As I sat in the 1000-seats capacity Golden Mile theatre in Singapore on the midnight of 21st July, there were mixed feelings. One was excitement as the crowd had already begun whistling and hooting even before a single clip was played on screen. Then there was the anticipation after hearing from director Ranjith’s own mouth that he had told Superstar that he’d make the film his way and not any other way. Then there was the joy that thankfully MDA didn’t ban the film and that there wasn’t any racial controversy surrounding it. And a mild surprise on seeing a theatre filled with people from all ages at 1am in the morning. And of course there was the slight disappointment that I could only get tickets for a midnight show, which was technically “First day second show” and not “First day first show”! (The first show was 9.30pm, 21st July) The fact that people in Chennai would see the film only the next day consoled me a bit though.
Getting the tickets was a challenge by itself. Bookings in Singapore had not yet opened, while my friends in other countries had already booked their first day shows. I had deployed crawlers to watch the movie websites for any changes. And nothing happened until the night of Tuesday. So Wednesday morning I had almost given up, when a message from a friend woke me up, “Booked the tickets yet?“ I jumped up and opened my laptop only to find out the first show tickets were sold already. I fumbled to book tickets for the second show. Bearing the slow website loading time (I brushed my teeth while the payment page loaded after selecting my seats) and the multiple errors that it threw, I finally had a ticket for the midnight show.
The entire day I was listening to Kabali songs. In fact, ever since the Kabali album released, it was only Kabali songs that I listened to on my phone. The previous weeks before its release, I watched Baasha and Johnny. It wasn’t just another movie outing. It was like a Sabari Mala pilgrimage that one had to prepare for.
As anticipated, the theatre entrance had metal barricades to demarcate the path of the queue. There were bouncers dressed in black positioned at regular intervals, giving out instructions on which direction I should move. Ever since a fight broke out outside Rex cinemas during an Ajith film release, there have always been bouncers and barricades for big movies. I have long wondered what the cost for such security would be and how thankful the security agencies must be to the fans for creating this business opportunity for them.
After collecting my ticket, I stood in the queue, waiting to enter the hall. People were looking around at the Kabali posters, clicking pictures in front of it, sharing it on Facebook and tagging each other, discussing about what text they should write in the FB post and chattering among themselves about the movie. In fact, 5 guys in front of me in the queue were adding each other as friends on FB at that moment so that they could tag themselves in the photo. I got a glimpse of the photo over the guy’s shoulder. It had the five of them standing with one hand over each other’s shoulders and the other hand tucked into their pant pockets, beside a Kabali poster. There were some who passed their handphones to others and asked them to take snaps. There was a guy who held the ticket in his mouth and showed a double thumbs-up to one of the cameras.
A few people had to move across the barricades in order to go to the washroom or to get some popcorn and there was a fair amount of explanation they had to give the bouncers. The bouncers were all wired up and they’d talk into the microphone to someone and then grant permission to cut across.
These bouncers, although they had tough, muscular exteriors, were quite friendly people. They understood that the fans were there to have fun. So they didn’t behave like school teachers, asking you to keep quiet. As I stepped forth, one of the bouncers was also doubling up as the ticket tearer.
“How many of you sir?”
He received my ticket, tore his half and gave me back mine.
“Enjoy your show sir”, he said with a smile. As I stepped into the theatre, I kept thinking he didn’t have to do that. I’ve been in Singapore for 9 years now and I’ve seen how some non-Indian people behave when they have to tackle an Indian crowd. They won’t look you in the eye. They’ll have an expression on their faces as if they’ve got a thousand other things to do in their life but unfortunately since someone requested them to do this job, they’re doing it. And they’ll keep shouting out instructions to nobody in particular. But these bouncers were already tuned into the Kabali spirit somehow. (I distinctly remember a similar experience with a bouncer on Mankatha’s first day. At that time, they were doing a complete bag-check to ensure that people don’t bring party poppers and outside food. He saw in my bag some snacks that I had purchased from outside, smiled at me and said, “I didn’t see anything okay?” and he let me pass.)
Within the theatre, there was a small garlanded cutout of Thalaivar in Kabali costume placed in the left corner beside the screen. Several excited fans were snapping photographs in front of it and camera flashes dazzled the theatre that was lit in a dull yellow light. Since the cutout was human-size, people either stood beside it with a thumbs-up pose or bowed in front of it. There was a guy who posed as if he was kissing Thalaivar on his cheeks and some people in the audience cheered him for that.
However, within minutes, the lady from the ticket counter and a Malay bouncer marched down to take the cutout away. It was causing too much crowding close to the screen. As the bouncer carried the cutout through the crowd and out of the theatre, the hall resounded with whistles and howls. It felt like Thalaivar was there amidst us walking through the crowd. Even the bouncer who was carrying the cutout, held it up and shook it with energy, spurring the crowd to chant louder.
