It feels a bit like free-falling. Only a movie nut feels it, moments in the dark theatre before a movie begins. You have walked into the theatre, and found your seat. You have settled down, but not really. Calm eludes you. You want the free-falling to stop, and the movie to begin.
Nowadays, these moments are long because you watch much more than trailers. Switch off your mobile phone, conveyed in many different ways. Don’t smoke, explained in one ghoulish way. And then there’s the national anthem. In Mumbai, we have been standing up to the national anthem in movie theatres since 2003. In 2002, the Nationalist Congress Party’s Narendra Verma lobbied with the state government to make the playing of the national anthem in Maharashtra’s cinema halls compulsory, and the rule came into effect on Republic Day, 2003.
In the beginning, I would promptly stand up—conditioned to do it from the very first year of school, or even earlier perhaps. It is a deeply entrenched impulse, common to citizens of all nations. When the rule was first enforced, we scoffed at the idea, but the cynicism couldn’t stop the occasional goosebumps. I do still get those when the flag is hoisted, and a group standing together sings the anthem.
As the years passed, and movie-watching continued to be a largely weekly ritual, the goosebumps stopped, at least inside the dark theatre. BharatBala Productions, a Mumbai-based film production company that has produced the biggest and most expensive Jana Gana videos, stopped tugging at my heart. There is one with soldiers at the Siachen Glacier shot in doctored hues of black and white and executed in slow motion, one with special children, another with the film actors of Maharashtra, and a few others. The patriotic strain got heightened and more manipulative with each video. It became something you just did, sometimes even empathizing with my academically-inclined Naga friend who once told me, “Why the hell should I be forced to get up for the national anthem when I am out to watch a movie, it does not even mention my state.” The entire North-East actually, but that is another issue.
Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that it is mandatory to play the national anthem before a movie or performance begins. During the time the anthem is playing, exits from the venue will be closed. Police personnel will be stationed at some venues to ensure the audience is standing.
At the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala, 11 people were arrested because they continued to sit while the anthem was playing on the screen.
Experience of the Mumbai Film Festival tells me the process can be arduous. You watch four films in a day at a festival, ideally films from all over the world. You get up for the anthem before the start of each film. Just as you are feeling connected to the world through movies, there comes the reminder: Don’t forget you are an Indian. By the third time, the groans are audible.
But the biggest pain is the fact of coercion. While it is now contempt of court not to stand up for the national anthem before a movie begins, it is also the violation of a belief the Constitution is based on: that coercion is undemocratic. It doesn’t help that instead of enjoying the movie, you will go to jail. Earlier, you only had to deal with outraged glares from fellow audience members.
I would rather be all goosebumps when I listen to Rabindranath Tagore’s electrifying words than respect them like a chore.