Friday, April 15, 2016

Time to say a few words about our neighborhood cinema

The Shanthi Cinema is just about 200 meters from our front door. The closest we've ever lived to the movies. It took us a couple of months to start going but since then we've been regulars. At least once a week, sometimes more. The place looks like a big barn with a folding metal gate in front. Yesterday when we got there the gate was almost closed tight, just enough room for a person to get inside. 

Why? Well it was the second day of "Theri" (the spark) starring the baby faced Indian actor, Vijay. Did I tell you the Shanthi carries Tamil-language movies exclusively? The movies are imports from southern India (Tamil Nadu) and they are full of action, fighting, loving, rituals, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, references to FaceTime, What's App, Instagram, weddings, violence, zombies, and of course dance numbers. Some of the movies are great. Some not so much. They carry excellent English subtitles. 

The Shanthi is one of four cinemas in Sri Lanka from the "STR" group, one in Vavunia, one in Jaffna, one here in Batticaloa (Kallady to be exact), and one of unknown place. I know this because the four theaters are advertised before each film (pronounced fill'em here). It's great that there are these Tamil-language movie houses, even if they deliver low-ish culture, because cultural genocide has been such a prominent feature of the Sri Lankan landscape since the 1950s. SRT is not the only chain here. I think the Sellam movie houses, some (at least the one in Eravur up the coast) being more upscale with AC, 3-D, and other features you don't really need to enjoy a movie. 

What makes the Shanthi so enjoyable, other than the fact that the 2:30 matinees get you out of the sun for several hours during the hottest part of the day? Could it be the sound of glass Coke and Fanta bottles rolling along the floor? The hoots and hollers of the enthusiastic audience? The acrid smell of smoke from the manager's cigarette out in the lobby? What about the giant fans mounted along the walls and under the balcony, where we like to sit? I guess it's all of the above. 

If I were into this kind of thing I could use the Shanthi for an ethnography with a focus on media history. Then I could go to all four seatings, 10:30 AM, 2:30, 6:30, and 10:30 PM. I could go to special seatings too and maybe learn Tamil from the subtitles. Indian Tamil at least. I could sit on the old theater seats salvaged from somewhere else, not attached to the floor or to each other, and like the boys do, turn the seat in front of me backwards and lounge with my bare feet on it. Sometimes the seats list forward if you relax too much. 

A media history project would have to include the fact that the movies are digital. Sometimes after intermission (sometimes spelled ntermission, entermission, or tea break) the projectionist has to fiddle with the computer to get things going. Then you see the same lousy "Windows" show you get when someone does an incompetent job of power point. The cursor wanders all over the screen, click here, click there, expand, sound, etc. You know how it looks. 

If I were doing an ethnography I'd look at the way the Shanthi is a kind of community resource, a community center where social interactions play out. I would consider its resilience after decades of war and the rise of personal computing. Even today the boys at our guesthouse told me they're downloading "Theri" onto their phones. Only 1.5 gb. Why go to the theater? But people go. Part of my ethnographic work would look at the parking (along the sides or for yesterday's huge event out in front) for Rs 20 per vehicle. Most of the vehicles are motorbikes. A few bicycles like ours too. I would consider the role of the theater as a pastime for boys who a decade ago might not have been allowed out of the house, or who two decades ago might have been rounded up by the LTTE for child soldiers or by the armed forces as potential terrorists. Boys who might not have come back home. Today they ride in and park, arms all over each other during the film, group selfies from their seats, snacks carried in or bought during intermission, and of course the yelling. 

But yesterday during the second day of "Theri" it wasn't just boys. It never is. But on a Friday that followed Sinhala-Tamil new year on Wednesday and Thursday, an ad-hoc holiday hastily declared by the government to make it five days off, the Shanthi was crowded with families, young people, old people, girls, grandmothers, and babies in arms. Maybe 600 people pressed in, compared with the twenty or thirty (sometimes less) who show on an afternoon or even for the evening show. 

The noise was prodigious. The crowd had mostly carried in their snacks. Most apparent were two-liter Coke and Sprite bottles. Tickets were the special price of Rs 300 instead of the usual Rs 250. Even a king coconut next door was Rs 60, ten rupees above normal. This was an Event. In fact this was more people in one place than I've ever seen in this part of Sri Lanka. A real assemblage of families. When we poured out of the theater with them the front gate was jammed with tuktuks, motorcycles, and bicycles. Ours were deeply set next to the wall behind the crush. We'd come an hour early to buy our tickets. 

The outside air at 5:30 seemed cool and gentle compared to the hot breath of the inside. While we were watching the film sweat was falling off of every bit of skin. Eyelids? Come on. Fingers? Forearms. It was hot. Maybe hotter than we registered during the movie, which was overheated enough thanks to ample violence, bloodshed, bludgeoning, and mayhem. But what an experience. 

While we've been here we've pretty well avoided religious ceremonies. Partly by chance and partly by choice. Religion plays such a huge role in this society but we don't like snooping into other people's sacred rites. And truthfully there is so much more to see. Hanging out for this special showing yesterday at the Shanthi was like a huge secular ritual that involved so many people. One I hope we'll get to participate in again.   

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