INT. THE AV ROOM – NIGHT
It’s about 10:30 PM. Sleepy children have wrapped themselves in heavy blankets that their tiny arms can barely carry. Cinema Paradiso has been playing for nearly two hours.
A woman bares her breasts on screen. Teenage boys with gridded fingers pretend to cover their eyes, secretly peeking through. Teenage girls shy away from the screen and avoid eye contact with the boys while exchanging awkward glances with their female peers. A few teachers smile to themselves. Most teachers stare angrily at the person in charge of screening the films. But he’s been caught staring at the screen—without the gridded fingers!
Boarding schools can be tough for children who do not really fit in and suffer from primal awkwardness. Going in, there’s the baggage of boarding schools being employed as a threat by parents to fix troublesome children. It was no different with me, and although my parents tried convincing me that I was being sent to boarding school for the superior quality of education, I didn’t buy it. They even promised me it would be a lot of fun because there would be many children like me.
It’s an odd victory in life when an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment comes at personal expense. In school, every student spoke English, which was for me a language reserved only for textbooks. The comfort level of my peers with the spoken word and their clear cut accents instilled mortal fear every time I had to speak to them. Imagine my horror when they pronounced the word ‘mall’ by placing an ‘au’ as if it was the most natural sounding syllable in the world. They were all mad architects of language, they knew what lay hidden behind seemingly innocent consonants and vowels.
The first week of school was a nightmare. In English class, the teacher pulled out Pippi Longstocking, a book about a young Swedish girl called Pippi, who was exceptionally weird. She knew nothing about the world she lived in and yet somehow managed to have the superiority complex of a secure adult man from another era. Then there was a class for handwriting. Compared to the cursive sinuous handwriting of my peers, mine looked like I was writing with the wrong hand just to annoy my teacher. Mathematics was alright because how I pronounced fifty six didn’t matter as much as how I arrived at 56. There was one class that I learned to dread more than any other: Library. All around me were little academic robots who seemed to know their Shakespeare from their Chaucer. I had the air of someone who saw in each book a perfect headrest for an afternoon nap.
But good things come in small TV screens tucked inside dark Audio-Visual rooms!
At the end of every week, as a reward for surviving series of unfortunate awkward experiences, the students were allowed to watch a movie. So on a hot Sunday afternoon, the first movie was played on a television, to a room full of young children. A few teachers sat at the back, monitoring. Tube lights were switched off, and black curtains took care of stray sunlight. Windows and doors were sealed shut. In the darkness, nothing was visible, except blue synthetic light emanating from the television before the DVD started to play. And then the titles began to roll.
Fed on a diet of regional films and cheap dubbed versions of cartoons, Princess Mononoke was a sensory experience I didn’t know was possible. An animated tale about a cursed Japanese prince going out into the unknown knowing that he may never return home. Say what you want about the negatives of imagining oneself in the fantastical world of pop-culture and weaving a real life around it, but Ashitaka’s sadness made sense. Later on in life, I would learn from film studies professors that the film was about environment, disease and fate, and many more complex themes that flew past my eight-year-old brain. But it made sense to a young boy dealing with homesickness.
As the end credits rolled, someone opened the windows and doors. A few students were spotted waking up from their naps, the rest of us remained seated, with our eyes cemented on to the screen.
Suddenly a game had been devised: survive a week of Pippi Longstocking, take a power nap in the Library class without getting caught, keep conversation to a bare minimum, and an amazing story would be told to me by the end of it. A story that took me to a different place each week.
If you warmed up to the teacher in charge of films, (one of the few victories in the early weeks) he would tell you what movie they were playing the next week. Fly Away Home. A movie about a young girl who helps geese migrate from Canada to the American south. The best part: she flies with the geese in a crate designed by her father.
Try beating that Pippi!
INT. THE AV ROOM – NIGHT
Many thirteen and fourteen year olds are huddled in the room to watch The Lives Of Others. The lights have been switched off and it’s fairly dark. Young couples secretly hold hands, while making sure the teachers don’t catch them. Friends of the couples sit around them as if in solidarity with the adolescent romances, living vicariously. They think they are blocking the teachers’ view. But every teacher knows everything about everyone, much like the Stasi officers in the film. And like Wiesler in the film, they decide to overlook it.
