Cinema Viewing: Zooming In & Zooming Out

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.



Humour Stories

The Return of the Dead

By Gita Viswanath

For the first time in the history of the universe, God and the devil were on the same page. Their domains were getting filled up with an influx of souls tarnished by a virus. To maintain social distance, they decided it was time to throw all inhabitants back on earth. God had it easier. Gravity helped him in ejecting his inmates. The devil had to shoot them upwards and that was tough on him.

“What’s your worry? We are dead now; we can no longer spread disease.” The souls chorused in a last-ditch attempt to stay back.

God in his wisdom said, “This virus has flummoxed me. It’s a never-before situation. So, let me play safe. My ministers and I can’t take a risk.”

“You can’t risk us, can you? Won’t we fall ill? Haven’t we had our fair share of pain and suffering? Won’t we overcrowd the planet and create chaos? We were always taught God is a kind and benevolent being. Trust in him.” 

The infallible God had no answer. He was forced to think. God condescended to consult with the devil and both decided that only those who had died in the past twenty-five years would be ejected. The rest had attained salvation; so, they were not a threat. Ultimately, being the almighty, he had his way with his herd. The devil in his turn entertained no questions. He simply kicked them out or rather up.

The souls of the animal Heaven were tickled at the sight of the exodus. “Our time has come! Down below, our compatriots have been restored to their spaces; they roam like emperors of all they survey, and our enemies are finally locked up. And here, we rest in peace,” the animal souls sang delightedly. 

The day arrived. Hundreds of souls were released. As per the decrees of God and the devil (they seem to work in tandem for once), they landed in the places from where they had last departed. As a result, those who died in road accidents were found loitering on the streets of places as far apart as New York and Nagpur or Los Angeles and Latur.

They were promptly arrested by the police and kept in custody for not maintaining social distance and on top of it, not wearing masks. When they were questioned, they honestly replied that they were thrown out of heaven or hell as was the case.

The situation at Versova police station in Mumbai turned bizarre. The poor cast-outs were laughed at and branded as pagal – mad. At the same time, most were so lucid that the police were totally confused. They gave their home addresses and phone numbers without any hesitation. The ones who died several decades ago gave their landline numbers which were now defunct. Some of them said they were homeless but were able to name the localities where they used to sleep on footpaths. One even tried to appease the police by saying, “Call my family immediately. They can give you chai paani and even samosa* right away.” He had, after all, died while over speeding in his BMW, no less. At this, the homeless ones got enraged and lunged at him.

“Hey, we’ll handcuff you,” yelled the police while trying to prevent a bloodbath.

“Sir, he’s the one who drove over us,” two of the homeless defended themselves.

At this, the inspector on duty called his senior and requested him to come over as soon as possible. Or else, there were bright chances that he would need to be rushed to a psychiatric ward. 

Hospitals, which were as it is bursting at the seams, suddenly saw new patients arguing with the existing ones that it was their bed. One patient suffered a heart attack as soon as he saw a woman appear out of nowhere in front of his bed. She was trying to pull out the intravenous drip and insert it into her arm. At that point, the patient passed out. Hearing the thud of a human body on the floor, a nurse rushed in only to pass out herself on seeing a stranger fitting the drip on her own. The dead woman calmly completed her task and lay on the bed wondering why the staff looked like figures from outer space. When the nurse did not return to her bay for some time, a doctor walked in to see her collapsed on top of the patient on the floor and an unknown woman resting on the bed. She rushed out screaming as if bitten by a rabid dog. 

Mammaaa, Papaaa, bhaiyya ka bhoot*,” Aastha began crying. The family was barely recovering from the suicide of their son, a sixteen-year-old teenager who hanged himself a week ago in his room because his father scolded him for spending too much time on his cell phone. The father, still fuming with rage, rushed out of his bedroom on hearing Aastha and stood there as though struck by lightning. “Oye, what’s happening?” he stammered.

The mother, who followed, began shouting in joy, “My son is back, my son is back.”

The father went out to get a broomstick saying, “Bhoots go away when beaten with a jhaadu*.” Finally, the dead teenager, a little amused, a little embarrassed, spoke: “I’m back. Even God didn’t want me. Where else could I think of going?”

Aastha and her parents fainted one after the other and the dead-living living-dead boy got into his bed and fell into a deep sleep; not before posting a picture of himself on Facebook and Instagram, with the caption, ‘Thrown out by God’.

