Mathura, Uttar Pradesh: In a few days, Ashish Sharma will head to New York City’s Times Square to watch a movie. And then, if all goes well, he will follow up by watching 55 more.
He’ll take breaks, of course—10 minutes between movies, to be precise, in which he’ll do jumping jacks to keep himself limber, visit the bathroom, and ferociously stave off the temptation to shut his eyes. Then he’ll settle back in his seat, in a plexiglass cube of a viewing room, and get back to competing with his seven fellow inhabitants for the Popcorn Bowl in the Netflix Movie Watching World Championship.
It’s the movie-watching equivalent of the ultra-marathon. As the passing public looks on, the eight invited contestants have to watch films for 121 consecutive hours, 2-7 October, to claim the Guinness record, $10,000 in cash, and a lifetime subscription from Netflix, the online movie rental service.
For Sharma, who typifies the sort of enthusiasm for these world records that is uncannily common in small-town India, this should be a cinch. He is, after all, the Haile Gebrselassie of movie watching, having set the record of 120 hours 23 minutes only this June. But in New York, there will be a unique linguistic problem— perhaps the equivalent of tying long-distance running champion Gebrselassie’s shoelaces together.
Small-town dreams: The desire to find a place for Mathura—where he hails from—in the Guinness Records is what drives Ashish Sharma. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
In a Netflix press release, Sharma is described as the “brash, current Guinness World Record holder”, and is quoted as saying: “I am the one who is going to win and India will retain this world record. I will put the fire in the heart of my competitors.”
But a week before the contest, Sharma is less eager to predict such cardiac arson for his rivals. Only recently did he discover that every film in the Netflix challenge will be in English—a language that he understands and reads only with great distress.
“I pointed this out to them, saying that if I didn’t understand the movies, how would I stay awake? My interest won’t even last for three hours!” he says plaintively. He requested a few Hindi movies to leaven the mix, or at least a simultaneous translator; both requests were turned down. “If it really is all English movies, I doubt I’ll last the full five days.”
Sharma, a lithe 31-year-old with the earnest sincerity of a schoolboy, emerged from a similar five-day ordeal in June as if he was returning from a spa. At the K.D. Dental College Auditorium in Mathura, Sharma set his world record, beating by three hours a German woman named Claudia Wavra.
Wavra will be in attendance at New York to reclaim her title, as will other curious obsessives. These include Crazy Legs Conti, a competitive eating champion from New York, and Suresh Joachim, a Canadian of Sri Lankan descent who holds 32 Guinness records, such as dancing for 100 hours, jockeying on the radio for 120 hours, and, presumably on a day of heavy laundry, ironing for 55 hours and 5 minutes.
Sharma’s experience in June was thus considerably less intense. “There was an open offer for people to bring in movies for me to watch,” he says. “I saw such boring movies in that time, you won’t believe me! There was one called Haasil. That was the worst.”
Starting with Gopalakrishna and ending with Sholay, Sharma worked his way through 48 movies. Meanwhile, in four-hour shifts, sets of doctors kept him under observation. “There were problems,” Sharma admits. “I felt weak, and sometimes giddy. And my blood pressure dropped alarmingly.” An optician gave him drops to keep his eyes hydrated, but he refused to use them.
The real enemy, though, is sleep; close your eyes even briefly during your 10-minute break, as Sharma points out, and your body will instantly fall into slumber. “I can’t afford that in New York,” he says. “If I fall asleep, they’ll fly me out that very day.”
Open air breaks
Ravi Shankar Godara, the Guinness World Records’ official observer at the auditorium, recalls that Sharma got out of the auditorium, into the open air, as much as he could during his breaks. “But he’d done six short practice sessions in the two months before the event, staying awake for three or four nights in a row,” Godara says. Thanks to a family emergency (his father was ill), there’s been no such insomniac preparation this time.
Sharma’s first intimation that he could function without sleep came in 1999, during a 14-day tae-kwon-do camp in Lucknow. “I would lie awake at nights, worrying about my fights the next day,” he says. “But still, I’d do well. So I knew I could go without sleep if I had to.”
The desire to take down the movie-watching record in particular, though, visited him only in February, when he was online submitting applications for two other Guinness titles. “Once, I was leafing through a copy of the Guinness book, and I saw that there was no mention of Mathura,” Sharma says. “So I was determined to get it in there with this record.”
His initial strategy involved memory tricks, another cottage industry in many parts of India. Sharma, who graduated from high school only on his sixth attempt, wasn’t at first sure that memory could even be improved. “I used to think: People have only as much memory as God has given them,” he says.
Living by memory
Then he met Viswarup Rai Chaudhari, who, in a surreal exchange, taught him memory improvement tricks in return for tae-kwon-do lessons. Sharma lives now by his memory alone. In towns as far away as Cuttack and Bhubhaneshwar, as well as all over Uttar Pradesh, he conducts three-day memory workshops and shorter seminars, and he is working on what he calls the definitive book of memory technique.
In newspaper ads for his workshops, which he keeps in a binder, Sharma looks unrecognizable: hair slicked into place, decked out in a suit and tie, hands clasped as if in acknowledgement of unheard cheers.
The elder of his two sons, Dev, is being groomed at home; at the age of 17 months, he learned all the capitals of Indian states, earning a mention in the forthcoming Limca Book of Records.
Sharma regards even films more as memory aids than entertainment. “I watch some of the new releases, and I like comedies, but I’m not a big movie buff,” he says. He uses films as visual mnemonics. “If there’s some sequence of items to remember, I sync the list up to the plot of a movie.” He likes Amitabh Bachchan movies and the Sanjay Dutt film Dhamaal, but he mentions even these with lukewarm ardour.
“You know, Netflix asked each of us to nominate five movies of our choice, for the event in New York. But I couldn’t think of any,” Sharma says sheepishly. “I should have picked really boring movies, so that the others might fall asleep.”
He muses a little, and then adds: “I wish I could have suggested Haasil.”