Big sticks, breasts, and Bollywood

Lauren waits for movie tickets on the ladies' line - Raj Mandir, Jaipur, India
Lauren on the ladies’ line at Raj Mandir | Photo by Todd Berman

Jaipur is a madhouse. Walking a kilometer can take an hour in this small (by Indian standards) Rajastani city as you step out of the street to avoid the relentlessly rushed traffic and step off the sidewalks to sidestep the pushy touts that emerge from the shops that line the narrow, old streets of the famous Pink City.

It possesses exactly the sort of crowded, colorful lunacy that Todd and I savor about India. A visit to Jaipur though, is particularly exhausting, perhaps because of the thick exhaust fumes that get caught behind the city walls and up in your sinuses; the grabby, grubby hands of beggars that swarm the moment we stop to double-check a map or address; or simply the oppression of the 100 degree dry heat.

After a couple of days in Jaipur, we’re looking to escape both reality and the noxious air, and there’s no better place than a movie theatre. Jaipur is home to one of the most famous movie theaters in India, Raj Mandir Cinema. Oddly, our guidebook doesn’t offer many specifics on how to buy tickets, but we figure that, considering how popular movie going is in India, we had better get our tickets in advance.

Ceiling of Raj Mandir movie theatre - Jaipur, India
Raj Mandir Cinemas ceiling | Photo by Lauren Girardin

As Todd and I unfold out of our autorickshaw, we’re faced with a mess of people gathered on the right side of Raj Mandir. Once we walk closer, I see a wonderful sign: a ladies-only line that’s at least one hundred people shorter than the line for men. I jump in, just a dozen people from the front. Todd stands close by on the other side of the metal barricade and we get ready to pass the time until tickets go on sale.

Quickly, the ladies’ line lengthens behind me, and as more people join in, everyone presses closer and closer until I feel the impossible-to-ignore large breasts – spongy and warm like a pair of fresh idili – of the woman behind me pressed against my back. Somehow, she’s also using her breasts to try to nudge me forward, as I’ve committed the infraction of leaving a centimeter of empty air between me and the woman in front of me.

From the few less-than-helpful signs arrayed around the heavily barred ticket window, Todd and I determine that there’s only one movie playing and we have three remaining show times to choose from. I’m bummed that the movie – Golmaal Returns – doesn’t star Shah Rukh Kahn, my favorite Bollywood over-actor. The signs indicate that we can also pick between floor and box seating, the number of tickets that remain, and that floor tickets are only 70 rupees (about $1.50 US) each. We definitely want general seating in the middle of the crowd, which we’ve heard gets really into the movie – cheering, jeering, singing along, and talking to the actors and amongst themselves. The chatter won’t bother us. Since the movie’s in Hindi and there’s no English subtitles, the crowd’s reaction can only help us follow the plot.

Raj Mandir ready for the night rush - Jaipur, india
Raj Mandir theater shows Golmaal Returns | Photo by Lauren Girardin

As I wait in line, Todd tries to keep me company, but a humorless woman in khaki uniform and carrying a big stick gently pushes him towards the mass of other men waiting for their ladies and then guides him back even further, only satisfied when he stands behind the rest of the crowd. She doesn’t use her stick, but it’s there, an unspoken threat. Young men – those who without ladies of their own – ask Todd to have his girlfriend buy extra tickets for them. Todd, one eye on the nearby big stick, declines to help.

Unfortunately, after waiting a half-hour, once I get my turn at the ticket window, I’m told that I’m at the wrong window for the advance tickets we want. That window is around the other side and there’s no line. Where’s the fun in that?

Later, just prior to show time, Todd and I wait in the romantically tacky Raj Mandir lobby surrounded by hundreds of Indians and very few foreigners. We’re eating crumbly and spicy fried chaat and a entirely cocoa-free, waxy chocolate bar. It’s a bit disconcerting that someone hasn’t run over just to talk to us – nowhere else in India have we been left alone. There’s some staring, but everyone’s here with friends and many are domestic tourists, so they’re preoccupied with taking photos of the architecture, gossiping, and snacking on samosas.

As Golmaal Returns begins, as each actor makes their first appearance on the screen, the 700 or more people packed into their assigned seats cheer like when Sachin set the all-time record for runs scored in Test Cricket. Of all the Bollywood stars, I only recognize Kareena Kapoor from movies we’ve rented at home, and I’ve found her annoyingly vapid. Not a good sign.

Universal dog market sign - Jaipur, India
Universal Dog Market sign | Photo by Lauren Girardin

The movie is beyond awful. One of the main male characters is some kind of mute that communicates like Star WarsJar-Jar Binks if Jar-Jar could only make annoying, nonsensical noises instead of words. “Ooh ah! Ooh ooh ah!!” There’s also rampant homophobia, crotch injuries, jokes at the expense of fat women, and Kareena Kapoor’s character’s only motivation is jealousy of her husband.

Intermission: a truly unique-to-Indian-movies experience, especially since intermission is now utterly missing from American movie going. Todd heads to the lobby for popcorn, where he joins the massive mob surrounds the popcorn guy. Everybody holds their money out, you just wait until the popcorn guy chooses you.

Golmaal Returns isn’t your typical Bollywood movie with song-and-dance routines breaking out every ten minutes, oftentimes without much relation to the plot. Though there are only two musical numbers, one song at the beginning of each act, both are so spectacularly overproduced – about five minutes long each, filled with dozens of costume changes, explosions, and tackily dressed legions of backup dancers – that we can’t help but be entertained by the spectacle.

About three hours after entering the theater, Todd and I return to the boisterous, smoggy Jaipur streets. Having binged on lowbrow, hokey slapstick at the Raj Mandir, we’re ready to savor some spicy thali.