In Vadodara, in Gujarat, an electrician landed on a light pole and was sent back to God immediately. God was stunned and looked at him furiously.

“What can I do? When you sent us, you said we would land at the spot where we died. That damn pole is still unrepaired and I died instantly.”

Some ministers burst out laughing. “Hmm …” God scratched his head while thinking deeply about a condition such as this. For the first time, he doubted his efficiency.

“Fine, this is no excuse for you to return. You will now land at the spot you were last seen before you climbed that goddamn (oops!) pole.”

As God finished his sentence, the electrician felt himself going down in a free fall like a skydiver. He landed on his Hero bicycle which he had parked next to a tea stall on the road before climbing the pole. The stall was closed. There was an eerie silence. Not a vehicle, not a human anywhere in sight.

Seeing him appear out of the blue, a frightened dog came up towards him. The dog looked so weak with ribs poking out that he could barely bark, let alone bite. Thanking God for providing him with transport to reach his home, he mounted his cycle and pedalled his way feeling elated to be back.

He kept thinking about how happy his family would be to have him in their midst. After all, he had died so tragically just a month before his second baby was to be born and his first child, a girl, was just three years old. He wondered if the second was a boy. He wished it was. At least his mother would stop taunting his poor wife. Whistling his favourite song, he kept cycling, finding the way a little confusing. He was returning after eleven years.

An old woman who could barely walk struggled to find her way. So much had changed in the twenty-five years since she left; she could hardly recognise a single house. Suddenly, she heard a whirring sound up in the sky and as she looked up, a shower of red rose petals fell from the skies. Rows of men with little children on their shoulders and women with bundles of belongings on their heads were the only denizens of the streets. They all had masks on their mouths like Jain munis*, the old woman thought. They rushed to gather the petals, tried to squeeze some juice into their dry throats, and made the children nibble the petals. The old woman joined these masked men and women. When she told them, she had come back from the land of the dead, they thought they were hallucinating. Since she didn’t look threatening, they let her walk along with them. After walking for eternity, they found some people distributing poori bhaaji* and pouches of water. They let the old woman join the queue.

The news broke out on television. Excited reporters screeched into their microphones. Some enterprising ones even managed to reach the dead and interview them. Some went a step further and visited the homes of ones who were receiving their dead, some happily, others not so. Amid a pandemic, the reporters created a virtual pandemonium.

Anup Gohain, who headed the channel that could get an award for the most hysterical of them all, chose his flavour of the day — conspiracy. The dead couldn’t return; he shrieked, this is nothing but a conspiracy of our enemies from within and without. Pakistan, China, the opposition, leftists, pseudo-secularists, the tit-bit gang, Anup Gohain enumerated in rising intonation. And then for dramatic effect, he lowered his voice to a whisper. Tell me, all you so-called scientific people, what else is this if not a conspiracy? They have been sent out to contaminate millions of Indians and destroy this glorious land of ours. All this and more in Debate Number One, once again he screamed. During the debate, he yelled out to the participants on the other side of the fence, “the nation wants to know. Today, you have to give them an answer.”

The police inspector rushed to the station after receiving his constable’s call. He had heard the news. He took charge of the situation that was turning chaotic by the second. Calmly, he ordered that all addresses and telephone numbers be noted down. Then, he personally oversaw the despatch of all those held in the lockup to their homes. The homeless were dropped off at the pavements which were deserted now. They slept peacefully. No hafta* to the police, not even to the local don.

The screams of the doctor echoed down the corridors of the hospital just as the day duty staff was handing over charge to the night duty staff. The television was on in the recreation room of the medical staff and they were staring at it open-mouthed. Of course, they had heard of ghosts and unusual movements in mortuaries but beyond laughing, had never given it a thought.  Could they now dismiss something that was happening on a global scale?

All channels — Indian and foreign — were reporting bizarre episodes of the return of the dead. The screaming doctor barged into the room, huffing and puffing, “Come with me, look at what I just saw.” When they reached the ICU, they revived the nurse first and then questioned the woman who had displaced the patient. She was able to even recall the names of doctors who had attended on her. So eloquent was she, she even told them that she was admitted for a hysterectomy. “Such a routine procedure for women my age – why did you have to kill me?” She asked them indignantly.

The truth was a rookie anaesthesiologist had given her an overdose; resulting in the tragic and untimely death of an otherwise healthy woman. She went on to plead with the doctors to set right their mistake and send her back home to her loved ones who were surely missing her. In response, the two doctors and the nurse passed out! The dead woman pressed her hand to her mouth trying hard to suppress a laugh.

