I’ve seen screenings of classic Hollywood movies in large theaters, but I’ve always wondered what it would be like to watch the film in its original context. How would, for instance, It Happened One Night come across to an audience that had never heard of it before?
I recently returned from a short trip to India. I’ve been fascinated with the largest film industry in the world for some time. I’ve seen a lot of movies in the past few years, but still feel live I’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg. Imagine waking up at 27, never having seen an American film and trying to acquaint yourself with 100 years of movies in 3 years.
I have seen some of the standards, and know a lot of the conventions of Indian cinema. Incidentally, I’d searched for good books on the topic for a long time, and the best I’ve found was one I picked up at the Delhi airport on the way home, entitled 50 Indian Film Classics, by M.K. Raghavendra.
India cinema consists of Hindi (language) cinema, cinema from regional dialects, and art cinema. Art cinema is always associated with Satyajit Ray, who used NeoRealistic forms and Indian/Bengali content. His most notable work is Pather Pachali.
While in Kolkata, I visited a fairly upscale mall with a movie theater and saw one American film (I needed a diversion…the movie was that and nothing more), and the majority of one Hindi film, Raajneeti. The latter was a political thriller (along the lines of A Wendesday), meant for distribution all over India, and beyond. It was an interesting political thriller, but I was very tired and hope to watch it again someday when subtitles are possible.
And then I went to the Metro Cinema, in the area of the more notable New Empire Cinema. It was Sunday afternoon, prime movie time. I got there around twenty minutes before the 3pm screening of Ley Chakka. I shoved my way through the crowds to the ticket window, paid my Rs. 60, and waited for the doors to open.
When they did, security guards quickly looked in my bag, then I was propelled with the rest of the group into the lobby, up the stairs, and into the theater, where an usher wielding a flashlight looked at my ticket, and said “fourth row” to direct me to my assigned seat. I was on the aisle, and there were people everywhere.
The movie was fun. The basic story is as follows: Famous Cricket Player moves to a Kolkata neighborhood. His parents want him to date the Eldest Daughter of friends. He falls for the glasses-wearing Bookish Younger Sister. Some thugs come to the neighborhood. A Rich Guy wants to tear down the neighborhood and develop it. Plot ensues. Fighting, songs, tense moments. The Elder Sister falls for Top Thug. Family finds out about it. She hangs herself – this was the moment of the film that caught me off guard. I’m not sure how indicative of Indian cinema it is to have what in all appearances is a romantic comedy turn into a tragedy for ten minutes, then go back to romantic comedy. Perhaps it was just this movie, or perhaps it indicates some further cultural artistic differences.
Anyway, when Rich Guy and Top Thug show up in the neighborhood, Famous Cricket Player and Sidekicks challenge him to a duel for the neighborhood, to be contested, of course, on the cricket field. The inevitable underdog story then plays itself out to much audience satisfaction.
Ley Chakka is Bengali regional cinema (the film is set in Kolkata, and the language is Bengali). I’ve seen non-English films without subtitles before, and it’s really not that different. You watch peoples’ faces for the story, and you get that. At the Metro, you also got a lot of hints from the crowd.
The predominant interaction was whistling. Loud whistling. Calling a cab on a crowded New York street whistling. Famous Cricket Player (obviously a famous hunky actor I don’t know well yet–although I know can see Shah Ru Kahn as Mel Gibson + Brad Pit + Tom Cruise, his picture is everywhere) comes on screen, bare armed and flexing. Whistles. Bookish Younger Sister spills chai on FCP’s lap. Whistles! Cricket bat us used to take out a thug. Big Whistles. Some muttering, some words, and always the sounds of people moving, chatting, eating, enjoying.
In India, film is still a social event. Rs. 60 is around a dollar. There is an intermission, not because one is needed, but because the audience wants one. We mill about. We buy samosas and Cokes and popcorn. We go back into the theater after the movie has started and not really care about that. We are not just watching a movie, we are at an event. To be in India is to be with people, they are everywhere. Everything is social, and movies are a big deal.
American cinema is popular everywhere. From what I gather, Indians love American movies, and they also love Indian movies. This reflects what I found to be true about the culture in general. The people I met loved the States, “USA! That is a great country.” But they also loved India. Their culture was not exclusive, it was inclusive.
While a larger discussion of cultures in general would yield a lot of negatives and positives on both sides, I love the idea that celebrating film does not have to exclude or include certain titles or genres. Perhaps the critical bent that has been taken for years, whether or not a film is “good” or “bad” has been a huge waste of time.
There is something to be said, after all, for just celebrating and enjoying a story, characters, and the experience of drama as a social art form.