It is quite possible that I took a wrong turn as I was walking down the quiet, dark corridor, fumbling my way out of the building. There was no one behind me, though in all likelihood, that was because most of the other patrons (there had been just a handful in attendance to begin with) had chosen to take the exit to the left. I do not usually watch movies at this theatre, but it was the only one in the vicinity screening this film, and because I very much wanted to watch it, I had travelled here not entirely out of choice. The late evening traffic had ensured that my journey to this part of the suburb was not the smoothest one. However, this was a minor inconvenience for which I had prepared myself.
I have been to this movie house on one or two occasions before, but obviously they may have changed their setup since then, and in any case, one cannot possibly develop a clear mental layout of a place following a few visits that have occurred not only in the distant past but also with several months intervening. Overshadowed by more modern multiplexes and located in a not so upscale part of the city, the theatre was, regrettably, in a rather rundown condition. A musty odour pervaded the screening hall and the seats were not very comfortable, but the film itself, thankfully, more than made up for these shortcomings.
I was glad I had come to watch the film, glad I had coaxed myself into making the effort.
Studying my surroundings carefully now, I noted the shabby state of the carpet, the paint peeling in places off the walls. There were no windows in the passageway, so one could not look outside to gain even a sketchy idea of one’s location; also, low wattage bulbs placed at irregular intervals were the only source of light. The theatre adjoined a commercial building that housed, among other things, some small offices and fast food restaurants. A part of me was unsure now if I had wandered down a corridor that connected the two buildings. When I turned the next corner, I found that I had reached some kind of storage area. Piles of boxes spilled out of it, along with huge serving dishes, such as one finds at buffets; haphazardly folded sheets of cloth that I took to be tablecloths lay on the floor or partially covering the dishes. There was a lot of dust and cobwebs. The passageway continued ahead of me, but a beam of light emanating from what seemed like a doorway at the end of this storeroom caught my attention. Could that doorway possibly lead out of the theatre? But if so, why had all this stuff been dumped here to block one’s path?
I was in two minds: should I carry on walking down this corridor – for sooner or later, surely, I was bound to reach the exit or bump into someone who would give me proper directions? I cursed myself. Why did I rush out of the theatre? As a matter of principle, I usually wait back until all the end credits have rolled. I do this out of respect for the filmmaker and his crew. Also, it is a matter of convenience, for this way, most of the audience has already moved out after impatiently milling around the exits. Today, however, things were different. It was not that the filmmaker and his crew did not deserve their due share of credit or respect. On the contrary, I was rather impressed by the boldness of the director’s vision, by his daring and willingness to bring to a satisfying resolution the film’s various disparate ideas and elements, without being facile. Indeed, it was a commendable achievement. A minor director in his place may have floundered, finding himself out of his depth. I wished so desperately to gather together all my thoughts and impressions, preferably over a cup of coffee, and yet here I was struggling to find my way out of the theatre. I must admit that my predicament was rather strange and even mildly amusing! In any case, to return to my explanation for leaving the theatre prematurely – it was only because the stale atmosphere had by then begun to get to me. Perhaps if I had waited back, some person from the theatre staff would have intercepted me. In all probability, they had closed off the exit to the right for renovation work, which would explain the poor state it was in, with all these boxes and dishes discarded there.
I thought again of calling someone, even dialling the number of the theatre, but then remembered that there was unfortunately no network inside the premises. Although I was a little annoyed with myself and the theatre management, I consoled myself by thinking that my little misadventure would give me and others to whom I would later narrate my experience something to laugh about. I made my way gingerly across the makeshift storage area, stepping around the dishes and boxes, but try as I might I could not avoid stamping on the white cloth in a few places. I told myself that it was anyway dirty and would not in its present condition be bedecking any dining tables anytime soon. I reached the doorway with anticipation, for though I could not hear any sounds of the outside world, I assumed that it was a back exit of some sort, such as one might have for staff.
To my astonishment, the doorway opened into some sort of room. It was quite brightly lit and its green walls gave off an eerie sheen. My eyes took a short while to adjust to the scene. What appeared to be costumes of various types, from plain and fanciful to very bizarre, of all kinds of colours and fabrics, were hung in long rows across the room. Yet there were gaps in the collection, as if some items had been borrowed and not returned, or were even now being employed in some large-scale performance, and the overall impression one got was that the costumes themselves were somewhat old and faded.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some rustling, and with a slight shock, I realized that a woman was seated in front of an oval mirror in one corner of the room, nearly hidden among the racks of clothes in her blue-green saree. As I watched, she picked up a large cotton swab from the table below the mirror and proceeded to wipe off the thick layer of make-up on her face.
She had her back towards me and her hair fell in thick bunches all the way down to her waist.
“Hello,” she said, without turning, and with forced cheer. “Come to shower the artiste with compliments? I don’t get many these days, I’ll be frank. Just the odd drizzle. My admirers have all moved on. Oh, Time is not kind. But that is a story for another day. Anyway, what time is it? It does seem awfully late!”
For a moment, I was too startled to speak. Meanwhile, the woman spun around on her stool, perhaps to get a clearer look at me. The makeup effaced, one could see the wrinkles running along her neck, the lines that spread from under her eyes. Nevertheless, she had very attractive features, and there lingered a soft and almost unreal glow on her skin.
Having considered my appearance and despite my silence, she deemed it all right to continue speaking.
