Gita Viswanath and Nikhila H explore how the world of moviegoers has changed with time and with COVID19
During the pandemic, people all over the world watched a lot more films due to the lockdown than they normally do. The use of social media also increased exponentially. The proliferation of OTT (Over the Top) platforms has given immeasurable access to cinema and other modes of entertainment to those who have the means and technology (such as internet connection and steady bandwidth, viewing devices, etc). While some term this phenomenon as a democratisation of film-viewing practices in a given society, others feel that the nature of cinema is bound to change in the absence of a collective social experience of film viewing.
The history of the motion pictures has seen a shift from 35 mm to 70 mm; the decline of the latter, and then its resurgence in the 1980s. During these times, going to the cinema was an event in itself. It necessitated the rituals of planning, the booking of tickets in advance, dressing up and stepping out of the homes. The singular mark, if we identify one, of this era of film spectatorship, would be its collective nature. It was not uncommon to witness several members of the audience cry, laugh, or cheer together. While there are several films that show their characters watching a film withing their plot, Abbas Kiarostami’s entire film Shirin (2008),focuses on women audience’s responses to watching a film on the legendary lovers, Shirin and Khusrow. The story of the lovers reaches us exclusively through the soundtrack. The creation of the star was also a consequence of collective viewing. The euphoria surrounding the star, at times translating to audience performances in the form of whistling, hooting, flinging coins at the screen, and performing aarti (a Hindu prayer ritual)when the star appeared, could not have happened in the isolation of the home.
By the mid-1970s, almost all major cities in India had television broadcasts. The growing popularity of the television, even with its diminished screen size, as a means of watching films challenged the primacy of the cinema hall as a site of exhibition. The spatial shift from the public cinema hall to the private homes as viewing spaces is also a consequence of the arrival of television. However, the total individualisation of the viewing experience was yet to happen. Families, at times, even neighbours, would gather in front of the television, where the Doordarshan telecast around 6 pm and ended by 10 pm. Programmes were made specifically to appeal to groups of people across age, occupation, and class. While Tania Modelski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Women’s Narrative Pleasures (1982) argues how television, particularly soap operas play upon women’s fantasies and feed their longing for an alternative to their isolation within the nuclear family, it is also possible to argue that watching films on television meant being subjected to informal censors within the family and domestic situation.
Scholars have talked about how cinema-going created a new kind of sociality and public sphere around cinema. In the Indian context, a short story by a Kannada feminist writer Vaidehi titled “Gulabi Talkies mattu sanna alegalu” (Gulabi Talkies and small waves) for instance, gives us a glimpse of how through cinema-going the public sphere became accessible to women, otherwise sequestered within their homes. Girish Kasaravalli’s film Gulabi Talkies (2008) ostensibly drawing from the short story, gives us an insight into the fantasy worlds opened up by cinema for women, as well as delineates the destruction of that social imaginary and their proclivity for fantasy, when women got pushed back into the private sphere with the coming of television.
Soon after, the advent of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) and Video Cassette Player (VCP), became hugely popular ways of watching movies with the added advantage of recording them for repeat viewings. Lending libraries mushroomed and entire families were able to watch a movie for the price of, or perhaps, less than that of a single movie theatre ticket. In India, this led to a complete change in leisure practices to the extent that cinema hall owners ran into huge losses and most theatres that had seen their glory days had to either shut down and get converted into shopping complexes or lay in a state of neglect.
The 1990s heralded the era of the multiplex that once again drew audiences to theatres, at least in the urban areas. With admission rates way higher than single screen theatre tickets, the multiplex became a site of the upper middle-classes flush with funds in a newly globalised, consumer-driven economy. This even gave rise to an entire new genre of films called the multiplex film. Young filmmakers with exposure to world cinema cashed in on this change and made films that may not have been feasible in the era of single screen theatres whose audiences comprised people from different classes. The more homogenised audience of the multiplex enabled filmmakers to produce films that catered to the taste of a particular segment of the market.
And then came mobile telephony in the new century. The miniaturised screen size transformed film viewing, which was essentially a public and later family/group activity, into a highly individualised one. Today, it is not unusual to see different members of a family watching different films on their phone screens in the same house or even same room – the use of headphones or earbuds making it even more convenient.
