For someone visiting Chennai, watching a movie and ardent fans at a theatre is an unparalleled phenomenon

In a region where the common man must struggle immensely to earn, the movie theatre offers him the perfect escape from reality. It provides an alternative universe where one can romance, fight, and dream to one’s heart’s content. And, this doesn't hold true for only the working class. The cinema draws crowds young and old, rich and poor. Attend a showing of the latest Hollywood thriller, and you’ll find crowds of college students quoting the most attractive line from the trailer. Take your children to watch the newest film showcasing the courageous Chhota Bheem battling his rival, and you’ll find the theatre filled with families, even as high-pitched cries for more popcorn fill the air. In a way, the cinema is a magical world, a make-believe universe. Each experience, like a snowflake, is different from the other. To understand Chennai’s cinema obsession, I decided to visit a city theatre for the first time in 2007, during the release of Rajnikanth’s blockbuster Sivaji.

People swarmed the building, trying to touch a large Rajinikanth poster placed outside. Some took aarathis while others cheered on, unable to take their eyes off their thalaivar. And, after the movie started? It was almost impossible to hear any of the dialogues, as each time the actor appeared on screen, the crowd would rise in a roar. I was shocked to see fandom being taken to a whole new level. But this, I soon discovered, is what Chennai is all about: unmatched passion for the movies, a thirst for fast-paced action sequences, dancing in the middle of the streets to the most recent songs…

My next movie-watching experience came a few years later — Peter Jackson’s addition to The Lord Of The Rings series, The Hobbit. Crowds began to trickle in, spouting off names of the iconic LOTR characters we all know so well. Once the movie began, there was no turning back. The mere appearance of Martin Freeman as the story’s protagonist Bilbo Baggins set the audience roaring. As the movie progressed, the audience became more and more involved, gasping at the dwarves’ narrow escape from the orcs and cheering for Bilbo as he rejoined the troupe, pledging his loyalty to their noble cause. The end credits were met with strong applause.

More recently, when I made the decision to spend two months in Chennai, many activities became a part of my to-do-list — visit the beach, eat at a popular chain of restaurants, and most importantly, go to a theatre and watch a movie. And, in the company of a vivacious girl with a serious Ranbir Kapoor obsession, I reached the cinemas to watch one of the year’s most-anticipated releases Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Swarms of teenagers filled the hall. From the first shot of the gorgeous Madhuri Dixit swaying to the catchy tunes of ‘Ghagra’ to the last reel, the audience was enthralled. At one point, some even rose from their seats and danced with unbounded enthusiasm. I knew, at that moment, that the palpable energy of a Chennai theatre could never be matched. For this, I would return…