First Day, First Show

"First Day, First Show." The phrase will be familiar to moviegoers in South Asia and in the diaspora. It conjures up images, smells, tastes and sounds of masses of people gathering, struggling and scrambling to be one of the elect few to say, "Yes, of course I saw it -- first day, first show!" In this experience, we can see how fans from economically and socially diverse communities are renegotiating older structures of film culture today. I had the privilege to explore this film culture in Bhopal last year. Bhopal: the City of Lakes, capital of Madhya Pradesh, a city torn through by a rampaging death-gas secreted by a Union Carbide Plant back in the mid-80s, killing thousands and thousands of mostly poor, mostly Muslim people within hours, and which continues to claim the lives of 15 people a month. Bhopal: city of my birth, home to my extended family. Bhopal: a once walled-city, ruled for over a century by the Begums of Bhopal, Muslim descendants of its founder, the Afghan Dost Mohammed Khan. And Bhopal today: a segregated city, with the old city, home to the now minority Muslim population, overwhelmingly poor and overcrowded, and the new city, Hindu dominated, home to politicians, state legislators, landowners, businesspeople and Dominos Pizza (and the Dalit workers who service them). Of the 13 movie theatres in the city (all owned by Sikhs or Hindus), only 3 of them are in new Bhopal. The rest are all in the Muslim majority areas of the erstwhile walled city: the difference is not only in location, it can be seen in terms of accessibility (roads, traffic, parking, etc.), regular clientele (all male or gender mixed; single teenagers or families; poor, middle class, or rich; day or night crowds; Muslim or Hindu), services (box office, types of intermission snacks, "crowd control," toilets, drinking water), and theatre "attractions" (Dolby sound, new-style advertisements and bill boards, date of construction, style of architecture; condition of balcony, dress circle, stall seats; fans vs. water-cooled air, power generators, etc.). These differences are all signs, as well, of the emergence of a new film culture of India's globalizing elites.

I found, to my surprise, that this experience of the "first day, first show" can sometimes be very hard work. This was something I learned when I tried to attend the first show of Mohabbatein during my year in India researching the economic and cultural impact of globalization in Hindi films. At the time, there had been a series of films that had roared through Bhopal -- Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, Shikari, Aaghaz, Dhai Akshar Prem Ke, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Rehta Hai, etc. All of them more or less had been flops -- both Aaghaz and Dil Pe... ran for only about one week. The audiences in Bhopal simply were not interested in any of the stories, and precious few of the songs. But with the coming of Diwali, things seemed to be different. With the simultaneous release of the Hrithik Roshan starrer Mission Kashmir and the Amitabh-Shahrukh-Aishwarya blockbuster Mohabbatein it seemed like a filmgoers fantasy come true.

The story is familiar, but with a particular globalized twist: a "remake" of Dead Poet's Society, Mohabbatein tells the story of Gurukul College (the name references uppercaste Hindu institutions of Vedic learning, let us not forget-dalitbahujan writer Kancha Iliah has brilliantly exposed the exclusionary functions of such institutions), and its imperious principal, Narayan Shankar (played by super-duper-mega star, Amitabh Bachchan). For the past 25 years, Shankar has run the college on Parampara, Anushasan, and Pratishta: Tradition, Discipline, and Honor. In other words, he runs the college on Fear. The boys fear him and he thinks their fear is a sign of their devotion. So three young men end up enrolling there, and they naturally fall in love with three young women, two from the neighborhood, and one who is enrolled in the all-women's college next door. But they all know that love is forbidden in Gurukul because years back a student had fallen in love with Narayan's daughter, and without even talking to the student, this very stern principal expelled him from the college. In desperation, Narayan's daughter Megha committed suicide. So no one wants to end up like that expelled student. But in the meantime, a music instructor is hired, one Raj Aryan (could they be more obvious with the names?). This music instructor insists that love is the inspiration for music, and he encourages these three students to pursue their loves. After a series of wonderful songs, and dramatic scenes, we learn that Raj is none other than that luckless student whose love was sacrificed to Narayan's stubbornness. And so the scene is set for the epic, generational struggle between Fear and Love, Tradition and Postcolonialism. And with a title like Mohabbatein (a riff on the Hindi word for "love" and itself a neologism, by the bye) you can guess who wins in the end!