The last dialogue of the movie is “No. This is for me!”
Without an ounce of respect for the tender moment, some teacher switches on the harsh tube lights in the room. Couples retract their hands after being interrupted crudely. A student says:
Mukesh, are you crying?
(with a crack in his voice)
I managed to get through the years. Junior school became middle school, a nascent career in football as a goalkeeper had taken root, and film after film took me to different places like Magic School Bus. Lagaan told me how spin bowling could have been invented, Vertigo told me the perfect murder was almost possible to execute (Dial M for Murder taught me that it’s possible to have an almost-perfect murder attempt). There was a whole World War II phase with U-571, Guns of Navarone, The Bridge on The River Kwai, and even how Ernest Hemingway lost love in a very mediocre In Love and War.
Films tend to open up the possibility of professions that never really existed in one’s vocabulary. Indiana Jones made archaeology the most dashing job there was. Billy Elliot gave birth to a brief career in Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form, but neither my grace nor fitness would have made Billy Elliot proud. After Dead Poets Society, everybody wanted to be a literature teacher. There was even a faint desire to tear away the first few pages from the poetry textbook. But a timely reminder about upcoming examinations hampered such plans. Maybe stand on top of the desks and scream “O Captain, My Captain” in the direction of the English teacher? The wooden desk may not withstand my weight. Gestures of passion require able support from psychic carpenters!
But life is more than a series of awkward experiences and weekend films. That sort of privilege, the kind that allowed me to vanish from realities, lasted only for so long.
Like cells that regenerate every seven years, so does the world around a human being. And like most fathers, mine too was capable of poor financial decisions. It was not surprising that my parents tried to hide the looming financial crisis from me for as long as they did. My record of reacting to stressful situations had given them ample data to not trust me with such information.
During a football match in which I was particularly pathetic at my job, I ran away at half time fearing embarrassment, claiming a stomach upset. That hollow excuse, to nobody’s surprise but mine, resulted in my expulsion from the team. So, in profound selfishness reflecting my age, I tried to calculate which profession I could pursue keeping in mind the crisis at home. I had just learnt that pursuing Literature was not going to pay handsomely. I struck it off my list, somewhat miserably. Surely Archaeology held answers and riches? But an orthodox upbringing warned me that I could not just go after Aztecs and Sumerians. This job meant danger and thrill, not money. Nicholas Cage, by means of National Treasure, briefly offered an alternative career—Treasure Hunter. But even before I became a tax paying citizen, I knew I didn’t want to share my spoils with the government. Scientist? Failed every last exam! Mathematician? Too much alphabet! Artist? Like my cursive handwriting, my art had not evolved beyond my skills as an eight year old.
With great sorrow, I concluded that I must become a software engineer. I must plough through pages of code, and stare at a laptop for hours on end, or whatever it was that software engineers did. My fate had been sealed.
And then came October Sky!
A biographical drama about a small town coal miner’s son, Homer Hickam, who, despite being a mediocre student, becomes interested in rocketry. Through trial and error, disaster and triumph, the young boy becomes an engineer at NASA. The father wants the young man to follow in his footsteps and become a coal miner. The father is not an evil tyrant crushing his son’s dreams—rather a believer in the path more travelled. And that’s what makes Hickam’s journey epic—a defiance of fate from a young boy. Unlike other teenagers, his problems weren’t sex or love, but mostly about taking your chances when mediocrity in academics and financial fate begin to chip away at ambition.
So after the titles rolled, with fresh optimism in my heart, I asked the person in charge of films what film they were screening next week. And he replied Goal!: the protagonist grows from humble origins and ends up playing football in the English Premier League. I may have been one real stomach upset away from relating to the protagonist but I approved of the trend!
INT. THE AV ROOM – MIDNIGHT
The entire class has just finished watching the movie of a regional superstar: Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, meaning Hunt and Play! The movie was a bit too graphic for everyone—chopped fingers, buried women, constant threat of rape to all the women characters, a stoic pot-bellied detective.
The teacher who picked the movie looks at all of them with disdain, observing their lack of appetite for basic violence.
If it was a Hollywood film,
all of you would be raving about it.
