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Going to movies: Falling asleep in a theatre

It was the monsoon of 2013. I was working at an advertising agency to earn a living while learning the craft of screenwriting on the side. I had begun exploring world cinema only a couple of years before that. Through a friend’s recommendation, I went to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s films at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in Mumbai. The Taj Enlighten Film Society were showing three films by Tarkovsky – The Sacrifice (1986), Mirror (1975), and Stalker (1979). “Stalker is a must-watch”, recommended the friend.

Back then, I used to stay in Dombivali, a town in the Thane district. I got up early in the morning to travel more than 50 km by train and then by bus to reach Pedder Road on time. The screenings that were supposed to start at 9-9:30 am started after 11 am. Stalker was going to be screened last so I knew that even if I don’t like the first two films, I will have to wait till the evening.

I was new to the whole screening culture. Being there amidst a crowd of pseudo-intellectuals, cinephiles, and the elite was nerve-wracking for this introverted middle-class boy. I didn’t even know how to initiate a conversation. After some time, I started talking with another introvert who was an aspiring filmmaker and a huge Tarkovsky fan. I don’t remember his name. And I would have not used his real name anyway in this story. So, for ease of understanding, let’s call him The Dude.

The Dude told me quite a few things about world cinema and the classics from Hollywood and India. The Dude was totally against mainstream Hindi movies. He was the arthouse ‘cinema, art, life’ philosophical guy cribbing about the star system of ‘Bollywood’. I thought he’d at least like Anurag Kashyap’s films. But for some reason, The Dude was not happy with Kashyap for casting a ‘Bollywood Star’ (John Abraham) in his film No Smoking.

The Dude talked about Tarkovsky’s films he had already watched on his laptop. He was at the screening for the big screen experience assuming that the organizers had secured the film prints of these movies. The Dude and I were disappointed to know that they were going to screen the digitally restored copies. Basically, playing a DVD with a digital projector aimed at the big screen.

The lights went off and the first film began - The Sacrifice. Tarkovsky died shortly after its completion. I had watched quite a few Hollywood must-watch films before that, but it was while watching the opening sequence of The Sacrifice that I understood the purpose of camera movement. I was simply blown away by the cinematic brilliance of Tarkovsky in the film’s climax where the protagonist sets his own house on fire. By the time the film ended, I understood what that guy meant before the screening started, when he said, “You’ll see that Tarkovsky is not like anything that you’ve seen before.” I totally agreed.

Then it was lunchtime and the organizers had arranged for Domino’s pizza which we had to order before the first film was shown. I was still new in my job as a junior copywriter. If I remember correctly, I had given myself only 150 rupees for that entire day’s expenses including travel and food. I could only afford the Classic Margherita of the smallest size which cost 70-odd rupees.

While eating, The Dude briefed me on the second film that we were going to see – Mirror (or The Mirror). He told me that Mirror was a semi-autobiographical film, based on Tarkovsky’s childhood. I could never forget what The Dude told me about Mirror. He said, “After watching Mirror, you’ll realize why words cannot replace images. And why images cannot replace words.”

I was sitting a few seats away from The Dude while watching the film. “See you after the film,” he had said. I gave him a thumbs up. The film started. And with that Classic Margherita also started showing its effect. Now, here’s the thing. I had woken up early in the morning, travelled 50+ km, then waited for hours for the screenings to start, and watched quite a heavy to process The Sacrifice. Classic Margherita pizza did the rest and I dozed off soon after the film began.

Mirror’s runtime is 108 minutes. I woke up to the applause everyone gave at the end of the movie. I looked around. The Dude was giving me a scathing look. I felt a little embarrassed but also found the whole thing extremely funny. Besides an awkward smile, The Dude and I didn’t speak after Mirror because Stalker was going to start after a quick loo break. To this day, I only remember a giant chicken (or was it a duck) in the backyard of a house in the film. I never got myself to watch Mirror ever again.

After a sleep of an hour, I was ready for Stalker. It’s a sci-fi drama where a person known as ‘Stalker’ guides a writer seeking inspiration and a professor seeking scientific discovery through a wasteland to a site called ‘Zone’. Although I didn’t understand the film’s deep thematic or philosophical elements back then, I was astonished by the brilliance of Tarkovsky’s cinematic storytelling. Stalker can be watched for its immersive world-building and cinematography alone.

That rainy but humid Sunday spent watching three films was the day I discovered Andrei Tarkovsky. All of the world’s films are on one side and this guy’s films are on the other. I’ve felt like this after watching films of only two filmmakers – Andrei Tarkovsky and Quentin Tarantino. But while I marvelled at every frame in Stalker, it was also at the same time that I realized, “This is not gonna work for India and the audience that I want to cater to with my films. I can watch Tarkovsky films for my learning as a storyteller, as a means of seeking advice from a filmmaker through his art.”

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