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It’s BYOP for filmgoers in Sri Lanka

The Liberty Theater (above) in downtown Colombo is one of the oldest cinemas in Sri Lanka. The Liberty Theater (above) in downtown Colombo is one of the oldest cinemas in Sri Lanka. (Takahiro Noguchi)
By Michael Hardy
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Going to the movies in Sri Lanka is a bit like going bargain-hunting at Filene’s Basement. You never know what you’ll find — maybe a stylish pair of Diesel jeans, maybe a dowdy coat from last season — but you know it will be cheap. And, as at Filene’s, you never know how young or old the merchandise will turn out to be.

Sometimes Sri Lankan theaters screen films only a week or two after they’ve premiered in the United States; sometimes you have to wait months. By the time “Up in the Air’’ had landed in Sri Lanka it had already come out on DVD in most of the world. Some movies bypass the island entirely — we missed “Invictus,’’ “Sherlock Holmes,’’ and five of the 10 nominees for best picture at the Academy Awards. “Avatar’’ was a big hit here, even though there weren’t any theaters equipped to show it in 3-D. Bollywood films arrive more promptly, with megahits like “Three Idiots’’ and “My Name Is Khan’’ enjoying recent popularity. But if the country misses a few movies on the big screen, it’s OK. Top-quality bootleg DVDs of all current and many older films are so widely available, for around $1 each, that it’s virtually impossible to find a genuine DVD for sale here. The cheap bootlegs have driven all but a handful of movie rental outlets out of business.

Of course, there are other differences in going to a movie in Sri Lanka. The biggest and most welcome of these is the sale of beer at most concession stands. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to carry the beer into the actual theater, so you have to chug it “Animal House’’-style in the lobby. Perhaps for this reason every film shown in Sri Lanka is split into two parts, with a five-minute intermission — just enough time to relieve your bladder and then shotgun another Heineken.

One thing you can’t get in a Sri Lankan theater, strangely enough, is fresh popcorn, which you have to smuggle in from outside. When you’re finally inside the theater, with your empty beer cans and your contraband popcorn, suddenly the Sri Lankan flag appears on the screen and everyone in the audience stands up. This means it’s time for the national anthem, which is played before every movie, play, and concert. Patience is your friend here, since the Sri Lankan anthem is approximately three times longer than “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’

While you’re waiting for the song to end, you can console yourself with the fact that your ticket and refreshments together cost less than the nachos at an American theater. Of course, cheap is relative. To an American accustomed to paying $10 and up for movie tickets, the typical Sri Lankan rate of 200 to 300 rupees (around $1.50 to $2.50) seems like a steal. But in a country where the average person earns $5.50 a day, a ticket to see “Alice in Wonderland’’ is a rare luxury. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been to a screening here that was more than a quarter full. Judging from my moviegoing experiences, the theaters’ principal demographics are (1) young couples looking for a place to make out; (2) old men escaping the tropical heat; and (3) teenagers playing hooky from school.

Fortunately, the benevolent government of Sri Lanka ensures that those teenagers never see an exposed breast or any other intimation of sexual activity. Since the Public Performances Act was enacted in 1912 by the British colonial government, a censorship board has blocked films containing “sex and vice’’ or other “unsavoury subjects.’’ Although film censorship is lighter than the censorship of television programs — in which cigarettes, alcoholic drinks, and even prolonged kissing are blurred out — sexual content is strictly verboten. (On the other hand, violence, even of the gonzo “Inglourious Basterds’’ variety, is perfectly acceptable. This is admittedly somewhat strange in a country that just emerged from 25 years of bloody civil war.)

But, like most laws in Sri Lanka, the Public Performances Act exists mainly on paper. Nudity may be banned from the mainstream theaters, but hidden behind these cinemas — often literally — are the parallel, quasi-legal “adults only’’ theaters. These theaters play the kind of soft-core pornographic movies that Cinemax shows after midnight. When I went with a group of friends to check out one of these theaters, the movie currently playing was called “The Key,’’ and starred someone named “Maxico Dave.’’ The theater was a colonial-era Art Deco movie palace, complete with balcony, but it was empty that day except for a few single men.

As soon as “The Key’’ started we realized we were in for a surreal experience. Based on the characters’ costumes and hairstyles the movie was shot in the late 1990s, although the film stock was so scratched and dirty that it was sometimes difficult to see anything at all. The film’s entire soundtrack had been redubbed: The blond American actors now spoke with thick South Indian accents, and the score was a medley of theme music from “Star Trek,’’ “Superman,’’ and James Bond films. Every time there was a sex scene the score would abruptly switch into an instrumental version of “What a Wonderful World,’’ which was soon drowned out by heavy-breathing sound effects that made the characters sound like they were scuba diving. As if the scratches and dubbed dialogue didn’t make it difficult enough to follow the plot, the projectionist seemed to have spliced the movie reels together at random, possibly while drunk. The end credits were in Chinese characters, and appeared to belong to another movie altogether.

Now try to find that at Filene’s Basement.

A version of this story ran in March in The Sunday Leader of Sri Lanka.

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