A familiar narrative, with a familiar visual style: Yash Chopra (the producer and the director's father) is legendary not only for his visual style, but the "exotic" locales of his movies. By "exotic" I mean European: Chopra was recently given an honorary citizenship by the government of Switzerland in recognition of the profound contribution his films have made to Swiss tourism. But he has branched out, too: the actual setting for his idealized, Hinduized Gurukul is a palace somewhere in Wiltshire, England. It seems that part of what is getting marketed as traditional Indian culture in Hindi films today is a Sanskritized and chauvinistic brand of "national" memory, but one with global ambitions as well. If we remember that more and more of the profits from high-budget Hindi films comes from "foreign exchange" -- collections from overseas territories, mostly in the UK and North America -- we can appreciate this other, simple fact: the Hindi film industry has actually profited from the enormous devaluation of the rupee over the past several years. It puts this film industry in a particularly curious position: it sells a chauvinistic brand of national culture, thereby paying its debts to Hindu nationalism, while its financial and profit base is increasingly oriented toward the centers of capitalist accumulation in the "North." We could call this part of the changing contradictions of Bollywood pleasure.

But the fantasy of Bollywood has always to contend with the reality of the Talkie. So like thousands of other ardent fans I went to the first day, first show of Mohabbatein at Rumba Talkies. Rumba is in the Jahangirabad section of Bhopal, an overwhelmingly poor, and largely Muslim section of town, and many people were warning me that there would a mad rush for tickets -- I guess the logic being that Muslims like Shahrukh Khan more than Hindus do (this turned out not to be the case -- there were plenty of Hindus there). Jahangirabad, though, had a reputation: it is a highly policed section of town, known as much for its narrow streets and overcrowded slums as for the crime that, say the police, justify their continual presence. In 1992, in the wake of the demolition the Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists, it was this neighborhood that was first engulfed by the communal violence, which subsequently spread throughout old Bhopal, aided and abetted by the police and the army. Eight months after this screening of Mohabbatein, as the 2001 blockbuster Gadar sparked a national controversy by its interested depiction of partition, this same movie hall would become the site of renewed communal violence.

But that was all in the future, or in the past...

It was the day after Diwali, and I fixed up with my friend Abhishek (an 18 year old who never misses a big first day, first show -- it's like a hobby with him) to meet me at 10. I got to Rumba before he did -- but not nearly early enough, even though the show was supposed to be at 12:30. By 10 am the line for the balcony seats / dress circle / box seats was almost out the gate. There were literally hundreds of people milling about the courtyard. Getting tickets seemed out of the question. The amount of loitering was astounding, even those who weren't in line, and probably had no hope or even desire to see the show, were hanging out, sitting on parked scooters, watching the crowd, partaking and contributing to the festival-like atmosphere.

And certainly there was intense excitement in the air. As well as intense heat. The sun beat down upon us like it was slapping our faces. But everyone in the ticket line took the solar abuse pleasantly -- these were the hopefuls -- those ardent souls who come seeking the pleasure of a first show, without connections or advance bookings, determined boys (and some girls) who have no qualms about standing under the midday sun for hours if need be, all for that elusive ticket. These hopefuls -- boys like Mahindra and Javed, had been waiting in line for hours now. They had a little while longer to wait.

The lines were crazy long and sprawling. The women's line was much more orderly, and smaller. There were some women with children, all neatly lined up, but mostly they were women and girls. I would say all in all, the crowd was about 90 percent men and 10 percent women. The courtyard at such events continues to be a man's space, organized by an aggressive male gaze, and bounded by a very momentary kind of propriety. (I learned later that, as the crowd was dispersing from the first show, some men physically assaulted a young woman -- she cried out for help, and eventually some police officers ushered her into a rickshaw.)

The men's line for dress circle tickets seemed itself to be out of a movie -- single file, all scrunched up against each other, leaning on each other for support, and every now and then there would be some massive surge, and a push and tug war would start, and then die down. As you got closer to the ticket counter the line seemed to proliferate into a kind of atomic cluster of moving limbs, and hopeful faces. Every few minutes you could hear this slow, rising crescendo, a quickening kind of moan of anticipation when it seemed that the talkie-wallah was actually going to open the box office. But they were just false alarms. Hundreds of hopefuls had crowded round those lucky ones who were first in line, in the hopes that they would buy them tickets (one particularly enterprising fellow had climbed over the railing and was trying to push his way to the very front -- he was quickly lightened of his shirt, and actually lifted off his feet by the crowd and in effect flung out of the line). A heavy traffic was going on, and I think those who were first in line took a little off the top for themselves. But whatever the case we were too late -- the lucky ones had already promised people four tickets, five tickets, nine tickets.

