Two nights ago, Vali and I attended the opening film of the Chennai International Film Festival. We had to sit through the inaugural function first, and despite the organizers’ hopes for a ‘world-class’ film festival, the function was hilariously true to Chennai. After the film ended around 10:30 pm, we walked down the street from the theater, hailed an auto, negotiated a fare and went home.
Seems like a normal night, right?
But that night was emblematic of how Chennai has changed for me since last July when my husband moved here. As a single female, I certainly would have been self-conscious sitting by myself in the enormous theater waiting for the film to start. I would have been very careful walking outside looking for an auto, on a road that was mostly men. I would not have walked towards a group of auto drivers as my husband did – when I am alone, I prefer to negotiate with one driver rather than a group of drivers who can be quite aggressive. In fact, unless I had arranged transportation beforehand or I had a friend to go to the movie with me, I am not sure that I would have gone at all. And there are other smaller changes too. I wore a t-shirt to the movie. If I had been alone, I would have thrown a shawl over it just to deflect any unwanted attention to my chest.
All of these are things that I do without even noticing. And my defense mechanisms are so ingrained in me, are so much a part of how I live here, that I barely notice that I do them at all.
Two weeks ago, we had visitors from Bombay give a talk at the office. They were two of the three authors of the book “Why Loiter,” which looks at women’s access to public spaces in the city of Bombay. In the talk, the authors talked about their emphasis on the right to just hang out. In a country with female infanticide, dowry deaths, and widespread domestic violence, talking about the right to just hang out seems frivolous, a fact that the authors themselves acknowledged.
But I understand. I at least have the option to buy my way out of many of these problems. I could have ordered a taxi to go to and from the movie rather than looking for an auto or waiting for the bus. I could even buy a car here, although I have chosen not to. What about poorer women? What kind of decisions are they making to protect themselves? Perhaps decisions that are costing them extra education, better paying jobs, access to culture and friendships, many things that could make their lives more meaningful and more fulfilling.
 Every single speaker but one – and there were about a dozen, of course – repeatedly thanked the Chief Minister of the state for her support of the event, mentioning over and over the amount of money that she had given the event. A minion wearing a bright yellow tracksuit who worked for a well-known actor who spoke at the event grabbed the microphone from the m.c. to yell at the camera crews who were present for the event to come closer to the stage when the actor lit the lamp (nobody moved). And from their reactions, it seemed like very few of the people who stayed from the opening function to watch the movie actually knew what movie they were here to see. But all of them stayed through the whole two hours, because people here *LOVE* movies. Like really, really love movies. They take phone calls, they talk loudly to their neighbors, they hoot and holler at the screen, but I’ve never been in a theater anywhere else in the world where people clearly were enjoying themselves so much.