A happy coincidence saw me bump into Sarah in the Indian Coffee House, whom I'd last seen in Kodaikanal. She'd rejoined her travelling partner Lisa, and I was doubly pleased because I wasn't that sure Kochi deserved another day of exploring, and a day loafing around with the two Brightonians felt a darn sight more interesting than photographing yet another colonial church.
Our plan for the day centred on the new James Bond film. Tomorrow Never Dies, the second James Bond with Pierce Brosnan at the helm, turned out to be a mediocre flick with jokes bordering on the smuttiness of a Carry On film1, but the most incredible thing wasn't so much the film as the way it was shown. I'd thought we'd be immersing myself in a dreamland of vodka martinis and action-packed scenes from the wildest reaches of chauvinistic swashbuckling, but instead we ended up with an experience of James Bond that was not exactly what Ian Fleming intended.
The cinema in India is an interactive event; people don't sit silently through a film, they jeer and clap and yell and scream. And so with James Bond the clichés elicit a raucous response from the crowd: when Q turns up with his latest gizmos, they go wild; when the stunt at the start of the film ends up in a near-death explosion of mayhem, destruction and a skin-of-the-teeth escape by Bond, they leap about in a frenzy; and when he saves the world from certain catastrophe, they're practically spasmodic with relief. But where the action scenes earn high praise, the one-liners totally pass them by, and more than once the only people laughing at the dialogue were the three English tourists.
But surely the main appeal of James Bond is that there's something for nearly everyone, and in the case of India it's easy to pinpoint the chief attraction of 007: it's all about the wonderful vehicles that he drives. When Q unveiled his spanking new state-of-the-art BMW-cum-weapon-of-mass-destruction, the testosterone-fuelled members of the audience cheered with beery boyishness, and when Bond stole a bike as a prelude to a rooftop chase par excellence through the chaos of Saigon – yet again on a BMW, which is a surprising find in backstreet Vietnam, wouldn't you say? – I swear I could hear them salivating on the back row (and yes, it was simple salivating rather than the more traditional back row sport; this is innocent India, remember). If westerners admire 007 for his suave and sophisticated manner, his beautiful women and his snappy dialogue, the Indians admire him for his hardware and his ability to blow up everything in sight. When westerners think of Bond, they think of beautiful curves and how attractive they are in little black dresses; when the Indians think of Bond, they think of beautiful curves and how aerodynamic they are.
But halfway through the film, just as the action was kicking in, the lights came up and there it was: an intermission. I don't think I've ever witnessed a break in the middle of a film, and although during a three-hour Hindi epic I would think a breath of fresh air is a biological necessity (not to mention a psychological one), it rather spoils the flow of a Bond movie. And not only did everyone rush out of the theatre for a quick snack, pan or whatever, but those remaining were thrilled to see a trailer for the film Titanic, during which they cheered and clapped when Leonardo DiCaprio came on screen as if he was the tenth incarnation of Vishnu. If I'd had dreams of escapism, I was being rudely pulled back into reality, and the film wasn't even done.
Despite the loud discussion halfway through the second reel a couple of rows behind us – which everyone joined, forgetting for a moment that they'd come to the cinema to watch a film rather than discuss the price of fish – the film managed to reach its explosive climax without a hitch. But a final surprise awaited us; as soon as the baddies got blown up, the crowd got up and started to leave, before the film had even finished. The traditional end to a James Bond film, where Bond is settling in with his latest lover while steadfastly ignoring the concerned radio crackle of HQ, is irrelevant in India. I never caught the witty retort in Tomorrow Never Dies because there was such mayhem as the crowd milled out that all the dialogue was inaudible; and then, as soon as the credits hit the screen, the projectionist killed the film dead. Talk about being shocked back into reality.
And what a reality! I swear that as we stood on the pavement blinking into the traffic, I felt as if I was back in the film, with rickshaws doing insane stunts round me, chasing invisible spies through the dangerous streets of urban India. And then I realised that India is always like that. Here, 007 would just be another mad driver in a mad country, except he'd be driving a pouting BMW.
1 For example, Bond is screwing his attractive Danish teacher when Moneypenny rings him up on his mobile; when he eventually finds the thing and answers it, he says he's 'brushing up on a little Danish', and Moneypenny tells him to pull it out pronto and save the world again with the words 'you always were a cunning linguist, James.' It's an old joke and, if you ask me, a little contrived, but I guess that's James Bond for you.