Sunday, September 23, 2007

The reel life

Cinema operator Ravi Chandran and his colleagues watch movies all the time, but they rue the missed public holidays

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I used to see a lot of films at Devi Theatre in Thiruvankulam,” says Ravi Chandran, 45, the cinema operator at Sridhar Theatre. Since his father's friend, Kunjan Menon, was the operator, Ravi would stand at the door of the cabin where the projector was kept. “I was afraid to tell him about my desire to be an operator,” says Chandran.

So, he tried for a job at the nearby Neelima theatre, but to no avail. In 1985, when Chandran was seeing a film at Devi, Menon met the lad during the interval and told him to see him after the show. “Kunjan Chettan had heard that I had not got a breakthrough at Neelima,” he says. “He offered me a job and I joined the next day.” Chandran worked in Devi for three and a half years, before he got his operator’s license from the Electrical Inspectorate in Thiruvananthapuram.

Then came another opportunity. His wife’s grandfather was employed with the Shenoy's group. “One day, he told me there was a vacancy for a cinema operator and that is how I came to work in Sridhar,” says Chandran. He has been working here for the past 18 years.

He stays in Tripunithara and comes to work by noon. The first thing he does is to clean up the projector. Next, he loads the reels of the current movie, Heyy Baby. “The advantage of this projector is that, because it has a big spool, it will last till the interval,” he says. “In the earlier carbon projector, we had to change the spool after every two reels.”

As he talks, two more operators, V.S. Venugopalan, 49, and Jacob James, 35, report for duty. Like Ravi, they are also veterans. Venugopalan has 29 years of experience, while James has logged 14 years on the job.

A few minutes later, a bell, with a piercing sound, is heard in the room. Venugopalan immediately presses a switch on the wall, moves to the back of the room and switches on the music system. “The bell is from the office,” says Venugopalan. “They want to check whether we are ready. We acknowledge it by pressing a switch, and then we start the music. Next, the ticket counters will be opened. Later, the ushers or ‘gatekeepers’, who stand at the door, will guide the patrons inside.”

After a few minutes, there is another bell. This is the sign to start the film. Venugopalan presses a red switch and the projector comes to life. Soon, the credits of Heyy Baby start to roll on the big screen. Since they are veterans, they hardly look at the screen. But when do they see a film, like Heyy Baby, for the first time? “The reels came on the morning of the first day, so we saw it, along with the public, at the 3 p.m. show,” says Chandran. If there is a worldwide release, the film will come a day before and they are able to have a preview.

When you look through the narrow glass panel, it seems the audience is sitting far away. The room is soundproof, although the door is always kept open. So are they aware of the audience reaction during a film? “Yes,” says Chandran. “For example, in Heyy Baby, ten minutes before the end, there is a dance item by Shah Rukh, who is not in the movie. When he appears, the audience breaks into such loud cheers and applause that we can hear them. He is the man of the moment, because Chak De India was such a big hit.”

Chandran says the film ran for three weeks in Sridhar and it was house full till the last show, before it was shifted to Little Shenoys. “After that, we screened Ram Gopal Varma’s Aag, and it turned out to be a huge flop,” he says, with a rueful smile.

So, do they have an idea which film will be a hit or a flop? “For a film to be a hit, you need a good script,” says Chandran. “It is the backbone of the movie. The acting should also be great. You don’t need stars for that, just good actors. And it is not always right to think that music adds value. Sometimes, too many songs disturb the flow of the movie.”

It seems like a good occupation seeing movies all the time. But, like in any job, there are drawbacks. They never get a holiday during festivals, public holidays and Sundays, because that is the time when people throng the theatres the most. “Our evenings are never free,” says James. “Last week, my sons, Aman, 7 ½, and Atul, 6, asked me whether I could get another job, where I could return home in the evenings, like their neighbour’s father.” And one should not forget the long hours. Invariably, they leave the theatre by midnight, after the second show, which means, it is a 12 hour shift.

But perhaps the one major advantage, despite these disadvantages, is that their families can see movies whenever they like. All three burst out laughing when this is suggested. “No, our families don’t come very often,” says James. “I only bring them when there is a good film. For example, all our families saw Chak De India.”

It seems it is reel life for the operators and real life for their families.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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