience. On weekdays, the television was just grains until after four pm, and then began the cartoons and later some comedy series.
Going to the movies was a luxury at the time. We, rather, waited for the weekly video release heralded by the weekend paper. There were regular releases of Hindi movie videos. And Rafa or Thomson, the video distributors there, released the occasional Malayalam movie. We rented out the video cassettes religiously and watch them on our VCR at home.
I think about cinema, the democratisation of art, the stripping of the cult status, the massification of entertainment. All this, I later comprehend, was begotten by this twentieth-century art form. I was so amused by Michael Jackson’s video of ‘Remember the Time’ where Eddie Murphy as an Egyptian pharaoh arranges random live spectacles for his bored wife. It was so funny how she orders the execution of all those performers who bore her, before being entranced by Jackson’s performance. For lesser mortals like us, we had our own private vaudeville, our TV sets. We could kill all those duds with a click of the remote, though of course, the remote control and the umpteen channels arrived later in subsequent stages.
It was usually the TV for us and the occasional visit to the cinemas. Even Dad couldn’t resist taking us to the movie for the big screen experience when the Mammootty starrer, Oru CBI Diarykurippu was released. Oh, the music and the suspense piqued everyone. At the Plaza Cinema next to the vegetable market in Bur Dubai, we alternately moved to the edge of the seat in anticipation or shrank into them in fear as the intrigue unfolded onscreen. I have vague memories of going to a drive-in cinema and not so vague ones of visiting the Galleria in Deira, a ‘multiplex’. When we were repatriating to India, my dad treated us to the star-studded movie Number 20 Madras Mail.
Back home, my stars landed me at my grandma’s place situated right across a buzzing movie theatre. Though diminished by age, my grandmother wore a stately countenance with her nose-ring and numerous gold hoops that weighed down her ears. She was a regular at the cinema and a seat was reserved for her for free whenever she chose to go. Something of a surprise hobby for a Muslim woman of her generation.
On Thursday nights, we would all wait – cousins, aunts and all – after dinner, for the late-night show to begin. When all the cars had found their parking slots and the people inside had sunk into their seats, we waited in the garden lazing in the calm cool night for the theatre personnel to prop up the ladder on the wall and stick the poster announcing the new Friday release. The movie decided our weekend plans. We got our seats reserved on the phone without any queues or hassles, being next-door neighbours after all. Crossing the road in hordes, we indulged the very next day.
When I got married, cinema is what we bonded over. My husband is a diehard cinephile and I’m not complaining. Whenever I wanted to go out, movies were what I lured my husband with. Though he hated my shopping sprees, he accompanied me grudgingly, I know, only because of the movie that we topped off the evening with. He had to see every movie on the day of its release. Without neighbourly privileges, we have even had to settle for seats in the front row sometimes, emerging with craned necks later. But watching mass entertainers upfront in the midst of fans is an experience altogether exhilarating. Fans rule the roost here; greeting superstar entries with whistles and confetti. You can laugh out loud and cheer along, bring on the hooligan in you with no one caring, and still walk out of the hall beaming yet respectable. Time and again, audiences have relived the magic of this collective viewing experience.
With the COVID-19 upon us, we missed the movies – those transportations to imaginary worlds, the caramel popcorn and ice cream cones. It was the dawn of OTT releases, at least for us Indian audiences. At first, few and far between, but later frequent. My husband asks everyday, any new releases today. We snuggle up in front of the flatscreen like the days of yore, albeit with exponentially improved home entertainment devices.
It was nice, maybe we had come full circle. It was not just the movies now, it was also the dawn of binge-watching. Earlier, I was completely at the mercy of my schedule or my small-town cable operator who randomly decided to to take down StarWorld or TLC, and I’d miss my dose of Desperate Housewives or Modern Family. Now, I can drool over Harvey Specter back to back. And completely lose track of time and tasks.
But what of the democratisation of entertainment? Though amazing in the quantum of entertainment, OTT platforms need to be paired with state-of-the-art entertainment systems to relive the movie-going experience, which of course is not exactly affordable to many. Imagine watching Bahubali on a regular screen. Besides, what of the collective viewing experience?
The pandemic has changed us, our viewing habits, our choice of entertainment. A home movie is great to unwind at home, especially with so many good movies out now and so frequently. But nothing can beat those Fridays, the wait for the new releases, to merge into a room full of strangers, becoming one at that moment by that movie.
Najila Yahu is an Assistant Professor &Head, PG Department of English, MES Keveeyam College, Valanchery.
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