The state machinery was also present in the form of two officers with lathis. And they had no qualms about using them. But then again the crowd seemed almost to expect it. Close to the entrance gate, plastered with Hrithik Coke ads and Shahrukh Pepsi posters, the regulars had gathered. The regulars were those who had some kind of jugar (connection) and were not sweating it -- at least as far as tickets were concerned. They seemed quite content to wait it out. And the regulars had a fixed agenda of fun. First, a few of them climbed atop the Mohabbatein hoarding and put a garland of flowers around the massive photo of Amitabh and Shahrukh. Someone had brought up a small cut out of Aishwarya Rai (who has a guest appearance in the film) and was trying to paste it on to the poster. They were also lighting fireworks by the gate -- huge deafening bursts of what in America are called M-80s (1/8 of stick of dynamite) would occasionally tear through the air, leaving you temporarily unable to hear your neighbor. And with each bomb, the crowd by the gate would scatter, a mad dash to get away from the explosion. Finally, some brilliant bloke, in what must have been a fit of sheer joyful abandon, threw a bomb into the crowd -- I saw it explode near me, and I was sure someone must have lost a hand or part of his leg. That was only part of the danger.

The police, as I have mentioned, were present. I was taking a photo of a group of regulars who had climbed the hoarding, and the officer started yelling at the crowd, swearing at them to get down or he'd... do something unpleasant. But that's when the unpleasantries started, actually. In an effort to get the crowd of loiterers away from the entrance gate, the police resorted to what they know best -- lathi charges. And then of course there was another mad rush, this time to save your limbs from getting broken. It's a wonder to me that I didn't get crushed or that no one else did. At first, I must say that I had no idea what was going on, all I knew was that there was this irresistible push from behind me to move, and I started running with the crowd. But it was like blowing on boiling milk -- the crowd kept surging back and then forward again, and then the lathi charge, mad rush backwards, and then the slow gathering of expectant hopefuls, confident regulars, and the lucky ones would once more choke the gate.

After a while the police left the lathi charges to the chowkidars, one resourceful fellow using a whip made from a plastic belt, another using what seemed to be an ancient staff. They performed their task of crowd control with commendable verve, rushing at the crowd, swinging their lathis of choice at the feet of the fleeing boys and men, swearing at them, putting on frightening faces. All designed to cower the masses into discipline.

But the crowd had a discipline of its own. Hopefuls Mahindra and Javed had been there since the morning, it was now approaching the four-hour mark since they'd been standing in line. They were close to the ticket counter so they were sure they would get tickets. Thirsty, harassed, sweating, but expecting a great movie, they held fast to their place in line. And all around them, milling about, lighting firecrackers, glaring at the women, the regulars were managing the space through their own rules, codes, and protocols. I began taking photos, and a crowd soon gathered around. Quickly, the regulars swarmed, offering to strike appropriately festive poses -- it was then it struck me that these people were the unacknowledged managers of this space -- not the chowkidars, not the policemen, not the owners. These kids -- they must have been around the ages of 15 to 22 -- had a kind of privileged access to the space that the hopefuls could only dream of. It was then that it struck me that I was only going to get in by bartering the photos for tickets. And that's what I did. Hundred rupees and a few pictures for two tix.

An older boy (obviously the most regular of the regulars), guided us outside the courtyard, and off in a side gully sold us two tickets. Walking back in, the festivities were in full swing -- fireworks, lathi charges, the tug of war in the ever-growing hopefuls line. In a little while Abhishek suggested we gravitate towards the entrance door, and he encouraged me to use my English and my mock press status to get us in. I hesitated, and then tried the English bit, but to no avail. They were only letting women and children in -- and those who had either made advanced bookings through the owner, or bought their tickets on the Internet. These latter were conspicuous -- mostly families who were clearly not from the area, from an entirely other socio-economic class, carefully winding their way through the crowd, approaching the entrance gate, and... walking right in. There was apparently another discipline for these people -- it's called money and status. Advanced booking people, who may or may not have a ticket, but do have some connection to the owner or other talkie official -- or their access is created through the use of new technologies. The hopefuls don't have such connections, or such computer literacy or that kind of money. What they do have is this desire to see their favorite hero and heroine on the first day, first show screening, to be a part of the pleasure of dancing in the aisles when that popular tune comes blaring out of the speakers, to be able to say, later, "Yes, I saw it. It was just okay, yaar. Bilkul time pass." But desire doesn't open doors. After standing in line for four hours, to their horror they saw the ticket counter open for all of ten minutes, when at most a hundred tickets were sold. The rest had mysteriously already found their way into the hands of the regulars -- who were dealing them at their own discretion, with their own rules, and certainly at their own rates. Some people were willing to buy dress circle tickets for 100 rupees, and thankful for it too.

