Lockdowned Cinema

A series of reports in the media recently noted the shock expressed by multiplex exhibitors at producers releasing films on OTT (over the top) platforms. In this period of the national lockdown due to COVID-19, when film production activities have stopped, and film exhibition in cinema houses has come to a halt, a number of such issues have become relevant. This article discusses three aspects of the social consumption of cinema in the lockdown. First, it discusses the consumption of the film star as a commodity. Second, it considers the fallout of the lockdown for the shift in viewing towards OTT platforms. Third, it explores the challenges of the lockdown faced by cine workers, who contribute labour for its creation but are not seen on the screen.

The national lockdown in India has enforced a closure of film exhibition in multiplexes and cinema houses. In consonance, all film production projects and activities too have stopped. With this, numerous minor actors, non-screen personnel, and support staff have been forced into unemployment. The pause in film production however has brought out sharp valorisations of how cinema and media is being consumed.

This article looks at three aspects of film consumption and its conflicting social expressions. First, it considers how the consumption of the film star as a commodity, along with the disparities of film-related content, is drawing on a palimpsestic social consumption of films. Second, it considers the fallout of the lockdown for the shift in viewing and therefore engaging with films. There has been a radical shift in how we are consuming content in the form of films, television, and web series, where the cinematic seems to have attained a new social engagement alongside the televisual. Lastly, the article explores what the cinema might indicate for those who contribute labour for its creation but are not seen on the screen. The attempt here is to set forth a discussion on the differing social address of the film and entertainment industry in this unsettling period of lockdown.

Film Star as Media Resource

The centrality of the film star for Indian cinemas cannot be overstated. Apart from being a deciding factor for a film to be commercially successful or not, the film star designates a privileged existence. Richard Dyer in his classic book Stars, has summed up the preconditions of stardom as elaborated by Barry King. This includes the creation of a surplus value, advancements in media and technology, and coalescing of the film industry around the commodity (Dyer 1981: pp 8). The film star, or film celebrity, is uniquely placed in our society. Notwithstanding providential forays into politics, the film star is someone who is defined by the unremitting presence of their persona in our social life. Unlike celebrities or high achievers from other spheres of cultural or economic industries, the film star by the very nature of cinema’s surplus in the country persists in our social imaginaries, by way of radio and musical programs, through the television, or other mediatic forms. However, in these times of the COVID-19 epidemic, especially when the production of the commodity called the film star has suddenly stopped, the star or celebrity value has shifted into a newer field of social consumption. 

We are now witness to another form of celebritisation. This is fuelled by social media platforms, but also by the enthusiasm of users to indulge in incessant circulation of images, videos, audio clips, hashtagged memes, and the rehashed short-duration videos. One only needs to search YouTube for such shortened versions of film, which are customarily remade to project the star’s cinematic value. This has also been exacerbated by news and media websites eager to recirculate snippets of the film star baking a cake or doing household chores. This illustrates what a recent volume on the Indian media economy (Athique et al 2018) has highlighted as the mediatic image turning into a resource for the commercial processes of the media economy. So, more than the film star as a function of the cinema, it is their life in everyday circumstances that has turned into a resource, and an object to be exploited for public viewing. 

Such celebritisation is certainly not new, nor is there any novelty associated with the media industry turning the star image into a commodity. But what is striking is the disparateness marking the social entrenchment of cinema. What is being consumed is less of the specifically filmic image, but it is an admixture of the visually ubiquitous cinematic image, the rehashed digital image, and the spatially quotidian personalised images of the celebrity on social media platforms. The cinema, its intricacies of production, its aesthetic tendencies, or the performing competence of actors, have been relegated to a different domain, and what has become important is the relatively affluent slice of the film star life.

As a media resource the film star is doubly imbricated. The film star is the object of the transactional and economic dynamics underpinning commercial media processes, while the star is also significantly aware that media platforms can be exploited for projecting and publicising their own star persona. The resource in this scenario however also has a surplus value, which can assume multiple manifestations linked closely to the site of its articulation. The recent outburst of celebritisation centred on mobilising the viral prospects of social media platforms points this added layer over the palimpsest of the star image. The film star as an everyday figure has indeed channelised the surplus value of the film actor. Quite separate from the objectified and made-up screen persona, the film star as an everyday figure has managed to leverage a visual engagement by users, followers, or media websites.

The simplicity or naturalised modalities of platforms like Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, seem to have collapsed the imaginary gap between the viewer/admirer and the screen image of the actor objectified as sensuous, or godlike. The darshan of a film star through these platforms is unlike the iconic image of the star as an object of an adulatory mass public. The transaction is stripped off the fascinating subjective mechanisms of film as viewed on a big screen, and replaced by algorithmically predicated fragments, as the digital image offers endless possibilities of transmogrification. The nature of transaction between the film star and their publicist has thus become mediated by the pervasiveness of the digital platforms. Moreover, with the digital image replacing the cinematic image in direct public circulation, the nature of consuming film has firmly shifted in favour of internet-enabled streaming platforms.

Consuming Cinema Digitally

It is in the terrain of streaming platforms, or OTT services, that the cinema has acquired a differential characteristic. A number of reports in newspapers and media-tracking websites have indicated an increase in OTT engagement post the lockdown. There is a case to be made for market penetration via OTT platforms, since cinema and related content is now reaching the interiors of the market and even to remote places. But it is the emergent form of the streaming television, and particularly the web series that has renewed the social address of cinema. The web series, especially, have become prominent in testing the primacy of cinema as the chief mode of public entertainment. This has, on the one hand, furthered the disparateness of film as a cultural commodity, while on the other it has conflated the aesthetic and narrative articulations specific to a film. We are thus witnessing a cinematic representation of web series. A number of series on OTT platforms, like Mirzapur, The Family Man, Special Ops, Jamtara, Little Things, etc, can be singled out as being inflected by cinema. Besides, the presence of film actors who have worked in leading roles in these series, these web series arguably provide an expanded temporal and sensual experience like the cinema. It is as if a film will go on for a few more hours than the conventional two or three hours, and it might also provide a varied sensory experience, in some cases even more provocatively than the big screen. 

