“Is Shanti still standing?”, dad looked up from “The Hindu”, his eyebrows nearly touching the ceiling fan. I had just informed him that the only place showing ‘Kaaka Muttai’ that evening was one of his older haunts. A connoisseur of the art form, and a weekly patron of the Mylapore theatre scene, he had curbed his indulgence with Cinema halls a few years back. Not because his fascination for films had waned or because his legs had become troublesome lately. But there were just too many loud entities in the halls these days for him – idiots and cell phones alike.
I had been on ‘Book my show’ for over fifteen minutes now and mom still couldn’t believe that the man had agreed to come to the theatre for a film – a quest in which she had been unsuccessful for years – high praise for a film whose popular credits stopped with the producers. ‘Shanti’ was in the news recently for being yet another single screen in the city, which was about to be demolished in exchange for a multiplex and dad could not believe that they were still open for business. He was reasonably convinced that BookMyShow.com had made an error in judgment and sold us tickets to a place that was all rubble. And this started showing in all the conversations he would have that day:
Friend / Family: Hello uncle, how have you been?
Dad: Have they not demolished Shanti yet?
Friend / Family: How is your health?
Dad: Karthi is saying they sell tickets!
Friend / Family: How is your work at the mission?
Dad: Did you not read that news article where they said they were bringing it down?
By the time we drove in at 10 PM, he was somewhat convinced about the structure’s existence in general. Always the middle class haunt, ‘Shanti’ had a large bike stand and just a small, rain-drenched corner for cars. Pu-Yi loved the rains. And corners, if I may. The Hyundai Santro was the first thing of value I really ‘owned’ with my money and when the time came to name it, it had to be Pu-Yi – the emperor immortalized by Betrulucci in the film that reasonably changed my life. The film Dad had brought me to watch in the theatre adjacent to Shanti, decades back.
The parking guard solved the mystery of the demolition by mentioning that work would begin in a few weeks. Dad gave him a nod with an Einsteinish reverence. But the theatre looked in no mood to go down. The old-school lobby still had elaborately framed pictures of past glory, featuring the yesteryear star, whose family owned the place. There was more teak than steel everywhere. The old wooden box office was now being used as storage. The mosaic staircase, carved hand rails, and a defunct pop corn machine spoke of decades of tinsel glory. The hall itself was a time capsule – ceiling fans, curtained screen, cast iron guardrails, et al.
But clearly, time had had a say in things lately and it showed. The chipped stone floor had just been mopped and parts of it still damp. The walls were a strange combination of red and white. The top half was off-white and the bottom half was a hue of red… oh wait – that’s just decades of paan stains. It was difficult to imagine that this place must have once been home to much joy and opulence. The chairs were creaky and the cushion looked damp. I wasn’t sure about leaning on them at any point. In fact I watched the entire film leaning forward. Appa and Amma sitting in the row ahead of me however had so such bourgeoisie reluctance. He leaned back comfortably like it was a ‘La-Z-boy’ in his living room. The crowd was an eclectic mix – children, drunk revelers, large families, … it was a Saturday evening. Understandably, everyone took a while to settle down, which was much after the opening credits. The decibel levels weren’t coming down and a feeling of guilt was creeping in on the decision to bring dad here of all places. Which is strange. Because in the time he used to bring us to the theatre on his Kinetic Honda, it somehow was never about the theatre. We blindly believed in Dad’s taste and discretion and it meant that the Nagarajans watched only the best and all of the best – venue was a detail.
Then something happened. In probably the most amazing opening act in Indian cinema in a long time, ‘Kaaka Muttai’ began. And pretty much silenced everything else inside that hall for a couple of hours. Including the high decibel guilt in my head. Chennai always knew when to shut up.
During the intermission, I noticed dad was sitting on a chair with a questionable back and I wanted to ask him to swap with me. But then I looked at my neighbor who had by then passed out almost into the Biriyani packet in his hand and I curbed my enthusiasm. At the end of 110 minutes of mesmerizing cinema, I finally walked up to the mezzanine aisle. Dad joined me to watch the end credits together and he walked out like he was exiting a Broadway theatre on 42nd street. On the drive back in Pu-Yi, we had our usual 20 minute review of the film – from casting decisions to screenplay to production design.
Clearly, that night didn’t do much in terms of alleviating his discomfort with reclining chairs or indifferent audiences. But somewhere, I feel we kindled his love for Cinema in a dark hall. Ever so slightly. Because two months hence, I am back on Bookmyshow.com, looking at tickets for ‘Thani Oruvan’.