Chennai’s corny tradition

Chennai’s corny tradition.jpg

The popcorn, with colourful seasonings, at Sathyam Cinemas has become a phenomenon

It makes bad films tolerable. It makes bad company manageable. It is enough reason for many to visit a popular movie theatre. Hear us tell you, amid trumpets roaring and cymbals crashing, of the phenomenon that the butter popcorn has become…

A cult, by definition, is a clandestine entity. Yet, we have one among us in Chennai, openly, brazenly carrying out its almost-occult practice; a cult whose membership grows by the day. If you have been to Sathyam Cinemas, you have seen them in action, exercising their ritual — yes, that group of people who stand by the seasoning dispensers, almost in transcendental meditation, shaking their bags of popcorn with military uniformity. Chak-chak-chak.

The popcorn, for a fleeting second, is suspended in mid-air — almost in danger of falling out onto the big, bad floor, with an evil Sathyam attendant ever-waiting to sweep it into the rubbish bin — before settling into their cartons; this time, imbibing a new, colourful identity. This has become such a habit that nobody seems to remember a time when people just bought tickets and went right into theatres, without stopping for a lengthy break to season their popcorn.

You can imagine the popcorn cult in its secret Fight Club-like meetings, its members standing around in a dim-lit basement with bags of popcorn. “The first rule of popcorn club is you ask for more butter. The second rule of popcorn club is… you ask for more butter.”

And so, the popcorn jugglers lived their lives in total contentment, their greatest dilemma restricted to their choice of seasoning — “Sour cream onion or Mexican cheese or both?” — until their lives were turned topsy-turvy when the recent rumour of Sathyam Cinemas’ acquisition was floated. The cult was disturbed, the hands of its members left quivering in nervous addiction. “What about the popcorn?” It seemed that the theatre’s quality or proximity or service efficiency weren’t the concerns. The possible disappearance of the popping treats was. So serious are many people about the snack that a TripAdvisor review for the theatre has the title: “Go for the popcorn.” It’s like a restaurant review having the title: “Go for the Pepsi.” I know I’m exaggerating, but such is the adoration. Social media was abuzz with people expressing their disapproval at the acquisition. People consoled each other; some even resorted to cognitive dissonance to move on — “Oh, those weren’t that good anyway.” And then, nothing came of the rumour. The banners were brought down, the revolters went home, the hashtags stopped, the hands stopped shaking, and peace reigned. It was chak-chak time again.

The seasonings are such a rage that the management must have spent quite a few sleepless nights figuring out how to serve them. As a keen follower of this trend, I remember a time in the distant past when they came in small, steel containers. It remained so for the longest time until, in the words of an employee there, “people started stealing.” Why people would take it home, I’m entirely unsure of. I can only speculate that somebody probably created quite the culinary rage in their neighbourhood by using the sour cream seasoning in their onion sambar.

The theatre, however, wisened up to the petty thieves and began selling the seasoning in small sachets. You had to pay Rs. 5 for the flavour you wanted. This barely lasted a few months before the infamous containers returned again, perhaps on account of the rising number of complaints about having to pay for them. The other problem with the containers, apart from their regular disappearance, was that the seasoning often caked inside and refused to budge, despite people thumping it in frustration. “Blasted containers!” you could hear people muttering, as they tapped and tapped, and sometimes, ended up emptying the whole darn thing, much to the chagrin of the attendants. Thus arrived the dispensers in their present form. You could write a thesis about these things. “Delectable dispensers: a study of design transformation.”

People even have certain quirky practices about eating it. A friend, after eating all the popcorn, always makes it a point to gobble up all the seasoning that is settled down in the pack. It makes him sick, but he doesn’t care. I, meanwhile, check and thoroughly recheck to see if all the corns are coloured, before walking into the theatre. There better not be a single corn that’s unaffected by the seasoning. I know another who cannot watch films any more without it, even in other theatres. She buys popcorn from Sathyam before smuggling it into other theatres, or her very home, if only to catch a movie on HBO.

The overall sentiment is clear. Raze down monuments. Charge additionally for petrol. Litter the beach. Increase the income tax. But the butter popcorn… touch that and there will be hell to pay.

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