The string of guiding lights is switched on and hundreds of feet stamp across the lobby, filling seats in the hall, getting ready for the matinee treat. In the darkness, a torch flashes, and a hand leads a late-comer to his seat, and asks another one politely to speak softly over the phone. He is your torch-bearing guide in theatre halls, who works to ensure a memorable experience for viewers.
From politely greeting customers and making sure they have tickets to sternly asking a drunk guest to leave — these uniform-clad ticket guides (ushers) in multiplexes, as they call themselves, do it all. Handling people who stick bubble gums on seat covers or spit tobacco is a challenge, says A.Abdul who works in a single screen theatre in T.Nagar. And there are times when a viewer needs immediate medical attention. Deftly tackling the situation so that the panic does not spread becomes our responsibility, says M. Rajakumar (24), an usher at Kamala theatre.
Solving brawls between viewers can often lead to tricky situations, say many ushers. There are some who come to watch movies after fights, and when they take out their anger by abusing us, it gets vey difficult to stay calm, says John Peter (24). As ushers are the first to be contacted when people lose an item, they carry a routine check to collect the left-over items. "I still cannot forget the relief on woman's face when I handed the 5 sovereigns ‘taali' she had lost here," says M. Nandakumar. Ushers in multiplexes get paid around Rs.4,500 a month, apart from the incentive they earn for promoting food items to the customers.
Some auditoriums in the city employ event managers who bring attendants, trained to handle people who come for music concerts and plays. R. Kumar, one such usher, says the job is slightly different here. Contrary to the popular notion that a niche crowd is manageable, Mr Kumar says, "Often people sing along with the artist or wolf-whistles even in such performances." Clad in smarter uniforms and paid around Rs.300 per show, Mr. Kumar says that since most concert halls restrict the entry of visitors during delivery of "powerful dialogues" and give more freedom to the usher to ask a viewer to go out, the job becomes easier.
The situation in many single-screen theatres is rather grim as most ticket guides are paid quite low. Most come to the theatre as and when the shows begin and are paid not more than Rs. 2000 a month. Askar.M, a fourth standard dropout says, "Some of those who come to watch movies in single screen theatres are difficult to handle.”
L. Rex, who has been working for 25 years, says the calling, though mundane it may seem, has its own share of lessons to offer. “Earlier, when there were no seat numbers, people would rush madly into the halls to capture seats. Tackling them was the actual work'', he says. Ask him about his favourite days, and he smiles. “The audience that comes to watch Kamal Haasan movies is so very different from the rest, and easier to manage''.
And there are fun moments too.
While the ushers in single-screen theatres rejoice seeing mad crowds sway to the rhythm of drums on the release days, the ones in bigger movie halls have countless stories about the viewers they interact with every day. “Many times we carry persons with disabilities to their seat, the kind of gratitude that they show us is when we feel we are not that invisible,” says Mr. Nandakumar.