Notes on watching Knives Out in a Delhi theatre for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown

As cinema halls opened up across Delhi, I took it upon myself to check how the experience of watching a film had changed after months in lockdown. Spoiler alert: You may be in for a surprise.

Seerat Chabba November 01, 2020 09:11:41 IST
Notes on watching Knives Out in a Delhi theatre for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown

This is not a movie review. The film I watched released last year so the world definitely does not need another review. Instead, you may be more inclined towards knowing what it’s like to be physically present in a theatre after months of being cooped up at home under India’s coronavirus lockdown.

India’s coronavirus lockdown prompted cinema halls across the country to close indefinitely back in March, depriving moviegoers of the immersive experience that a theatre has to offer. While most of us have gotten comfortable with the idea of watching a film on OTT platforms in our pyjamas during that 40-minute lunch break from work — checking my privilege right here — the experience of going out to watch a movie on the big screen remains unparalleled.

So when I read that theatres were set to open in Delhi NCR in mid-October, my first instinct was to go to different ticket-booking platforms to check what films were playing.

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Coronavirus safety measures in a South Delhi theatre.

To my disappointment, there were very few new options, but an interesting range of older hits like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Sam Mendes’ 1917, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women to choose from. I looked around for a film that I had missed when it first released and, lo and behold, there stood a tiny icon for Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s celebrity-heavy murder mystery that struck me as the perfect “back-to-theatres” indulgence.

A few emails to the editor later, I had all approvals in place. This is also when the fear began setting in. The entire process, until now, had been guided by a rush of adrenaline, which was now being replaced by a creeping sense of terror. I hadn’t stepped out of the house for “recreational purposes” in over 7 months, even before India officially went under lockdown.

The day was finally upon us. For this new movie-watching mission, I also roped in my sister, who also happened to be my partner this quarantine. Armed with sanitising spray, a liquid sanitiser, and a packet of sanitising wipes — which some may consider overkill — we drove down to a mall after what felt like eternity.

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Knives Out is playing in select theatres in Delhi.

The first thing that strikes you upon entering a South Delhi shopping mall on a Saturday is the sheer number of cars that are parked in the underground lots. After circling down to “P-2” or the parking lot under the basement, a mixture of fear and excitement ran down my spine. I hadn’t seen these many people in one place in a long, long time.

Masks in place, we ran straight to the top floor to get our hands on tickets, only to find an empty kiosk. After a short, physically distant conversation with the staff member across multiple layers of masks, glass and face shields, we received a text with the ticket. The best part — premium seats for Rs. 99 each! This was a steal for this multiplex, where the average ticket set you back by Rs. 500 in the pre- COVID-19 era.

After a digital, no-contact payment, I scanned my ticket at the entrance of the theatre before walking in for security.

This is when the staff did something I just wasn’t prepared for. All workers — from security personnel to ushers and food servers — stopped what they were doing to give us a loud applause. This didn’t feel like something they were doing half-heartedly. It was a full-blown ovation, thanking us for taking the courage to come out and help this ailing industry.

According to numerous estimates, Delhi’s cinema hall operators have lost nearly Rs 3,000 crore in revenue since the country went under lockdown. This translates to thousands of livelihoods. In that moment, it felt like I wasn’t taking a risk — I was just helping someone get their life back.

We walked to our screen to find every alternate seat blocked with tape that read “Not To be Occupied”. The show had been delayed till everyone — all 11 of us in the theatre — had settled down. I looked around to see two young couples, who were clearly not happy to be separated from their loved ones, as well as a family of three, who had no such separation anxiety. Finally, on two edges of the cinema hall, sat two strangers, who had come separately to enjoy this “new” experience.

The manager walked in, with his mask, gloves and a face shield, to thank all patrons for coming out. He also outlined all the preventive measures the theatre was taking to keep its staff and movie-watchers safe.

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The empty theatre that was playing Knives Out saw merely 11 people attend the show.

The lights were dimmed and an overwhelming sense of familiarity set in. Even though I was hyperconscious of my surroundings as the trailers began to play, I found myself easing into the plush armchair 10 minutes into the film.

I won’t lie, it began with me being petrified of resting my head against the backrest. Each time I saw a large gathering on screen — if you’ve watched Knives Out, you’d know there’s a huge family involved — I found myself cringing hard. We just don’t do hugs in the post-corona epoch.

But 20 minutes into the film, I was sprawled across the chair, letting out loud snorts each time the fantastic star-studded cast nailed comic timing. I was so taken by Toni Collette's iconic line —  "I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you" — that I almost kicked the older gentleman sitting in the front row.

I wasn’t the only one getting comfortable. The couple sitting four seats over from me had decided to rip off their masks, jump into an out-of-bounds seat and start a long-drawn canoodling session. The pandemic clearly doesn’t come in the way of young love.

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Even the refreshments came with their own safety measures. But is any movie-watching experience complete without popcorn?

No movie experience can be complete without refreshments, and the pandemic couldn’t come between me and my popcorn either. During intermission, we tried our best to use the QR code on our seats, but technology failed to bring desired results. A quick walk to the counter and a short chat with the servers later, I had a freshly made tub of popcorn in my hand. It was packed for our safety, which meant we could only stuff our faces once we were back in our seats.

A customary middle-of-the-movie phone call later — please note, it wasn’t on my phone —  the movie wrapped up. Everyone — all nine of them — filed out of the theatre but we lingered for an extra minute to process what we had just done. The film was great but that wasn’t what I was taking away from this experience. We were back in theatres.

My heart was full, but my body needed a hot shower and a thorough scrubbing.

Seerat Chabba is the South Asian correspondent for Deutsche Welle, Germany's international broadcaster.

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