The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in many restrictions. In Mumbai, it has deprived residents of an enormous pleasure – the act of going to a theatre to watch a movie.

Single-screen cinemas and multiplexes have not been operating in Maharashtra since March. They were first shut in March 2020, allowed to reopen in December, and then shut again over fears of a second wave. In most other parts of India, cinemas have resumed operations at half capacity. But in Maharashtra, as well as in Kerala, abundant caution has kept screens dark.

As a consequence, for the people of Maharashtra, the communitarian experience of watching films the way they are meant to be seen – on a large screen, in a cool, darkened space, in the company of strangers – can be had only by revisiting films that feature scenes set in theatres.

The shuttered Regal cinema in Mumbai’s Colaba area. Photo by Scroll staff.

For decades, filmmakers have included a trip to the cinema as a part of the journeys of characters as well a reflection of the influence of their chosen profession. This meta-conceit – of actors pretending to be ordinary people watching real actors on a big screen – has yielded some of cinema’s most stirring moments.

In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, a gangster first meets his future wife at a movie hall. It’s finally official between Sameer and Pooja in Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai when they go on a movie date and Sameer sees himself and Pooja on the big screen in the song Woh Ladki Hai Kahan.

The track is both a parody of Hindi film romances and a hat-tip to the filmmaker who best celebrated moviegoing as an indispensable and soul-enriching leisure activity: Basu Chatterjee.

Woh Ladki Hai Kahan, Dil Chahta Hai (2001).

Chatterjee often showed his characters watching movies. The sequences revealed something about their impish creator as well as the men and women in the throes of romance.

In Rajnigandha, the hero arrives fashionably late for a show of Kahin Din Kahin Raat and proceeds to annoy his immediate neighbour with the question every moviegoer hates: what did I miss? In Piya Ka Ghar, a typical Mumbai specimen asserts, I watch Hindi films, I know everything.”

The best meta-moment is from Chhoti Si Baat. As the hero watches Dharmendra and Hema Malini woo each other, he is suddenly transported into the movie. Dharmendra and Hema Malini are replaced by our hero and the woman he has fallen for.

Rajinigandha (1974). Courtesy Devki Chitra.

Sometimes, the movie hall can trigger memories. In Shyam Benegal’s Mammo, the heroine is deeply moved by MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava. The plight of its Muslim characters, whose lives have been upturned by Partition, reminds her of her own displacement.

Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania, one of the few films to examine the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002, includes a poignant scene set in a theatre. The Parsi projectionist Cyrus’s son Parzan has gone missing during a riot. As Cyrus sits dejectedly in the theatre, the projector comes on and images of Parzan play across the screen, driving Cyrus to tears.

Parzania (2007). Courtesy Rahul Dholakia/Kamal Patel.

The flickering light from projectors in old-fashioned cinemas that sometimes resembles fairy dust isn’t always comforting. Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ka Phool, about the inexorable decline of a filmmaker, includes two scenes in which its protagonist realises the change in his fortunes. Where once patrons celebrated his films, they now boo him.

In another haunting scene, the filmmaker, who has lost his heart to a young actress, watches rushes from his new film with her at a preview theatre. As her face fills the screen, he is both awed and lost, a prisoner to her image and the seduction of the big screen.

Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). Courtesy Guru Dutt Productions.

Ram Gopal Varma paid fond tribute to the movies in Rangeela, about a background dancer’s rise to fame. Before Mili becomes a star and is cast in a production opposite her favourite actor Rajkamal, she goes to watch the latest Rajkamal release with her childhood friend Munna.

Munna, who sells tickets in black for a living, is unimpressed by – and jealous of – Rajkamal. He ruins the show both for Mili and the unfortunate people surrounding them. I am the public, Munna declares. I can behave as I please.

Varma’s well-known cinephilia also resulted in three of the most disturbing theatre moments. Satya turns the dream world of the movie hall into a nightmare zone.

Satya, a wanted gangster, and his girlfriend Vidya are at a show of JP Dutta’s Border. A police unit arrives, hoping to arrest Satya, but instead causes a chaotic stampede in which Satya and Vidya escape but many moviegoers die.

Rangeela (1995).

In Raat, which explores demonic possession, Manisha is enjoying a film with her friends when she has an out-of-body experience. She imagines that she is all alone in the theatre and is trapped in its environs.

Varma gleefully subverts the joys of enjoying a movie with strangers in Bhoot. As Swati and her husband Vishal watch a film about Spider-Man, the rest of the audience turns towards Swati, stares at her menacingly and then morph into zombies.

The most recent instance of this well-worn trope can be found ironically, but also perhaps fittingly, in a direct-to-streamer release. The upcoming anthology film Ankahi Kahaniya on Netflix includes an episode by Abhishek Chaubey that prominently features a single-screen theatre.

Ankahi Kahaniya (2021).

The adaptation of Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s Madhyantara, meaning interval, draws on the conventions of the city film as well as the concept of Mumbai as a film city. Pradeep Talkies employee Nandu sells tickets and snacks, shines a torch to guide audiences, and cleans up after them. Manjari, who is among the regular patrons, catches Nandu’s eye. Before the gap between fantasy and reality is breached, we get a tour of Pradeep Talkies and its grungy pleasures.

Whenever the megapolis does emerge from the ravages of the pandemic, will its theatres find themselves in a Basu Chatterjee zone or in Ram Gopal Varma territory? While there will always be movies made in and about Mumbai, the future of cinemas in the so-called Film City has never been more precarious.

Delzad Hiwale in Ankahi Kahaniya (2021). Courtesy RSVP/Flying Unicorn Entertainment/Netflix.

Also read:

What movies about the movies can tell us about the crisis that has hit Bollywood