That forbidding darkness

What stops women from venturing alone into cinemas, asks BAGESHREE S.

It took me 34 long years to muster the courage to watch a movie by myself. That too for the mortal fear of making an ass of myself. I had to interview a filmmaker the next day and wanted to start with something a notch more intelligent than: "So, what's your movie all about?"

The film I watched was the kind that would drag its feet in a cinema for a week; it was an afternoon show on a working day and in a fairly "respectable" theatre. There was not much drama on or off the screen, and I emerged without a tear trickling down my cheek. Quite an anti-climax actually, which made me wonder if it was worth the 34-year preparation.

I recently met a friend who too had at last found the courage to go solo. She went to Parineeta by herself because she was simply tired of the business of waiting for someone to accompany her all the time. Her husband isn't such a movie buff and most of her friends are either too busy or happen to be "good wives who like to be home when husband and children arrive". What strengthened her resolve was her husband's question: "But why are you so desperate?!" Like me, she chose a mid-morning show on a working day and a "safe" theatre. "Not that I thought it was a great movie. But it sure was a great experience. It gave me a wonderful sense of anonymity and the best part was that I could cry without embarrassing myself." She came out of the theatre with red eyes and a vow on her lips: "I shall do it again."

But why is the business of watching a movie all by themselves such a big deal for so many women? A good number of men may dislike watching films all by themselves, but it's never an "issue" like it is for most women. Is this a typical conservative middle-class woman thing or is there more to it? I was happy to learn (good old Google!) that my friend and I were in the august company of some "liberated" American women. I came across a whole chat forum dedicated to the theme of "Doing Things Alone". One said: "I still haven't gone to a movie alone. There's still something a little weird about that for me." And many, many voices concurred. The stigma about going alone seemed even more severe there because dining and movie-going are strictly "date things".

As I progressed along the chat thread, I could see a nice sisterhood blooming, the braver ones egging on the meeker ones to give it a go. One said: "If I am psyched to see a movie, then I'm going to go anyway." Yet another taught the rest ways of handling men who think it's their birthright to bother women. "Usually if I yell back at them, they get intimidated. Try it. My friends and I have really found this method to be effective."

Some things must indeed be universal. How else would you explain the fact that the very same method has worked for a friend's mom who has seen films of all kinds in theatres of all kinds, daring to cross all language and class barriers — from English to Tamil, from hip multiplexes to those that have rats happily running around. There have been troubles ("Where are they not there for women?"), ranging from stares to disembodied hands creeping in from the gap between the seats. But she has learnt to deal with them, sometimes by ignoring and sometimes by, like our American friend, threatening to shout and bring the roof down. The business of buying a ticket and walking into the hall to face whatever comes her way, she would swear, is far less traumatic than galvanising friends or family into accompanying her. In fact, she is now so used to watching films by herself that she finds it a bit of a strain when she is in company and has to "turn around and share a joke"!

Going alone to a film isn't quite the "up and go" thing that it is for men, she admits, but adds in a conspiratorial tone: "It requires planning and working out a strategy!" She, for instance, makes sure she walks in just as the lights are going out to be not "seen" alone. Also, she makes sure she looks "respectable". Sari is a good option, salwar is OK, but trousers are a strict no-no.

But the real braveheart in my circle of friends is the one who has thrown all strategies and wise counsel to wind and has seen movies after movies for years after years in just every cinema in town. In her list of credits are a few night shows and The Body in the now-defunct Imperial with men on all sides too. How has she managed that, I ask. "No clue," she says.

Her strategy (if you insist on calling it that) is to just be herself. She doesn't "look militant", but neither does she do things like looking around furtively for "signs of danger". "I just go and plonk myself on the seat and watch the film!" She wonders if looking anxious and vulnerable or even "traditional" in a sari attract more attention that her own short-hair-and-trousers look and a complete no-nonsense air.

All this throws up complex questions on how men "read" women in public spaces and decide to either target or leave them alone. It also makes me wonder how many of our fears are ghosts that live inside our own heads — constantly nourished, of course, by social stigma, especially around the "happenings in the dark interiors" of the cinemas and the "corruptible influences" of the brightly lit images on the screen — and refuse to be exorcised. The ghost-inside-head theory grows stronger when I ask myself why it's been one nearly-filmless year since my "lest I make an ass of myself" bravery, sans a repeat show.

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