On the prospect of missing the frenzy around the opening weekend of a film and watching it, quietly, later. Or not

By the time you read this, I will hopefully be in Thimphu — hopefully because I’ve been told that the descent into the nearby Paro airport is quite scary, and that only a handful of pilots in the world are qualified to make the landing. Maybe that’s why we’ve been told, repeatedly, to ask for a seat on the left, because of the view of the Himalayas. Maybe that will distract us from the terror lurking below.

Anyway, this means that by the time I return, Shah Rukh Khan’s Chennai Express will be old news. That’s the bummer about being a film critic in this era. Miss the first weekend, and you might as well be writing a review of Shree 420. As I write this, an article titled “Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Buys ‘The Washington Post’ for $250 Million” is making the social-network rounds. And below, a snarky commenter has this to say: “That’s a lot of money paid for a paper that sells yesterday’s news!”

It is not for me to wonder about the bigger implications of today’s pace of life for the newspaper business — not in this column, anyway. But it does seem somewhat pertinent to point out that reviews, appearing a day or two after the film’s release, are yesterday’s news. And their function has changed.

Earlier, when films were released in a handful of theatres, not everyone got tickets during the opening weekend (or even the opening week).

Also — let me stick to Chennai, but I’m sure this was true of other cities across the country — new releases were confined to the big screens, the prestige theatres. You had to go all the way to Mount Road, which was and is more of a commercial district than a residential area — to catch the new Rajini or Kamal film. So people waited for the new releases to become old, when they’d start appearing in the local theatres, closer to home.

In these days of new films being released on hundreds of screens across the state, and right by your home (and with the prospect of the film showing up on TV in a couple of months even if you missed seeing it on screen), it’s impossible to imagine what the wait meant. I still remember this boy, not much older than I, rushing past me one afternoon I was walking down a street in Mandaveli. He’d barely entered the house I’d just passed, when he announced, breathlessly, “Amma... Kapali-la Padikkadhavan.”

He was telling his mother that Rajinikanth’s remake of Khuddaar, which had been declared a big hit in the Mount Road theatres, had finally come to a theatre that was at a walking distance from their home. (The theatre no longer exists. A residential complex has sprung up in its place.) I wonder, sometimes, about that obviously film-crazy (or at least Rajini-crazy) kid. Is he making films, acting in them perhaps, or is he bound to a desk in an IT firm?

Anyway, flashbacks apart, in that era (what a word, era, though it’s just a few decades ago, the 1980s), a review was about the only thing that — even if it appeared a week after the film’s release — told you about the film. That was its function.

Films weren’t promoted as aggressively as they are today, and not many knew about what was in them. As few people had watched the film, there wasn’t much scope for word-of-mouth information either. You heard snatches of songs from the film on radio. You saw the actors on the posters and on the large Mount Road banners. That was about it.

So reviews helped, even if they did little more than summarise the plot and talk about this actor and that one. Today, of course, everything’s different, and that kid would be Twittering his opinion about the film after watching it on the first show of the first day, like thousands of others who write their own “reviews” long before the critics, the establishment, gets around to it.

It’s not that I long for those days, though I do think I’d have liked it better if I had been a critic at a time there were few who wrote about films, whose voice mattered because there were no other voices. But that bit of selfishness apart, I do enjoy the option of watching the film in this theatre if that one becomes full.

What irks me, though, is the promotion, which plays out at such deafening levels that short of crawling under a rock and staying there there’s little you can do to watch a film without being affected by the hype. The prospect of walking into a film with a clean slate seems so quaint now. But at least, this time, I’ll miss the weekend frenzy. I’ll miss the voices around that tell me I have to watch Chennai Express soon or that I shouldn’t watch it at all. And when I finally get around to it, I’ll hopefully see it as just a movie.

Then again, I wonder if Bollywood films are released in Thimphu.

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