We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the intermission/interval; peculiar to film screenings in India. This device, as Lalitha Gopalan has noted in Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema (2002), even became an important consideration while scripting the film wherein the interval would be located at a turning point in the narrative. The interval in cinema halls also provided the scope for sale of snacks, which in the era of multiplexes turned into a focal point with the aim of providing a wholesome and complete form of entertainment for the audiences.
Turning our attention back to viewing films on the laptops or phones, we may say that the act of determining the interval is also controlled by the viewer. We could stop watching to eat, to visit the washroom, to turn off the stove, to get the door, or when the plot slackens and our interest wanes, to doze off. With the alarming speed with which attention spans are decreasing, filmmakers are turning their attention to short films.
The abundance of OTT platforms for distribution of films has led to easy access to world cinema. Until some years ago, it was difficult to view international films unless one frequented film festivals. Now, it is a different story. Platforms such as Mubi, Netflix, Prime Video, among several others, provide us with opportunities to watch films from all over the world. Just as in the case of the rise of multiplexes, similarly, OTT platforms also have proved to be a boon to filmmakers. Professional organisational set-ups, constant demand for fresh scripts, and scope for experimentation have made OTTs viable for young filmmakers.
At a time, when socialising in the real world became highly restricted, a flurry of activity was visible in the virtual world. One such popular enterprise was the formation of online film clubs to watch and discuss films, which the authors of this article also engaged in. What is interesting about such groups is that the film viewing experience is not collective. We do not watch the film to be discussed together; rather, we watch them at our convenience after deciding upon the film and only get together virtually to discuss our individual responses in the process of a personalised experience of viewing.
Let us think about the nature of spectatorship that online groups engender. The sense of the collective does not stem from the act of seeing, which, in any case, happens in the privacy of our homes. Rather, it stems from the sense of a joint endeavour and the need to contribute meaningfully to it. While most theories of affect talk about the process of experiencing cinema, it may be equally important to look at the communicative aspect of affect; hence articulating what we feel about a film is a way of affirming and making available for ourselves (and others) how we feel about a film. Lakshmi Srinivas (2013) talks of how film viewing is framed by the social aesthetic, that is, film is a pretext, which provides a context for the social experience of film going. The audience response in any Indian theatre, she argues, provides a frame for the filmic experience; similarly, in our isolated film viewing case, the Saturday meeting becomes the ‘social’ within which our filmic experience may be framed.
With COVID-enforced isolation and restriction to stay in the house, films and social media platforms became a way of escape and reaching out, though not in the same way as the more conventional ways of watching cinema. The need to have social interactions beyond the family may have motivated some of us to embrace the world of online interaction. The form of discussing films (and virtually all of the films we discussed spoke to and of the contemporary times) on our Facebook group, Talking Films Online, for instance, became a way of thinking beyond and outside the oppressive present. It helped most of us gain a perspective by contextualising the present itself, while we seemed to be in danger of being cut off from the known and the familiar past. Thus, the activities of watching films and logging in for discussions on Saturdays became a way of regaining a hold on our lives, when we all felt adrift.
The lockdown gave many spectators who were part of online film groups, the experience of seeing and hearing and being seen and heard on screen. While initially thrust upon as an inevitable fall-out of the situation, people soon learned to equip themselves with better devices (where possible), requisite apps, necessary accessories to be better seen and heard. Being part of the discussions on the films, recording them and sharing them make participants content generators in their own right, leading at times, to the creation of independent YouTube channels for uploading the recordings of the discussions and for live broadcasts.
Thus, the shift in patterns of spectatorship over time goes beyond a mere change in ways of viewing films. Rather, the ways of generating content to accommodate these changes have themselves transformed. The resultant transformation in modes of sociality is just about beginning to become apparent.
Gita Viswanath is the author of a novel, Twice it Happened, a non-fiction book, The ‘Nation’ in War: A Study of Military Literature and Hindi War Cinema, as well as a children’s book, Chidiya. Her poems and short stories have been published online. Two of her short films, “Family Across the Atlantic” and “Safezonerz” are available on YouTube.
Nikhila H. teaches in the Department of Film Studies, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Her areas of research interest are Filmic Translations and Gender Studies. Her recent publications have been on remakes and multimodal translations. Her current projects include a commissioned essay for a volume on Shyam Benegal for Edinburgh University Press, and for a collaborative volume on New Cinemas of India.
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