The last few days of boarding school can be quite torturously syrupy. As is the custom with sentimentality, every Last was celebrated. Last English class! Last assembly! Last football game! The Mathematics teacher celebrated the last time she taught reluctant learners Lagrange’s Theorem. Given the way his elegant theorem was butchered every class, Mr Lagrange’s ghost surely caused some of our arithmetic nightmares.
One of the reasons celebrating the Lasts becomes so important is to cope with the nervousness of leaving a familiar reality. Some of the lucky students have an academic future laid out. Most depend on the exams to come. But for everyone, the future is an unpredictable void. Of course, the pressure of exams, the nervous parents, the scared teachers—all of this is known and clichéd. But being in a boarding school during the final few months meant periodic reminders of the bubble created around the students.
The real world is not going to let you meet friends every day / The real world won’t have time for your shenanigans / The real world will not give you the luxury of meals served in a dining hall with pinpoint precision. The tragedy of verbal reminders is that such wisdom from teachers barely enters the teenage brain.
So, in the line of many Lasts came the turn of films. What was the last film going to be? The choice was left to the students. After years of being fed a predetermined diet of films, the sudden democracy upset the status quo. Suggestions came from every corner—even from those who never really seemed to care for films. The freedom to express had invigorated their inner love for cinema.
Let’s watch My Name Is Khan, some suggested. Bollywood movies were too uncool. Especially to end your boarding school with! A suggestion to watch another Hindi film went quietly without a whimper. What about The Dark Knight again? If Shah Rukh Khan didn’t get a shot then definitely Heath Ledger didn’t deserve a second chance! Godfather almost made the cut but for some unfathomable reason it didn’t. After much deliberation and negotiation led nowhere, City of God sneaked past.
I suspect this was because nobody knew enough about the movie, and that meant equal chances of disappointment for everybody. Only one person had seen it, and he had suggested it. The teacher who saw what nascent democratic atmosphere could do to young adults took a dictatorial decision to curb the chaos.
So excited students gathered in a dark room, just like when Princess Mononoke was screened. Now too, couples secretly held hands in the darkness with the quasi-rational confidence of pursuing their relationships in the real world. Teachers knew about them and maintained their silence as they had for many years. This time, it was all about the film. The last film! Soon, the ticking time bomb of reality would disperse everyone to various parts of the world. Hopefully this movie-watching experience would be one worth remembering.
How wrong everyone was!
The movie, set in a real slum in Rio De Janeiro, covers the life, violence, and gang wars that unfold in the Cidade de Deus. It is told through the eyes of Rocket, a misfit, but milder compared to the savage youth he grows up with. The violence and energy in the movie is capable of transporting the viewer into the midst of the gunshots, the uninhibited hedonism, the sunny brown football fields, and the howl behind every ill-fated relationship. The film leaves the audience breathless right from the beginning where the most human creature seems to be the chicken that is chased by young men with guns.
One by one, every student left the room, unable to digest this vicious imagery of the film.
The movie was not a celebration, neither was it a final hurrah. It was not a poignant story that rewarded the audience with a gooey feeling, allowing them to believe life is going to be alright. It was not the movie in which Hugh Grant says “I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” No, sir!
The movie told you “If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you”. It told the students in that room that if they waited for the perfectly scripted celebratory ending, they would be eaten. There weren’t many students left in the room when the end credits rolled.
EXT. CLASSROOM – DAY
A boy stands in his classroom for the last time. The English teacher stands with him as he is about to savour the moment for one last time. It’s been a few days since the boy watched City of God and he still hasn’t recovered from it. He turns to her to ask:
If I don’t like the real world,
can I at least be a good English teacher?
Will I find a job here?
I don’t know about that
but you can tell us
what films to watch every weekend.
And that’s how the real world began. Failure as an aspiring English teacher; partial qualification as a film expert.
About the author
Mukesh Manjunath is a writer and comedian based out of Mumbai. He works for Weirdass Comedy under comedian Vir Das. He has also previously published in The Wire. He is working towards finishing his debut novel.
About the artist
Naveena is a freelance journalist with a passion for art. She worked with local newspapers in India before shifting to the United States in 2017. Ever since, she has been obsessively sketching her new world, and posting them on her blog.
Artwork may not be reproduced without permission.