When Aastha and her parents came to in the wee hours of the morning, they found the sixteen-year-old in deep sleep. Still reeling under shock, they stepped forward gingerly to check if he was for real. “Bhaiyya, Bhaiyya,” Aastha called out gently. No response. The mother, who was convinced about the return of her son, sat beside him on the bed, stroking his head, pushing back the lock of hair from the forehead. Standing by the bed, the father wondered aloud, “Yeh kaisa ho sakta hai – how can this happen?” The boy stirred. The mother shushed the father and pretended that the cremation and the besna* never happened. They all shouted excitedly, “Welcome back!” With no one entering their home and they not going out, the return of their dead son needed no explanation. They all lived happily ever after until …

The electrician reached his home. He left the cycle leaning on the wall and entered through the tiny gate which was the same after eleven years except for a louder creak. His wife was swabbing the room. She looked through the half-open door, left the pail and the duster on the floor, stood up, smiled, and said, “Ahh, it’s been a long time.” The electrician was stunned. Here he was, returning from the land of the dead after eleven years and this woman, his wife and the mother of his children was inhumanly calm. On the wall, he noticed his framed photo with a plastic garland with dust in the folds of the petals.

“Salma, aren’t you shocked to see me?” he asked her.

“Why should I be? You were always with me. You think you could go away so easily?”

“But you used to not see me, hear me, you couldn’t touch me, see, see,” he grabbed her hand saying, “You are not dreaming, Salma, I am really here in front of you.”

“Who said so? I used to see you, hear you, feel you, all the time.”

The electrician was flabbergasted. What could he say to her?

“Where are our children?”

“Sleeping. Come inside, see …”

The electrician was surprised to see four. Disturbed by the sounds, they woke up. The youngest of them, four years old, was the first to speak, “He looks like Abba.”  When the electrician died on the pole, his parents got the widow married off to his younger brother, Ahmed. In a short while, Ahmed returned with a basket of vegetables, took off his mask, and stood rooted to the ground on seeing his brother.

Bhai, have I lost my senses?”

“No, you haven’t, take a bath and come. I’ll explain,” said Salma in a soothing voice.

Ahmed went in never to return (he exited through the back door) and the electrician was restored to his home and family. Salma laid out all the vegetables next to the sink and began washing them with soap.

“What are you doing?” asked the stupefied electrician.

Han, that’s how it is now.”

Shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head from right to left, left to right, the electrician replied, “Chalo, kuch tho badla — okay, something has changed at least.”

The old woman found it extremely hard to find her way home. She walked endlessly in the scorching sun with one group of workers only to realise she was on the wrong route. Then she turned at a fork to join another group. After three days of repeatedly joining different groups, she finally reached what she remembered as her home. Alas! The people who now lived there were not her family. They wouldn’t let her in. Once again, she was stranded. Totally exhausted and unable to walk anymore, she settled down under a neem tree, cursing God for harassing her, and set up her home with a snake and a monkey as her neighbours.

For almost a year, the dead and the living blended seamlessly. They lived, loved, fought, cast out, oppressed, forgave, made up like humans always did. In the meanwhile, the invisible virus continued having a field day in the world, upsetting many apple carts. God and the devil began missing their flock. They realised the stupidity of their thoughts and actions. By dying and returning to them, the souls had completed a journey. Why then were they made to resume their earthly voyages?

God addressed his ministers in a cloud meeting, “My creations respect death and the dead. Never speak ill of the dead, they say. They keep them forever in their memories. They equate the dead with me. They offer flowers and incense to them the way they do to me. They tell children that the dead go to God.” The ministers nodded gravely in agreement. “Then, why have I betrayed their trust in me?” God asked shamefacedly. “Who am I without my flock? How can I erase the ultimate truth of life, that is death?”

God and the devil summoned back their herd. As suddenly as the dead had appeared, they disappeared.

*chai paani… samosa — tea, water… savoury snack

*Bhaiyya ka bhoot — Brother’s ghost.

*Bhoot — ghost

*munis — sages

*Poori Bhajji — food.

Gita Viswanath is a Baroda-based writer. Her novel, Twice it Happened, was published last year by Vishwakarma Publications, Pune. She is also the author of a children’s book, Chidiya. Her poems have been published in Kavyabharati No 28 and Coldnoon. Her short story, Paper Gods, was published in the May 2020 issue of Muse India.