And just then I noted a Malaysian Tamil dude two rows in front of me. I guess he single-handedly bought tickets for 20 or more people. He was before me in the queue for online booking collection and I saw him holding the tickets out like Kamal Haasan holding out Urvasi’s long order list in Michael Madana Kamarajan.
And before the film began, the 20 odd people he bought tickets for entered one by one. Every time this dude would stand up and shake hands with each one and nod is head and then they’d proceed to their respective seats. One of them was a girl and he didn’t shake her hands, he just waved a hi. He shook hands with the guy who came with her though.
Then, there was a Singaporean Tamil dude sitting on my left, who held his head in his hands and was scrolling his handphone. And a Malaysian middle-aged uncle sat on my right. His ticket had been purchased by another uncle who sat a few rows in front. So that uncle came to chat with the Malaysian uncle before the show.
“Seat ellam ok va?”, the Indian uncle enquired.
“Ellam ok. Kaal neettaradhukku nalla edam irukku. Ellam ok.” The malaysian uncle reassured him. Our row was the one just adjacent to the walkway which led to toilets on either sides and hence the ample leg space. Then the Indian uncle gave the Malaysian uncle a mineral water bottle, asking him to hold on to it, while he went to the toilet. Several men were scurrying towards the toilets to free themselves up before the darshan. There was one guy who while walking back from the toilet to his seat kept whistling loudly. There was no one in front of him he was whistling for. There was nothing on screen. He simply placed both fingers in his mouth, whistled as loudly as he could while he walked towards his seat casually. He did this as if this was something one does everyday after finishing one’s ablutions.
The whistles resounded through the hall as “Veera Thurandhara” played in the background. When one person was tired another took over the whistling duty. And then there would be a sudden scream from somewhere of “Thalaivaaaa!!”. That scream would rouse more cheers and whistles from the crowd.
There were a few who as they walked to their seats complained to the guy in their group who had bought the tickets, “Mama! Angle konjam side ah irukke!” or “Ivlo kittaya?” There were friends who bumped into each other and exchanged “Hi”s. There were people who took panoramic photos of the crowd and video clips too. The ticket lady and the bouncer were standing near the back entrance, chatting among themselves with a mildly amused expression on their faces.
And then it all began. It was one of those rare occasions when Divyadarshini advertising Kamala jewellers and an MTR ad for badam milk received thunderous whistles. The whistles weren’t meant for them of course and they’d know it too that they don’t deserve it.
And then the moment came, the moment a gate slides out and Thalaivar’s face is completely revealed. It’s needless to say what happened. I contributed my fair share to the delirium. There was a dude in the front rows, who removed his shirt and swung it in the air. Several people had both hands raised and were screaming their lungs out. I was reminded of the scene that happened during Mankatha’s intro song. Several fans ran towards the screen and began dancing in front of it. And that’s when a couple of bouncers rushed towards them and the dancing fans scampered back to their seats. Nothing of that sort happened here.
During the interval, the Malaysian uncle and his Indian counterpart were discussing the film. The Indian uncle was telling him, “Ungalukku padam easy ah purinjirukkum. Ellaam unga ooru dhaane?” And then he added, “Andha malay portion mathram konjam slow va kaamchirukkalaam. Subtitles vechu purinjikka kashtama irundhuchu.” And when the movie began playing, the Indian uncle rushed back to his seat with a “Ok ok paappom”
When the end credits appeared with Pa.Ranjith’s name, there was dead silence in the hall. People got up slowly and began filing towards the exit. I got up too. My head was blank. A few were chattering about having to go to work the next day.
I got into a taxi outside the theatre and the driver who was a scrawny, middle-aged Chinese man, looked at me through the rear view mirror and asked, “You just saw the Indian gangster film is it?”
I noticed he wore spectacles. If he was a bit older, he could have been Ang Lee, I thought.
“Wah! So much crowd!”
“They have shows after this as well, 4am, 9am… throughout the day. That’s why.”
“Wah! The film so good is it? I hear a lot about it. What’s the name of the actor?”
“Ah yes. He must be very good. How much is the ticket?”
“Wahhh! So expensive! You paid 25 dollars is it?”
“Wah! 25 dollars ah. Then the film must be good. How was the film?”
I didn’t know what my “yeah” meant. My thoughts were still in the theatre, mulling over what I saw there.
As I walked out of the theatre entrance, I sensed the smell of flowers. I turned to my left and there in a corner was Thalaivar’s cutout with its back towards me. I could make out his trademark hands on the hip pose, even though the cutout was facing a window on the other side. The garland which had been around his neck was placed on a chair beside it. As I crossed it, I looked around to see if people noticed the cutout, which a couple of hours ago had been the centre of everyone’s attention and cheers. None of them did. Maybe because it lay in a dingy corner, facing the other way. And thus it was that some thousand odd people filed out of the theatre, after watching Kabali, while a cutout of Thalaivar peered out of the Golden Mile complex into the darkness of the night beyond.