I was pushed like a pebble in a seabed. The crowd around me had real physical waves moving through it, rows of heads rippled up and down as I tried to keep my eyes above the surface. Eventually we reached the entrance to the big building.
The crowds never went away even after we flowed inside. For the moment, none of us bothered going to the snack bar to get samosas or chai: it would have been too much of a fight. So, we five put our strength against the surges of the crowd and made our way forward.
It was noisy; the hot air was frozen above our heads. Ceiling fans unconcernedly pretended to be doing something. I observed first-hand the many different ways human skulls are shaped and how hair can be combed. The ocean around me was filled with black bowling balls.
At that moment I tried to shepherd the family group away from the balcony stairs toward the doors leading to the floor-level seats. In the United States I like to watch summer blockbusters from the exact middle of the floor rows, savoring the THX sound and having the screen wrap around just to the edge of my peripheral vision. Admittedly, this choice of location comes at a price: a constantly talking woman always sits right behind me. This is due to my natural attractiveness to women—at least that’s what I tell myself. It’s a better reason than thinking my karma demands her presence and I am doomed for this lifetime.
Back in the Ocean of Lobby, my brother-in-law shouted in my ear that only kids and riff-raff sat in the floor-level seats. He told me we shouldn’t go there, and redirected me toward the staircase.
I saw that giving any advice about the savor of film appreciation gained by sitting in the center of the orchestra seats was hopeless. I grit my teeth. Once again they assumed that the firangi husband automatically never knows the better way to do something when in India. Okay, I can adapt as well as anyone: I decisively declared aloud that we would sit in the balcony and that was final.
I don’t think anybody heard me.
An hour before, languidly standing outside waiting for the theater to open, my nephew Raja told me his friend who works at the movie house promised to reserve for us “the best seats” in advance. I saw Raja go to one ticket window, argue with someone, then to another ticket window, argue again, and then pound on a side door. This last action was just his way of exercising his arm. Nobody answered, of course, nor did he really expect anyone to.
He returned to us, face clouded. “My friend isn’t here. He didn’t leave a message. Our names aren’t known to anybody. But, I managed to get us some pretty good seats anyhow.”
As we bumped up the stairs to the balcony with the force of water pushed uphill over rocks, Bittu explained, “We have to go to the balcony because of our tickets, Mausa.”
“Because of our tickets?” I replied.
She shouted back that India, or at least the theaters around here, practiced the quaint old custom of letting a person buy tickets by location in the theater. All the seats were numbered and pre-assigned to anyone purchasing a ticket and paying five rupees more. Only the kids and people with ordinary tickets used the first-come-first-grab seats in the rows on the bottom floor. Those people were going to yell a lot and be rowdy down there, she added. It’s expected. Indians love to live loudly.
I wished fleetingly that the assigned-seat custom would come back to America. Maybe then I could choose among various seating sections and defy my karma. I’d shun the areas for “constant gossipers” as well as those labeled “for people who tell you what’s about to happen in the movie,” as well as the section “for people who chew snacks and popcorn noisily for the entire show, viewing of the film optional.”
Finally, at the top of the stairs we went through the Bollywood Theater’s golden balcony doors. All light went away—so abruptly, I was stunned. Have you ever been inside a cave, perhaps on a tour, and the lights were turned off to show you how dark real dark is? Standing on the balcony we were wrapped in that kind of darkness. I knew we were in life-threatening danger from the pushing of the crowd here on this cliff. I knew we should have sat in the floor-level orchestra seats below. I was hanging onto two members of the family ahead of me, wrinkling their clothes, and for some insane reason they didn’t seem to think we were at risk at all.
Most sensory input came from hearing people all around me in the dark: some jabbering about their seats; others already in place and getting their toes stepped upon as people slid past them down the row; all kinds of voices asking what kind of Indian snacks to fetch from the concession booth down in the lobby.
After a moment, an usher with a flashlight—we’re saved!—examined our ticket stubs for seat numbers. He led us through the cave-like darkness to a row a few steps up from the balcony railing on the left side.
The usher shined his light onto our five seats.
There were people already sitting in them.
A big discussion erupted, three-way talking in the fastest strident Hindi I’d ever heard. First there were the squatters arguing that they got there first; second was the usher telling them that first didn’t matter; and third, the most fearsome of all, the young unmarried women in our family group spoke. I understood what they said. They said get out of our seats now, in a way that would have impressed Clint Eastwood.
The command worked. I think young-adult women are obeyed when they’re in such a soft, delicate mood because family members are conditioned to obey the strength of presence of a mother in a traditional Indian household, plus the fear inspired by all mothers-in-law. Our women’s Shiva-like aspect of authority blazing rays of power down on the squatters made them move away into the dark, grumbling.
