Here on the southern coast of Nicaragua, I have tracked reviews of the latest Harry Potter movie without yet being able to see it for myself. My parents and brother went to see it in Kerala today. Their review was less about the movie itself than about the fact that being in a movie theater in India is a kind of spectacle in its own right, apart from whatever may be happening on screen. I’ll describe the Indian experience in more detail later; for now I think back in time.
In 2006 my family was living on a small island off the coast of Dubrovnik (that is the view from our home in the photo above). About 150 people lived on the island, mostly the families of fishermen, who only spoke Croatian and maybe a little Italian. The old city of Dubrovnik had a small cinema that sometimes played movies in English. I recall when the latest James Bond film, with a new actor whose performance everyone was eager to review, started playing in this theater–in English with Croatian subtitles. “Casino Royale,” the movie was called.
We left our crimeless, car-free island and went to observe this Daniel Craig character outwit bad guys and drive spiffy cars. The highlight of this evening at the theater was not so much the movie (the conversation with my family in Kerala reminded me just now), but the reaction that the Croatian audience had to a certain scene.
The casino itself is set in Montenegro. I had first been to Montenegro in 2001, but when I saw the movie I had no recollection of it other than stunning beauty. The photo below shows where we had driven, through Kotor Bay.
So when the scenes in the Bond movie identified as Montenegro appeared I was at first confused by the audience reaction. Subtitles stated that the luxurious train Bond and Vesper Lynd were riding in was Montenegrin, and exactly at that moment the theater erupted with laughter. Had I missed the comedy?
Only later, by explanation from a local friend would I understand: there was no way, the laughter communicated raucously, that their tiny neighboring republic’s railways had any such infrastructure—most of their rail transportation was (and is) freight only. The joke, which could only have been shared by Montenegro’s other bordering nations: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia, continued when the gloriously lavish casino was depicted in what were purportedly the dusky hills of this minuscule former-Yugoslavian republic.
Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale was in France, part of the fictional resort town called Royale-les-Eaux. MGM’s railway and casino in Montenegro are just as invented, and were both filmed in the Czech Republic . I’m sure that the Croats’ proud nationalism, not mean-spirited but certainly with an element of friendly ridicule, caused laughter in theaters around the country, and not only Dubrovnik.
What does this memory have to do with current events? I hadn’t thought of the Dubrovnik theater in years. However, when my parents and brother described their experience in the theater in Cochin (Kerala, India’s commercial capital, where they live now) history resonated for me at several levels.
Apparently the theater in Cochin consistently erupts in boisterousness not too different from the laughter in Dubrovnik. Families with babies, couples, and groups of friends often enter the movie late and loudly, as if entering a party that has already started. Cinemas in both countries have assigned seating, so the phones are used as flashlights to look at both the seat numbers and scan the faces of the already seated crowd for people they might know. Many of those who are already seated start chatting to their neighbors or their phones, and the latter become clamorous due to fuzzy cell phone service in the theater.
When a crowd is holding scores of different conversations in a closed room, louder voices become an ever-increasing necessity, creating a cycle not too unlike the constructive interference studied in the physics of sound waves.
Therefore, the first fifteen minutes of Harry Potter’s epic finale were lost upon most of the Cochin audience’s ears. When my family shared this somewhat unpleasant but culturally educational experience with me, I was immediately reminded of the opera in Paris.
Not that I’ve ever been to an opera. My modest expertise on the subject started a couple weeks ago when I spent all my free time for three days reading “The Count of Monte Cristo.” This highly recommended historical fiction contains countless accurate descriptions of French life, many of which involve operas, given the time period that Dumas writes of (1815–1838 specifically, but I’m sure much of the material applies before and after this frame). Here is his scene of the opera in Paris that most readily came to mind:
The curtain rose, as usual, to an almost empty house, it being one of the absurdities of Parisian fashion never to appear at the opera until after the beginning of the performance, so that the first act is generally played without the slightest attention being paid to it, that part of the audience already assembled being too much occupied in observing the fresh arrivals, while nothing is heard but the noise of opening and shutting doors, and the buzz of conversation.
Croats of 2006 may have been remembering that just one year before they had been negotiating with Montenegro the payment for property (which happens to have been the city of Dubrovnik) attacked from Montenegrin territory in 1991 by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA)  ; Indians are known for their extended families and loyalty to the same; Parisians of the 1800s were largely concerned with pomp, fashion, and aristocratic connections. Vociferous crowds at theaters are nothing new, but can always provide interesting insights to the culture of a society.