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Some years ago, when we moved to Chicago, I was excited to learn that a theater nearby screened matinee shows of blockbuster Bollywood movies every other Sunday. And when I heard that they were showing Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH), I had to go.

The movie was to start at 11 a.m., but I convinced K that we needed to be there at least 30 minutes before the show. From all reports, the movie had broken box office records in India and was making waves among desi audiences the world over. I didn’t want to get to the theater only to look a “houseful” sign in the face.

My expectations were at fever pitch, so I was surprised to find less than a dozen people waiting in line at the ticket counter. We got our tickets and walked into the theater. The front rows were as yet understandably empty, but even the middle and back sections had two or three persons, or sometimes only one, in each row.

I wondered if the so-called “blockbuster” status of KKHH (in the United States, at least) was more hype than reality. But then as we walked up the aisle, I began to see that many of the seats were, in fact, taken—although not by people. Instead, each seat had a small accessory of winter clothing sitting on it. A pair of mittens here, a scarf there. A muffler on this one, a beret on the next.

It dawned on me then that these humble articles of clothing were more versatile than I had ever imagined. Clearly, they had a function apart from merely protecting one from the rigors of a Chicago winter. When strategically deployed, they allowed a single individual (or two or three) to hold or “catch” (pakadna) an entire row of seats in a theater or auditorium.

How effectively this strategy might work remained to be seen, but it had all the charm of simplicity. Still, I felt strongly that this business of holding seats, en masse, was unfair to the early birds, who deserved to get the seats of their choice. With that in mind, I headed towards a pair of aisle seats about four rows from the back.

We reached our destination only to find that “our” seats had been usurped by a pair of ear muffs and a monkey cap. I reached out a hand to remove the offending articles when the guardian of that row called me out. She was seated in the middle of the row, a compactly-built woman in her forties with a tough, mama-grizzly-defending-cubs air about her.

“Nai, nai,” she said. “Aap wahan nahi baith sakte. Hamare family wale aa rahe hain.” (No, no, you cannot sit there, my family members are on their way)
“Your family wale should get here early if they want good seats,” I said.

“Haan, haan, they are here. Popcorn laane gaye hain,” she tossed off, carelessly. (They’ve gone to get popcorn)

I felt my temper rise, but K took my arm and steered me away from what might have been a promising exchange of views. He pointed out two good seats in the middle of a row further back that had somehow eluded the seat-catchers.

We settled into our seats. I looked around casually—and my jaw dropped at the sight that met my eyes. In the row across the aisle, a young man was sleeping face down across the tops of about four seats, arms and legs stretched out, fingers and toes likewise pointing outwards. He looked like a diver poised to jump off a springboard.

I checked the row behind us—and discovered two more tautly stretched, supine young men. It could not have been easy to hold that pose and I had to give the trio of sleeping beauties full marks for endurance. I also had to give them points for ingenuity. They might lack the wealth of clothing accessories that my popcorn-loving friend down the aisle had equipped herself with, but they had come up with a reasonably good alternative.

Time went on, and more and more people began filing into the theater. Inevitably, squabbles broke out between the seat catchers and the newcomers. The volume of sound and argument rose steadily through the previews and into the opening credits. A few minutes later, Shahrukh himself loomed large on the screen, but we could only see bits and pieces of him thanks to the impromptu standing committee.

The newcomers, who were fighting for seats, were still standing. And some of the seat catchers were on their feet as well.

In the background, violins started to wail. Rani appeared in the frame and began to speak, and my temples began to throb.

I touched K’s arm. We were getting up to leave when the screen went dark. There was an abrupt, almost painful cessation of sound. Rani and the violins fell silent—as did the audience, startled by this unexpected turn of events. Before anyone could react, the lights in the auditorium flashed back on and in the hush, someone spoke, “Well … hello there.”

The voice possessed the kind of penetrating clarity that would have done a headmistress proud. All heads turned in the direction of the speaker. There she was: a small, fifty-something woman with mousy blond hair, standing a few feet in from the sign marked “exit” to the left of the screen. She was dressed in a dark official looking suit. Theater management, I guessed. Probably here to offer us an explanation and apology about whatever glitch had halted the screening of the movie.

“Well, hello,” the woman reiterated. Her tone was far from apologetic, and her spectacles flashed as she scanned the audience. “I’m Wendy, the theater manager. And here’s the deal: if you guys don’t stop this ruckus, we will be shutting down the show. Please feel free to exit the theater and pick up your refunds at the ticket counter.”

We were dumbfounded.

Nobody moved. It was embarrassing enough to be chastised like school children, but it would be even more humiliating to slink away abjectly. (Plus, this was our only opportunity to watch KKHH on the big screen. The alternative would be a grainy video recording with poor sound quality.)

The manager apparently took our continuing silence to mean that we had, in effect, already stopped the “ruckus” as she termed it. Her spectacles ceased to flash. She looked up at the projectionist and then gestured with her thumb back at the screen. She exited the theater just as the lights went out and the opening credits began to roll.

This time, when SRK returned to the screen, you could see all of him. Rani re-entered the frame and was allowed to have her say.

Suddenly, everyone had a seat. All arguments had magically melted away. We were on our best behavior.

It was as if we were watching a Hollywood movie in mixed, non-desi company and, therefore, felt the need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of decorum. You might not have guessed that this was an all desi audience watching a Bollywood film.

Gauri Sirur is a writer/blogger who lives in Houston. She likes to write about travel and personal experiences.

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