By Deepa P Madhu
It was difficult being a female cinephile in Kerala. Every time a new film was out, I had to hunt for a partner to go the cinema hall – usually a friend or a relative. Even younger male cousins were acceptable to my parents. The alternative – going alone – wasn’t.
Sometimes, it was grandma who would accompany me (especially Mohanlal flicks), even though I had to drag her to the neighbourhood movie theatre. And while she never admitted it, she was a film buff too. She had a lifetime of those old movie synopsis booklets and old posters tucked away.
I would often imagine her in the front seat of the family car as grandpa drove her to the movies, first day, first show. She would, of course, be decked up in her finest jewellery and be smelling of the most exotic attar (an oil perfume) in my imagination. After all movie-going was a festive affair then.
Now, of course, going to a movie hall is a much more mundane event.
Even though it was a pain to look for company each time I wanted to watch a film, I didn’t argue with my mother. A horrible experience I’d had when I was 16 reinforced my compliance.
It happened during the screening of a Mohanlal-starrer, Spadikam.
A younger cousin (male, of course) and I, traversed a rowdy crowd and got the tickets. We were seated next to a four-member family: a middle-aged man, a lady and two grown up boys. Sitting next to a family was always something of a relief. But that changed that day once the lights dimmed.
As the commercials began playing on the screen, I suddenly felt a hand probing over my shoulder. It wasn’t my cousin. Scared cold, I pushed myself to the edge of the seat, but the hand was relentless.
The movie-watchers around me were blissfully unaware of what I was going through. They were cheering and whistling as Mohanlal and his on-screen father, Thilakan, matched wits. But I couldn’t enjoy the film one bit.
In the terror I felt in the moment, I instinctively reached for the mightiest weapon I had at the time: a safety pin. Never have I been so thankful to my mother for stitching those little pockets inside my dresses where I could keep some money and these safety-pins when I ventured out.
I sat there with the safety pin, waiting for "him" to make a move. It didn't take long.
Right on cue, I delivered the blow with the lethal (as lethal as I could manage with a tiny pin anyway) weapon. Only I heard the satisfying, muffled cries from the seat beside mine.
Then, I immediately turned around and requested another family in the row behind ours if we could swap seats. Two of them promptly agreed.
The incident did two things: it ruined Spadikam and made me petrified of visiting cinema halls unaccompanied by grown up males for all times to come.
Until this week, that is. And it was Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal which liberated me from this decades-old burden.
It’s been 20 years since that incident. I had heard lots of good reviews about Dangal and couldn’t wait to watch it. But finding the time with a working husband and a three-year-old wasn't easy. Besides, the only show available in the neighbourhood theatre in Wales, where I have lived since 2008, was 7.30pm which is also the little one’s bedtime.
So, I decided to go it alone.
Of course, I was scared, confused, and even felt guilty leaving behind my toddler in the car with my husband after he dropped me off.
I was late and the theatre was packed. The only single seat available was near a group of boys. So, I asked one of them if I could take it. "Oh, sure ma'am, please," he said.
The theatre was filled with a predominantly Indian crowd, most of them men. The safety pin was ready in my bag.
But as the film began and we were transported to rustic and dusty Haryana, chasing the dreams of Mahavir Singh Phogat and his girls. I left behind the boys, the pin, and my insecurities.
The boys sitting beside me clapped, laughed, and cheered. I joined them. It was a collective as well as personal experience.
During intermission, the boy sitting beside me smiled and we began chatting.
"Liking the movie, ma'am?" he asked me.
"Yeah," I replied.
"Aamir bhaiyya is good, isn't he? Can you believe it is a true story?"
"It is sad that in our state many girls can't come out like this." There was genuine sadness in his voice.
The film resumed after the intermission and I lost myself yet again in the struggles of Geeta Phogat and her sisters.
Once the film ended and the credits began to roll, I remained seated even as people around me made their way to the exit. I was waiting for the crowd to clear out so that I could avoid the rush. But you see, instincts never die.
I became aware of how I was alone in the theatre. Vulnerable. But this time there was another feeling too, a stronger one. A more satisfying one. One that told me that I had just had the perfect film-watching experience.
And although I was transported back to reality way too quickly and had to make my exit, in that brief moment though, nothing mattered. It was just Dangal and me, just soaking in the art of the film. It felt amazing.
I carried that satisfied smile even as I waited for my husband to pick me up. As we drove back, I was aware that I was in a different, arguably more liberal country. And while one experience didn’t free me of all my fears, I urge you – if you are a movie buff and haven't attempted a solo experience yet, go for it immediately.
And, more importantly, I hope that one day, that lone women back home can experience what I did.