“I do hope you liked the show. When I first read the script, I must admit I was rather uncertain. I wasn’t sure if I was up for something like this, even at this juncture in my career. I mean, it was something of a risk. I guess I never really have overcome those initial reservations, but it’s not as if I in any way regret taking up the project. I know of so many other actors who are choking with excitement when they take on a new assignment, are unable to contain themselves before the media: Oh, this is something that will jolt the audience and especially my fans, it’s unlike anything I’ve done before…unlike anything that’s ever been done before! And then, when you actually have the finished product before you, you can see what a dispirited performance they’ve actually ended up delivering, sometimes can even tell the points at which they started losing their enthusiasm. What’s worse is some of them even turn hostile, refusing to cooperate with the director. Or doing whatever they can half-heartedly, and then completely disassociating themselves from the work. Even taking great pains to hide it, like a stain on their otherwise spotless careers! Oh, but not so with me. Despite those doubts I just mentioned, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. Yes, immensely proud. There are, well, a few moments I’m still not entirely…well…confident about…but I think in the end it all comes together rather magnificently. Don’t you feel?”
Too confused to speak, I nodded, still standing in the doorway. I did not know what to make of this encounter with this woman, whom I now recognized as one of the actors in the film. (That I had been unable to recognize her at once was understandable, because, like most film stars, she looked a little different in person.) She had quite an intense role in tonight’s film; I can imagine it as having been very demanding of her as a performer, yet I felt that she had essayed it with great conviction. I was about to offer some modest words of praise when a peculiar look came upon her eyes and, turning to the mirror, she began to speak again:
“On stage or off it. Always the lines. Night and day. Words. Day and night. Gestures and movements. Carefully rehearsed. Meaningful. Nothing out of place. Not a twitch of the lip, not a sigh. A subtle change in inflection, undue stress on a certain syllable: and vast chasms open up. The very earth splits under your feet. Oh, the glare. Eyes, eyes, eyes. Pitiless. The colour of your hair, the cut of your blouse. Old bitch. One tires. Which is the greater performance? Where the greater certainty?”
Then she gave a small laugh and turned to me again.
“For instance, the scene in which the young man is wandering through this decrepit banquet hall. Do you remember? He passes through this sort of extension to the hall, where everything is in shambles, and then he enters this small room where he meets the woman. Something about it…I don’t know…still bothers me. What do you think?”
Although I have said that I very much enjoyed the film and found it immensely gripping, I have to admit now that there were certain portions during which I may have drifted off. However, I myself was to blame for this: the exertions of the week take their toll and one tends to underestimate sometimes one’s need for rest. Nevertheless, as I have said, this was a film whose release I had been anticipating for a long time, and when it finally happened, I could hardly be expected to miss or postpone my viewing of it. Had I come to the film with a fresher mind, I was sure there would have been no lapses in my attention, for it was a brilliantly conceived and engaging work of art from start to finish. If I were to watch it again – and I had resolved to (if not on the silver screen then on DVD, for of course one could count on films like these not enjoying a long run in cinema halls, despite the critical acclaim they garner), in order to appreciate the many subtleties it was layered with – I was sure that it would still successfully captivate my attention besides rewarding me in several new ways. And yet in this first viewing, I am guilty of having allowed my fatigue to get the better of me in some – I hope not – crucial moments. For example, there was, toward the beginning of the film, this long montage of various clock faces, accompanied by the (amplified) sound of their ticking hands. It did seem to go on interminably and, though my eyes did fly open after what could not have been more than half a minute, I was unable to keep myself from tuning out in the middle of the sequence. Yet, however much I jogged my memory now I could not recollect the scene that the actress before me had just mentioned. I was quite certain that there had been no such scene in the film I had just viewed!
Again, she did not wait for me to speak: “Even tonight, as we were going through that scene, I…hesitated…”
She had moved slightly away from me, so that she was now looking at me sideways, with her head a little bowed. Something about that look (part appeal, part suspicion, part accusation) made me very uncomfortable. Now that it was clear to me that this doorway did not lead to an exit out of the theatre, I was eager to leave and resume my initial quest.
I said, “It was such a pleasure and honour speaking to you, Ma’am. Your performance was wonderful. And I must say you looked very stunning. I shall take your leave now. I’m sure you have so many important things to finish, and I apologize for lingering here thoughtlessly and taking up your time.”
This time it was she who didn’t reply.
I backed out of the room slowly and sheepishly. I made my way across the storage space again (I stumbled around the cloth, my foot nearly catching in a stack of upside-down lids) and back to the main passageway.
I thought about the lines the actress had said to me. They struck me as vaguely familiar. Even the rehearsed manner in which she recited them seemed to suggest that the words were taken from somewhere, perhaps another film of hers. Then I pondered over some other words, which I found drifting in fragments into my head: “for many things…if they were real, could give no enjoyment…in the play of fantasy…actually distressing…can become a source…”
I continued walking for a long time but with no success. In any case, my failure to find an exit no longer bothered me as much as it had earlier in the evening. Almost all the lights had been switched off now and I had to use my phone’s flashlight to move around. To my relief, I realized that I was back within the theatre premises again. I ambled past posters of forthcoming films in the main passageways and on the staircase walls, the cafeteria area with its advertisements and abandoned counters and chairs and tables, the huge doors of the two larger screening halls on the first floor, those of the mini screen on the floor below (where I had caught the late show). In fact, at one point, I am quite certain I noticed a small inconspicuous sign that said “Exit,” with a red arrow under it.
I ignored the sign. I was charting out in my mind in meticulous detail a map of the entire building, so that if I ever visited this theatre again, there would be no question of losing my way.