One year of lockdown: After the year of disaster, stepping into the sequel

On lockdown’s first anniversary, we look at how the year of isolation changed our film-watching habits. As cinema theatres lurch back to a new normal, is the magic back?

Not gonna lie, I was worried about getting back to the theatres. Would the virus be lurking in the air vents? Would I suffocate behind my three-ply mask? Would I contract COVID 19 one way or another, despite all the sanitizing and handwashing?

As it turned out, last week’s filmi Friday brought with it not just one film, but two. Back to back. That meant six hours split between two theatres, in the same multiplex. Keeping my mask tightly on ALL THE TIME. Breathing the air exhaled by people sitting next to me, because the authorities in their wisdom have allowed theatres to function at 100 percent occupancy.

The movie hall which had been my happy place all my working Fridays all these years, was now looking like a potential death-trap.

I called my childhood friend, a doctor at a big hospital who’s been toiling tirelessly on the frontline through the pandemic year, to share my fears. She sounded surprisingly airy: keep your mask on, and once you’re done, ‘patli gali se nikal lena’ (leave by the side door). I was jolted. It’s so unlike my old friend to use such ‘Bambaiyya’ slang, but perhaps she felt compelled to come up with an appropriate catch phrase to match the Bollywood experience.

I must confess I did expect her to be a bit more simpatico. Here I was about to risk my life, and there she was being so nonchalant about the whole thing. But her matter-of-factness, a stock in trade for people who deal with death on a daily basis, proved to be oddly calming, almost therapeutic.

I’m happy to report that the first crowded filmi Friday, after practically a whole year, (this day last year was the ‘Janta Curfew’, which was ‘the trailer’ of the lockdown that was to leave us in isolation of a magnitude we had never experienced) has come and gone, and I’m alive to tell the tale.

It’s a testament to the things that humans get used to, that I not only managed to keep the mask on, but dared to lift it from the side for an occasional sip on a soda brought from the concession. It helped that there were just a five or six other people in the first show: the afternoon show was a little more crowded, but there were seats enough to be able to maintain the mandatory six feet ‘social distancing’.

Oh how much I had missed this, to be able to step into a space specifically designed to lose ourselves, to be transported. Literally every Friday, every week, for more years than I count, my life had revolved around the movies I was about to see.

It was a homecoming.

So much has changed in the past year. The lockdown meant no more going to the movies. The movies came home instead. Riding on OTT platforms. We’ve always had access to films on our home screens, but they’d turn up only after they’d first bowed on the big screen. And here we were staring at the most amazing thing: A BRAND NEW MOVIE. AT HOME. ON OUR DEVICES. AT OUR FINGERTIPS.

Imagine Amitabh Bachchan dropping by on a Friday, along with Ayushmann Khurrana, in Shoojit Sircar’s much-awaited ‘Gulabo Sitabo’. To borrow a favourite phrase from a friend who’s never got New Yorkisms out of his system, this wasn’t chopped liver, no sir. This was an A list movie, studded with A list stars, coming home to us.

As the pandemic months went along, we started getting used to this, and a whole new phenomenon was born: new films ‘dropping’ on Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ Hotstar, ZEE5, Apple TV, AltBalaji, MX Player, Hoichoi, Neestream, and so many others, on a device five inches away from our noses. There was consternation amongst the big exhibition groups. What if people never returned to a PVR, or an INOX, or a Cinepolis, or the single screens, which had braved the onslaught of the shiny ‘plexes?

Like so many of us, I’m fiercely old guard when it comes to the movies. These flicks-on-OTT which can pause and play and rewind are not, and will never be the real thing. Your imagination is never captured the way it is when you are watching a raised screen, luxuriating in absolute, velvety darkness, surrounded by giant Dolby speakers, communing with fellow viewers. That’s the real deal.

It may take a long time for a proper revival, and we may increasingly choose to watch the more intimate, chamber dramas on small screens, but for a big movie, there’s nothing like the big screen.

Watching a film at home turns it into just one more thing you can do while, say, brushing your teeth. A mundane, routine everyday activity. Walking into the cinema, on the other hand, is where it’s at. The virus, it ain’t going anywhere. But neither are we.

I’m back at the movies, baybeee.

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