[Mumbai, circa 1981. Interior]
In a room the size of a sweaty handkerchief, I and some seventy other members of the Alliance Française film club are watching François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. The film is about to end. On screen, we see the right side of a young boy’s head and shoulders.
I wonder whether to risk a yawn.
The boy is walking towards the sea with no clear purpose in mind.
I know I am not worthy of my membership. Even though the film is one of the central pillars of modern French cinema I cannot focus on it because the auditorium is too uncomfortable. The folding metal seats have been designed by an evil orthopaedist looking for customers. The floor is uniformly flat and viewers are forced to strain their Kurosawas and Renoirs through a sieve of other viewers’ hair. In summer, the lack of air-conditioning guarantees death by B.O. And of course the majority of the movies are wrist-slittingly sad.
This one, for instance, is centred on a troubled fourteen- year-old boy living in Paris. The story moves at the pace of an arthritic sloth while packing the punch of a land- mine in the gut.
I want to inform my companion of the evening that I simply do not have the mental energy for films like this. Yes, yes, they’re beautiful, haunting, memorable, and all the rest of it, but what about the emotional wreckage they leave in their wake? I am, after all, a Hollywood junkie. I admit it without shame, like an addict who wears her needle-tracks with pride. I thrill to my Technicolor sunsets, my MetroGoldwynMayer lions and my air- brushed, peroxided heroines. Assisted Reality is what I call these films, and I love them all the more for knowing they will never kick me in the Jiminy Cricket or leave me bleeding in the Mekong.
Meanwhile my companion, whom I shall call B–, is even then, thirty years ago, so steeped in his knowledge of films and his passion for them that he seems to my eyes practically incontinent with world-weariness. We are both in our twenties, me late, he early. I enjoy his intensity and his seriousness even though I know he does not consider me girlfriend material. I often wonder what he sees in me. Nothing, probably. When a young man has watched enough art cinema, he knows that romantic love will never make it past the editing table.
Onscreen, our boy is still walking. The scenery continues to move away to the left, behind him, which is how we know he’s in motion. It’s a pleasant summer’s day and the French countryside looks suitably tranquil and inviting, even in black and white.
I begin to wonder why we’ve been watching the same damn scene for so long.
I turn towards B–.
He is sitting at the very edge of his seat, like a gundog on point.
He’s muttering to himself, ‘Come on, come on.’ That’s all he says. He’s fidgeting, he’s leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, he’s sweeping back the comma of hair that falls over his forehead and giving his fingernails a quick chew. In a word, he’s doing the adult equivalent of a child jumping up and down, screaming encouragement to Luke Skywalker taking on the Empire single-handed.
Yet before us on the screen is nothing more than a boy, walking.
[END OF EXCERPT]