A crisp black shirt tucked into his denim, a fountain pen in the front pocket and a watch on the left hand to complement it all. That’s what a 47-year-old gentleman was wearing when he leaned onto a dimly-lit counter to purchase a ticket for the ‘dress circle’ seat at Amaze cinema*.
Located in the heart of central Kolkata, this popular theatre of yesteryears - now an unkempt single-screen – plays B-grade movies and soft porn these days.
But middle-aged gentlemen don’t visit shady cinema halls, do they? Debashish Roy* wasn’t there to fulfill his quota of watching soft-porn either. He had come for the 6.15 PM show where he could possibly meet other men and have sex with them.
“I have been coming here for the past three-four years. This is among my few go-to spots when it comes to seeking sex. It’s convenient, there is no police intervention here. Moreover, it was a safe haven even when homosexuality was considered illegal,” he added.
Roy has been married for over two decades and has a daughter, but his homosexuality remains a secret to the outside world.
For gay men like him looking for sexual partners in a society that still refuses to break the shackles of the gender binary let alone accept homosexuals as their own despite the Supreme Court striking down a section of Article 377, Amaze cinema has been a safe haven.
The dilapidated building that houses the theatre stands tall right on the main road in the middle of a busy market. The tall gates open into a varandha-like area where two ticket counters are placed on either side with big posters next to them. The theatre screens Hindi and Bengali B-grade movies.
When asked about show timings, the man seated at the box-office was polite but firm. “But I don’t generally allow women inside the hall,” he said. Upon much persuasion, I was allowed to go inside the hall for five minutes, provided that I return before the film began.
After buying the ticket for a mere Rs 30, the next step is to make it to the cinema hall. The staircase leads to the dress circle of the hall on the first floor. The hall from the inside smells of hormones and nicotine – indicators of what goes on once the lights are out.
In fact, there are no lights. The broken seats and the dirty, torn screen makes the experience all the more uncomfortable.
The cinema hall is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of Kolkata, which otherwise paints a rosy picture to the outside world. It is so clandestine that the shopkeepers, who know the purpose the cinema hall serves, refuse to say a word.
However, it is not only the cis men who look for sex here, trans-men too can be spotted. “I’m not a regular here but I do visit twice a month. I feel more accepted here, nobody asks questions here, nobody cares who you are and that’s the best part,” said a 25-year-old trans man, who didn’t want to be named.
Cinema halls like these pose an interesting question. In a digitally-driven world, where everything from food to sex can be availed at the click of a button, why will anyone even venture into the open and put themselves in a vulnerable spot?
The reasons are many
It is true that mobile apps like Grinder, the gay-version of Tinder (as if it needed description), and other internet sites offer the platform to explore options based on location and preferences. But users of these apps have notoriously robbed, abused and even raped others.
A 28-year-old man, who works at a garment store and frequents the cinema, said, “I was on Grinder talking to people but didn’t gather the courage to meet anyone, then reports of rape and abuse surfaced. I was scared. Here at least I’m certain that no one has any other intentions beside sex.”
Then there is the fact that cruising, which existed way before the advent of dating apps, involves people from a broad age bracket. Most of them are working-class men. They as well the older men aren’t internet-savvy and prefer the familiarity such halls offer.
The state of West Bengal, compared to its counterparts in India, has had a progressive outlook towards the LGBTQ community. It was in Kolkata in 1999 that 15 people, on a sultry July afternoon, took out the first pride walk in India.
Since then the streets of Kolkata have embraced the society's intersectionality through activism, books and films.
But slowly the community is losing out on the places of engagement. “We have heard of several parks and community places getting more police presence to check on these activities. Earlier there were multiple cinema halls, now it has been restricted to a few. Who knows when they’ll come for this place as well,” a 50-year-old at the cinema wondered.
*Names are changed to protect privacy