The documentary Videokaaran reveals Sagai, a man who is intensely involved in his cinema, vouches for its cathartic powers, and opens our eyes to the seamy world of underground video parlours

In Sagai’s video parlour, in one of the rundown gullies of a ghetto in Mumbai’s predominantly Tamil Chembur area, till the year 2006, about 70 people turned up for the morning show. It was a world by itself, showing anything ranging from Rajinikanth’s latest release, to Thai action flicks, Bollywood masala fare, or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

About 300 would come for the noon show. At night, he couldn’t keep count. Tickets were priced Rs. 10 for Hindi films, and Rs. 5 for Tamil ones. Sagai’s father and his boss had started a video theatre back in 1981 — first they would allow people to watch TV (Doordarshan), when most homes didn’t have their own TV, charging Re. 1 and then Rs. 2. They later graduated to showing video films.

We may be far removed from that world, now in 2014 when you watch video on demand, or download Torrents, but what Sagai gave the world then, was still a different kind of video-on-demand.

Jagannathan Krishnan’s 2011 documentary, Videokaaran, sucks us into the fantastical life of Sagayaraj Pushparaj. Sagai, a Tamilian raised in Mumbai’s slums alongside a local train track, is a devotee of Rajinikanth, trips on his films, used to run a video parlour till 2006, now runs a photo studio and shoots wedding videos, and has “edited” Arnold Schwarzenegger films to make it appealing to his clientele.

Screened recently in Bangalore at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Krishnan also joined in for a video chat later with the audience. The film was funded by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) as part of its early career grant programme. “The film started with me being ticked off about the body language of people in multiplexes — it was like that in airports. I felt cinema had lost its visceral connect. I was interested in what happened when cinema was taken away from the poor.” He started shooting a group of friends, whom he met through a reality show. Sagai was one of them, and originally the cameraman of the film. But, as the movie progressed, director Krishnan started finding Sagai’s views more interesting, and simply decided to aim the camera at him.

Videokaaran is in a cinema verite mode, where the director, you feel, has lived with Sagai and his group of friends, sitting at their adda, in their kitchen, in front of their TV, being a part of their late-night chats (there are a whole lot of night vision interviews too), film-song singing sessions, peppered with intermittent arguments between fans of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajini. There’s the clear divide between the north Indian and south Indian stars and their fans, the difference between fan and hero-worshipper — Sagai extols worshippers of Rajini, who “pause” his picture to perform aarti.

What does cinema mean to us? How is it viewed? Is there anyone who doesn’t watch films? How seriously do we take it? What role does it play in our lives? The themes resurface in the film in many forms. “People around here don’t earn enough to go to a multiplex,” Sagai says matter-of-factly, pointing out how video parlours formed the crux of entertainment for such people. He talks of each day showing a different themed film, of the joys of watching repeat shows and saying the dialogues out loud, watching it again. At one point in the film, Sagai and his friends go to the outskirts of Mumbai, encountering a young boy at a pond. They ask him if he watches movies, and the boy says no. What stumps the guys is when the boy says it’s because his village doesn’t even have electricity!

As the film progresses, various layers of Sagai are peeled off. Sagai displays sheer unabashed joy in subverting the system, specially the police, eventually triumphing over them. With childlike glee he talks of how he smuggled porn CDs from Chennai to Mumbai, getting his more “decent-looking” brother to carry it in his bag (so the police won’t suspect him), having conned his brother into believing it was a statue of Mother Mary! In graphic detail he explains how he could “act” so well when the cops caught him and beat him up — that they would have to take him to hospital, get him treated, pay him money and send him home! Krishnan, at one point in his conversation, clarifies that “I shot him (Sagai) because I found him a cool and glamorous guy, not as a representative of any economic group.”

It’s really a paradoxical but magnetic mix in Sagai that makes him so endearing — there’s an audacious self-assurance and political incorrectness, which makes him seem all the more vulnerable — whether it’s his views on why porn films do not instigate rape (they teach a man how to gauge a woman, and find the right woman he believes), or when he bursts into giggles saying he won’t reveal his “secret” of how to entice women, or when he solemnly explains how Arnold Schwarzenegger films can be bettered when interspersed with porn, and enjoyed. (“After seeing my edit, even the director should think, why didn’t I do that?” says Sagai.) Showing the land that the parlour once stood on (the municipal corporation razed it in 2006 and Sagai has even videographed it), he logically states how the exits of the parlour were placed so that when the police raids happened, people could run out to safety, and not instinctively run across the neighbouring railway track and kill themselves!

The film ends with Sagai reaffirming his faith in films, their uplifting powers, and how they helped him at a low point in his life, as Rajinikanth’s songs play out. “Usska message hai ke jeet milega hi, agar struggle karega toh.”