A few years ago, while doing research for a story, I found myself at an Old Delhi movie theatre called “Moti Talkies”. The communal film-viewing culture in this part of the city was fading. Families rarely came together to watch movies now, one of the theatre’s employees told me – “it's mostly people from the labour class who drop by once in a while, and they are okay with watching a film while sitting on the steps” – so there was little motivation or money for revamping. The barely maintained hall with its decrepit seats now specialised in irregular screenings of Bhojpuri films, though the manager half-heartedly claimed that they sometimes showed the latest Hindi releases.
It was a world very far removed from the one I’ve inhabited for the last few years as a multiplex-goer watching the slickest new mainstream films, thinking little of paying Rs 180 for a ticket. But even halls like Moti Talkies seem plush compared to the milieu depicted in an excellent new documentary titled Videokaaran, directed by Jagannathan Krishnan. Shot largely with a handheld camera, this film is about the world of underground video parlours, where viewers gather to see films on the cheap in makeshift settings, and cinema is a passion as well as a business.
The establishing sequence in Videokaaran shows a filmi discussion between a group of working-class young men. Discussing the relative merits and fan followings of Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan, they rib each other good-naturedly; one of the boys defensively mutters that he doesn’t get worked up when someone says something bad about his favourite actor. Occasionally the scene seems staged, rather than the impromptu documentary-interview it purports to be; but then you realise that these are kids who have moulded themselves after movies and movie stars, so that they are already natural performers – the swagger, the cockiness, the smart lines come easily to them.
One face takes over the scene – a young man explaining that every Rajnikanth film has a “message” for society. For instance, when Rajini plays an autorickshaw driver, he resolves that if he sees a pregnant woman walking on the road, he will give her a lift for free, even if it means telling his current passengers to get off. "Usne yeh message diya hai ke tum bhi aise karo ... Aur jo log gharwalon ki baat nahin sunte, woh uske picture dekhke uski baat sunte hain."
The young man is named Sagai Raj – he used to run a video theatre near a Mumbai slum but he now works in a photo studio – and his personality plays a big part in making Videokaaran such a compelling experience. Partly philosopher and raconteur, partly giggling sociopath, Sagai is capable of holding forth on just about any subject. He relates stories about smuggling a stack of 40 porn DVDs by passing the package off as a “Mother Mary statue”, and about splicing scenes into a film to make it more appealing to an audience (“our marketing is more effective than that of filmmakers who spend crores”). He shares his gyaan about film editing, and why certain scenes are shot the way they are. (Heroes prefer to do dance scenes with a group of back-up dancers, because then everyone can look at each other and get the steps right.) Horror and gore films (including Passion of the Christ!) seem childish to him, he boasts, because he’s seen far worse in real life.
Even though this is a documentary and Sagai is “playing” himself, it’s hard not to think of him as a “character”. He’s a savant of the streets, cocksure at most times, with just a hint of vulnerability; his laugh is like a horse’s neigh, a strange mix of nervousness, brashness and a genuine need to please. He is our entry point into a setting where films can be character-building but can also become endorsements for perversions and misconceptions. (Watching a blue film, he says at one point, can help a man “read women accurately” – “ladki ko sahi pehchaan ne ka raasta blue films se hai”.) The way of life portrayed here is one where, even in moments of extreme crisis (such as when the video theatre is demolished by the authorities), one can get succour from the inspirational songs sung on screen by larger-than-life heroes. Videokaaran is a story about people whose relationship with cinema is immediate and intense, in ways that most multiplex-goers wouldn’t be able to fathom.
P.S. Videokaaran hasn’t yet got the distribution it deserves, but it has got a small word-of-mouth following and the filmmaker is trying to arrange a public screening in Delhi. For news and updates, see the film’s Facebook page. And the trailer is here.