Cinema and the Underdog

On an underground video parlour and the life filmic

01 December, 2011

THE YOUNG MAN LOOKS AT THE CAMERA and points at two trees growing by a wall across the railway tracks. That’s where our video theatre used to be, he says in Mumbaiyya streetspeak. And this is where the entrance was ... (the camera pans to record the empty space, as if daring the viewer to imagine the demolished theatre back into existence). “Yeh hum log ka set-up tha. Idhar se entrance dikhaane ka. Magar raid ho raha hai toh back-side se jaane ka. Saamne se bhaagega toh idhar patri hai, bhai—mar jaayega.” (“If people ran out from the front entrance during a police raid, they could get killed because of the rail tracks,” read the subtitles, catching the gist of his monologue but little of its colour.)

The cops could come from that gali there, Sagai Raj elaborates. Or they might come from the other side. And all because he is showing films without a government permit. But what’s wrong with charging `5 for a full-length Tamil movie? How would someone who earns `50 a day take his family to a regular theatre at `80 per ticket?

Though the streets depicted in Jagannathan Krishnan’s Videokaaran—a new documentary about the world of underground video parlours—are those of a modern metropolis, the typical view is that from inside a moving autorickshaw as slums race past outside and the soundtrack plays a fragment of one of those shrill, tuneless songs (with lyrics like “Na koi chhota, na koi bada hai”) that were a paisa a dozen in the 1980s; the auto might as well be a time machine. This energetic film details a world that urban multiplex-goers—even the ones who are serious movie buffs—know very little about. It’s a story about the many ways in which underprivileged people watch and relate to movies, and how their lives and personalities are moulded by their cinematic adventures.

Videokaaran encourages us to think about what a video theatre might mean to people who don’t even have electricity in their village—wouldn’t it be like a magic show, comparable to the bioscopes of a hundred years ago? But there’s nothing abstract or impersonal about this film—it places the viewer right amidst its characters, with the handheld camera darting from one face to the next, mimicking the eyes of an outsider who has been taken into confidence. Scenes shot in ghostly nightlight add to the feeling of intimacy, creating the sense that Krishnan and his team spent a great deal of time with their subjects—and, indeed, this 73-minute film was culled from dozens of hours of footage of conversations.

Its beating heart is one of the most compelling “heroes” you could hope to see in a well-scripted fictional feature, much less a documentary. Sagai is part philosophising raconteur, part giggling sociopath, a street savant with a hint of vulnerability. His laugh, an endearing mix of nervousness, brashness and a genuine desire to please, resembles a neigh, and he is capable of holding forth on just about any subject. When we first see him in a grainy night shot, he is sombrely explaining, “My connection with cinema is through Rajinikanth.” But soon the anecdotes proliferate. He relates stories about smuggling a stack of pirated DVDs by passing the package off as a “Mother Mary statue” and placing it in the luggage of his brother, a well-dressed man whom the police wouldn’t suspect. He says, “Mere ko cannibals bahut pasand hai (I love cannibals a lot)” as a horror film plays on the screen. Porn isn’t bad for society, he explains, because watching a blue film can help a man read women accurately.

It’s possible to wonder if Sagai is too colourful a protagonist—his presence turns Videokaaran into a study of a single person. But there’s something apt about the fact that this man of the streets has that indefinable thing called “star quality”, for part of the point is that Sagai is largely a construct of the movies he loves. In much of what he says, one sees the self-mythologising process at work. My birth father was a don, a criminal, he reveals at one point. Gory films seem childish to him because he’s seen far worse in real life. (When they showed The Passion of the Christ, he says everyone else ran out but he sat and watched it coolly.) Sagai analyses the behaviour of policemen, and studies people so closely that “even when I look at a shadow I know who it is. When we were screening films we had to monitor the audience and be alert all the time.” He and his friends have been so influenced by movie stars that they are already natural performers—the swagger and the smart lines come easily to them.

In the film’s first prolonged sequence, they discuss the relative merits of Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan and rib each other good-naturedly, their street slang sprinkled with improbable English words—“hardcore” used as an exclamation point, for instance. (“Rajinikanth kaBaashha. Kya movie hai na—hardcore!!”) A film speeds up whenever Rajinikanth makes an entrance, Sagai says. “With Amitabh that doesn’t happen—you wait for him to open his mouth and do dialogue-baazi.” On one level, this is classic fanboy talk, with the relative “speeds” of two superstars being used to make some kind of judgement on their mass appeal and effectiveness. But it also shows a film buff’s eye for observation—an understanding of different star personas and the types of viewers they cater to.

For these young men, Rajinikanth is comparable to a god (“Rajinikanth ka picture hum pause kar ke usska aarti uttaarte hain”)—but he is an accessible god; a Krishna-like avatar, perhaps, who might show up in the guise of a rickshaw driver, dancing with his mates and winking at the camera. As you’d expect, a fan’s relationship with such a deity is ambivalent. One minute Sagai will irreverently explain why South Indian heroes need big crowds for their song sequences: “The hero will look like a fool if he dances alone—he won’t be able to pull it off.” But the next moment, he’ll be deferential: “We are nothing compared to them, we shouldn’t even talk about them.”

So enthusiastic are these youngsters, so involved does one become in their movie-love, that it comes as a deflating blow when Sagai shakes his head and says that they stopped watching movies after his video theatre shut down. Today he runs a photo studio, and many of the pictures he takes are of lower middle-class people trying hard to pose like their favourite movie stars—for a modelling portfolio perhaps, or to show off to friends, or just for personal pleasure—another reminder of how millions of “ordinary” people are struck by cine glitz.

Halfway through Videokaaran, Sagai describes how he and his tech-savvy friends would splice scenes into a movie to make it more appealing to their audience. “We could edit even original DVDs, insert porn even into a Schwarzenegger film. And it would be such a hit that if the original director saw our version, he would wonder why he didn’t think of doing that himself.”

Here and elsewhere, one feels that in a parallel world Sagai might have tried his hand at moviemaking—but as it happened, he ended up making a video recording of his theatre being torn down. Videokaaran draws to an end with this footage interspersed with a montage of Rajini and Amitabh singing inspirational songs, and Sagai reflects once again on his “spiritual connection” with his hero. “Bachpan mein jab family troubles tha, toh Rajini ka movie dekh ke khush ho jaata tha. Usska message hai ke jeet milega hi agar struggle karega toh (Rajini’s message is that if you struggle, you will always triumph).”

Is this false hope? What does it really mean when a millionaire superstar pretending to be a coolie or an auto-rickshaw driver sings out from the screen, “Renounce the world and the world is yours”? The temptation is to dismiss such “messages” as opium for the masses. But watch Videokaaran closely, see the pride and defiance in Sagai’s eyes as he describes the filmi circumstances in which he set up his photo studio—opposite the studio of the man who had turned him away without even looking closely at his work. “Eventually he saw how good I was and then he wanted to hire me, but I told him no, I’ll open a studio right in front of you.” It’s a nice little triumph-of-the-underdog story. For all the deprivation it shows, Videokaaran leaves you with the thought that Sagai is a survivor—someone who will take his opportunities instead of brooding about his misfortunes—and that he has his celluloid dreams to thank for it.