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.