We settled down for our movie, a Bollywood film that had received very good reviews. No subtitles in English, but I could manage. My wife and I watch Hindi films in the United States, both at home and within sane movie theaters.
Nothing happened. Minutes dragged by like tar flowing under Indian heat. It was still so dark I wasn’t absolutely convinced my wife was sitting next to me. The hubbub of voices all around us made it feel like I was a tiny kernel in the middle of a huge bag of popcorn, all rustling around and crinkling.
The darkness in the hall was violently bulldozed against the back wall as the screen came alight in a blazing white rectangular door leading to salvation. A few seconds later the light from this near-death experience was replaced by local advertisements. Next came hours and hours of coming attractions for future movies, many of which might actually get released.
Then the screen went black again and the crowd began chattering in the dark. Down below our balcony, at floor level, school kids pulled out their cell phones and started sending instant messages to their friends who were not at the theater.
Suddenly the screen lit up and the two things that seem to always precede a Hindi movie appeared. The first thing was a black-and-white full-screen piece of paper that is obviously a government license form. There are many unreadable lines on it and the music that goes with this picture consists of 1930s film hiss. The form says at the top “National Film Board of India.” There’s a prominent large-font Hindi character next to some Roman-alphabet character there too. I’ve asked, and evidently nobody knows what these characters are for, but they must be important to somebody so they keep putting them on the form—although that person probably retired from his little bureaucratic office in Delhi long ago.
The second thing that appeared on the screen, and seems to be present in all but the most Westernized of Bollywood films, was a dedication to the particular god or goddess that the producers or directors follow. In this case it was Krishna: we saw about twenty seconds of a little icon of the Hindu god, draped with flowers and with two sticks of incense burning on either side of the statue. In the background some male classical singer was singing some kind of puja music that goes with Krishna. This oblation was, to me, a nice sentiment.
Next I saw a white-on-black message indicating that this film was dedicated to the director’s late grandfather. Those words were wiped away by another message in which—I almost couldn’t believe it—the producers profusely thanked their lawyers and bankers and accountants. Maybe the producers had to be sprung from jail to make the movie. Then the screen went totally black again.
With no warning to buckle my seatbelt, and explicitly timed to be out of tempo with my heartbeat, came a blaze of color and an outpouring of music from the large multi-channel Bose commercial-grade speakers placed all over the walls of the theater. We were pressed back in our seats as if we had just accelerated to Mach 4. The proper titles of the film began to appear.
I fumbled around in the dark for something to put in my ears to protect them from the ramjet-level decibels of the title music. It was hard to move my arms, being pinned by waves of air pressure from the nearest speakers. I found some napkins that little Yeti and Minnie had gotten when they had bravely gone to the snack bar earlier to buy a samosa. It was impossible to be heard over the music, so I just gently pulled one napkin from each of the brother and sister. Yeti looked up at me with a very puzzled expression on his face. I ripped off little strips from the edges, rolled them into tight little balls, and stuffed them in my ears. Makeshift earplugs: they worked surprisingly well. Yeti nudged his sister and Minnie looked up at me. They laughed: this American guy in the family was always doing funny things for them.
The movie was shown by film equipment not yet supplanted by digital technology: two projectors, with one running the current reel of film and the other one waiting to be started by someone when the other reel ran out. As the three-hour epic played, the projectors switched back and forth a lot, and it was then I noticed a thing that, despite all my toughening to Indian ways, still required me to clench my jaw and hold tightly to the arms of my seat.
The problem was, when projector number two was running, it beamed its image at the screen right through the long post and blades of a huge whirling ceiling fan dangerously hanging from the theater’s ceiling. Thus, there was this gigantic shadow of a whirling ceiling fan dangling right down through the male lead’s face in a lot of his big scenes.
I asked young Minnie later if that shadow bothered her and she replied, “What shadow?” I sadly knew then that I hadn’t yet mastered the Indian discipline to ignore things that can’t be changed.
More than three hours later, when it was all over, the screen vanished from existence. We again were plunged into stygian blackness. Everyone got up and another flood started pushing me toward the stairwells to exit the theater. Somebody grabbed my hand—it felt like my wife—so, taking the cue, I reached out to my other side and took hold of frail Nonny so she wouldn’t get lost. But she didn’t need the help; she is tough, mind as sharp as a razor blade. It was only I who needed any help.
With her seventy-five years of experience, Nonny was the one who led us successfully through the darkness that was filled with a million pressing bodies. We escaped and were safe in the sunlight.
Nonny was, and is, my mother-in-law, and I loved her all the more that day for taking care of us.
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family.