So Abhishek and I waited with those others who had bought tickets in the black, by the side of the entrance gate, squeezed up against the wall, hoping the chowkidar's irritated gaze -- or the stripes of his lathi -- would not fall on us. We were lucky, although worried: we kept looking at our tickets, noticing that they had no seat assignments, nor dates. But braving the sweltering sun we lined up with all the rest of the black ticket holders.

I can't say with any certainty what happened next. What I saw was the door open a crack and from behind me a massive, surging pressure rushed me forward -- my glasses nearly fell off, a sweaty hand was pressed against my shoulder, and the next thing I knew I was running, running to get in with the rest of the crowd. And the chowkidar was trying desperately to stop the rush, to close the door, even as I was pushing through, my bag got caught in the lock, but I wiggled my way in. Running, I stumbled as did a number of people, but there was no possibility of stopping -- if I fell that would be it. There was no doubt that people would run right over you to get a seat. It was then that I realized that this mad rush was due to the fact that there were no seat assignment in the dress circle. First come, first seated. That's it.

Well, I didn't fall. I kept up with the rest, hanging on to Abhishek for dear life. And we found ourselves in moderately good seats -- well the seats themselves were actually quite uncomfortable, but the view was good. So seated, we waited for the movie to start. The mad festival of the courtyard had turned into the relieved celebration of the movie hall. Everyone sitting around me was involved in this self-congratulation, a kind of solidarity created through the exquisite agony of getting a seat at a first day, first show. Shouting, running, dancing in the aisles, laughing, the 90% male audience were reeling in the nasha of a first day, first show success, while the women mostly sat apart, smiling but quiet. The house, needless to say, was full. And the lathi-wielding chowkidar was also in full swing, so to speak -- apparently some people without tickets had snuck in to the hall. He literally beat them out.

After a few scenes of this tamasha, the actual tamasha started -- Mohabbatein's opening shots were greeted with an ear splitting shriek of joy. As the lights went out at Rumba, I settled into my seat with a kind of giddiness.

That giddiness -- and all it implies about the gendered, classed, socially differentiated body, the management of the talkie's social space, its multiple histories, the at times antagonistic cultures of the viewers, and the forms of power that cut through, divide and tie all these disparate elements together -- that giddy feeling can be a critical starting point in understanding Hindi film culture. Such experiences challenge us, I think, to understand contemporary film culture as a complex negotiation of history, pleasure, and commodity culture -- as a sometimes raucous, comedic, but always also differential bodily experience of social and cultural power. These sites continue to be spaces that, from the standpoint of the administrators of law and order, must be policed, and that is because film culture brings socially and economically diverse elements of the population together in a dangerous admixture.

Through such film events, we can also grasp how in all major cities in India, film culture is a specific political force with its own history. This culture is not organized through parties, but rather through informal groups, or somewhat more formal societies or clubs. In these diverse spaces, the general viewer, the avid fan, and committed cultural "worker" come together to create and participate in film culture and to share in the unpredictable experience of visual, tactile and aural pleasure of Indian film. Samosas and Lata, Aishwarya/Hrithik and paan, Pepsi and power outages, are all part of this bodily experience. But, as we all know by now, pleasure in capitalist and globalizing societies like India has a history, it has a politics. It is in the historically contingent experience of this pleasure that caste, gender, religious, and class identities are made and contested, where social space is redrawn and sometimes blurred. It is here that desires are linked to or diverted from consumerist disciplines, and where the overlapping complexities of commodity culture, social power, and visual pleasure can be felt literally on and through the body of the viewer. Indeed, this multi-faceted experience of the body is precisely why all across India, the administration and certification of movie halls comes under the office of Chief Medical Officer of the state. The film viewer has no doubt changed over the past twenty years: first television, then the VCR, and now most recently cable, satellite, the internet and DVD/V-CD technologies have polarized film culture more and more in terms of who can afford to stay at home and watch, and who can scrape together enough for the least expensive stall-seat tickets. And yet this political culture of filmi pleasure is not predictable, nor can one easily map it on to the social geography of power in India: castes, classes, genders, sexualities, religions, languages, and regions cannot name monolithic segments of something as changing and specific as Indian film culture.


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