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The play’s the thing

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Richard Parker in Life of Pi was so underwhelmingthat the mindturned to theatre…

Not a scary cat.Photo: Reuters
Not a scary cat.Photo: Reuters

This is not a boast, just a sad confession: Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi did not scare me one bit. Not even when he tried to jump out of the screen and roar right into my face. I searched for but could not discern that solid steely strength that a tiger exudes even in repose. And majesty? Sher Khan in the comic-book version of Jungle Book had more of it. Richard Parker just irritated me: he didn’t perform the basic scaring duty of the big cat; when drenched by the waves he looked more pathetic than my German Shepherd after his weekly bath and, most importantly, he didn’t seem real. Which in fact, as a couple of Google clicks will show you, he wasn’t. For the most part it was CGI, which I believe is the umbrella term for all this computer-generated gimmickry in cinema. Oh, I know it had to be done: you cannot really put a teenaged boy in a boat with a full-grown Bengal tiger and if the story had to be told this was the only way of doing it.

But, for me, if I can mix some animals in this metaphor, the virtually ferocious tiger was the last straw on the camel’s back. It was more than I could handle, overwhelmed as I already was by the upstartish nature of the whole evening out at the films. First, it had taken me forever to find my way from the depths of the parking basement, up an elevator and then an escalator to the correct cinema. I did not know they had more than one in one mall. And then I had trouble finding the right auditorium in the cinema, again not knowing that they had more than one. In between I had to pay several hundred rupees for two tickets, and a couple of hundred more for the obligatory tub of popcorn made all the more difficult by the choice between five kinds, from buttered to caramelised and everything in between. When I finally sat down in my seat, I realised that I did not have the pair of spectacles that all the other text-messaging-on-smart-phones neighbours of mine had. So I had to stumble down the aisle in the dark and get one for myself; this was after all 3-D, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So you can understand that over the next two hours I could not summon up much empathy with the computer-generated tiger and not even the slight twist in the tale in the last scenes of the movie could retrieve it for me. I knew I was going to go on a nostalgia trip.

Long forgotten scenes, admittedly only in old fashioned 2-D, grainy but terribly honest, began to float up from the recesses of memory: the incredible depiction of a battle to the death between a black panther and a python from a wildlife film called Jungle Cat in the early 1960s; a patriotic documentary projected on a wall in Kailash colony market in 1962 from a van with Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar and others singing Awaaz do hum ek hain to inspire the nation in the face of the Chinese aggression; Cleopatra in all her splendour in Capri cinema in Dehra Dun where the doors would be kept open during the evening show so that you could stare at the silhouetted hills if the film didn’t hold you; the crystal clear clippety-clop of horse hooves in Mackenna’s Gold at Chanakya, with its miraculous stereophonic sound …The only technological mystery that I recall was how they managed to show two Dev Anands in one scene in Hum Dono . Ten rupees bought you four respectable tickets and another five would buy everyone packets of wafers of the only one kind available in those merciful non-market-driven days. No other food or drink was allowed inside the hall; you had to rush out for the quick aloo-tikki, samosa or Coke. Only in the rare hall did you get a hamburger, which was essentially an aloo-tikki and a slice of onion in a fried bun.

Giving up on the movie experience — at least until I get over Richard Parker — the mind turned to theatre. Impelled more by nostalgia than any real hope I drifted towards Mandi House, the place that in my youth was the throbbing heart of Delhi’s very active theatre scene. The first sign was not encouraging: the old flower-laden traffic circle was now a construction site preparing another metro station for our brave new world. It must have all vanished, I thought, those many theatres, the bearded intense young men wearing mufflers in the audience, the directors and actors hanging around the cafes, cupping little glasses of tea.

But there actually was a festival of modern theatre going on at the Shriram centre. There was no one at the ticket counter but a courteous gentleman waved me into the hall, explaining that they had run out of passes and entry was free anyway. Slowly the rows began to fill up. A stranger behind me insisted I should take a look at the brochure and quickly informed me that far from being dead, Mandi House showed more than 2000 plays every year. On the dot, the play started and turned out to be a tightly written and expertly enacted intense conversation featuring only three characters. The audience was unpretentious, genuinely interested and keen. Nobody ate popcorn all evening, nobody texted on a smart phone and most importantly there was no CGI. You got what you saw.

As I walked out, I realised it was all still there; Mandi House with its many theatre festivals, the theatre buffs, the down-to-earth audiences, the actors and writers in the cafe, waiting for a break. It was I who had gone away.

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