A somewhat related aspect is the dependence of the streaming platforms on the dominant film industry in the country. Thus, despite Amazon Prime Video being available in India since 2011, and Netflix becoming available from 2016, it is only after web series like Sacred Games and Mirzapur that the platforms became more relevant for India. Since 2018, especially, the number of streaming TV services has seen a rapid proliferation piggybacking on bundled offers of mobile service providers. It is of interest that all the streaming platforms have mobilised the content, stars, personnel, and social access of the Hindi film industry (popularly known as “Bollywood”). We might as well recall and use the term “Bollywoodisation” of the Indian streaming television. 

More importantly though, the OTT has signalled an increasingly precarious situation where the multiplex or the cinema house might be replaced altogether. Already, multiplex owners have indicated a new war with producers or distributors releasing films directly on OTT platforms. The way that cinema is being distributed and exhibited for the public to be consumed is showing signs of breaking out of the multiplex economy model of business. The multiplex economy as discussed by scholars, valorises the space of the multiplex as a globalised, attractive site for social interactivity (Athique and Hill 2009; Sharma 2003). Such a shift in film exhibition sites has had historical implications for Indian cinema, especially as it has gradually moved away from the older peremptory economic model of film producers doubling as distributors, or film exhibitors having an influential hold on the circulation of films in specific markets. 

The multiplex economy brought in a corporatised system of channelling film capital, which in turn created a number of virtual and absolute terrains of film rights, which could be purchased or licensed to ensure profitability of a film (Ingle 2016). The OTT is one such terrain, which has now assumed a greater significance. Plausibly, the film in the cinema house may succeed in regaining its dominance amongst the Indian viewer. However, the modalities of consuming it will have evolved by the time the current period of uncertainty ends. The real question is of this altered state of consuming cinema post the COVID-19. It is still speculation whether cinema halls and multiplexes would be able to function as they used to, as the epidemic prevents people from venturing into spaces of social proximity.

But such fears have also brought out a certain nostalgia for cinema. Whether it is viewing films from an earlier era, or engaging and curating personalised retrospectives, or watching a clipped version of an older film like Sholay on YouTube, nostalgia for older generation films has assumed prominence. Could this be a reflection of the social fear that present-day uncertainties have triggered, as suggested in a scholarly article titled The Modalities of Nostalgia? (Pickering and Keightley 2006). Or do we attribute the nostalgia for a cultural past to a search for reliving an irrecoverable but secure experience? Rekindling nostalgia, through viewing films or through the rerun of Ramayan and Mahabharat TV serials, is obfuscating and drawing away social engagement with our present-day precariousness. Nostalgic returns seldom mitigate the numerous unarticulated anxieties of living in these times of quarantined social spatiality. Consuming older generation cultural artefacts in isolation, on smaller screens, or the television, therefore, might be symptomatic of social anxiety. 

However, we also need to be alert to the fact that nostalgia for Hindi or other regional cinemas in India may produce a completely altered access to unknown players of the cinema. Such a possibility has been recently showcased in the Netflix film Har Kisse Ke Hisse: Kaamayaab starring Sanjay Mishra. Here, an older generation actor is driven to return to the film industry which results in a destabilising personal experience for him. In the process though we get a brief insight into the social attraction for the star image. We might miss the fact that such a nostalgic venture has been produced and distributed by the production company, Red Chillies Entertainment. Understandably, nostalgia has already become a hot-selling commodity.

Unemployed Cine-worker

The conflicting trends being reported after the industry has shut itself from production-related activities, and post-production business, rarely highlight what cinema means for the nearly 5 lakh employees. This figure is from the data put out by the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, an umbrella body representing almost 30 different associations of technicians, junior artists, singers, directors, etc. In consuming and reproducing the film star as a commodity, the viewer and the media often end up valorising a small portion of the film industry.

From the reports in mainstream newspapers, the understanding is that cinema has suddenly become a scarce resource for the minor personnel of various film industries in India, who are now jobless. The economics of the film industry works in a strangely expedient manner, with most jobs delivering a daily wage to workers. If we go by the characterisation of labour in the film industry, the minor personnel are an inseparable part of creating the visually mediated experience of cinema. They are like the film star, working in the firmament of spaces demarcated by pre and post filming processes. That is, they are transient occupants of impermanent sites of the film set, or makeshift spaces within studio environs, while simultaneously ensuring that these spaces acquire a permanency in the cinema through their labour. Thus, while we as primary consumers of film exercise a determinant role in promoting the social life of a film, it is the non-screen cine worker whose creative labour has resulted in the first visualisation of the filmic product. It follows that it is the labour of the cine worker that underwrites the surplus value of the film star, and celebrity in our society.

So, how do we start making sense of what cinema means for the cine worker? We are now confronted with a relatively unexceptional space of cinema—it is that of an industry and employer which supports the means of livelihood of skilled and unskilled labour. The conventional relationship between the viewer as a consumer and the star or screen persona as the resource for the film and media economy is put into stark contrast with the cine worker’s insider position and occupation of the film business. It might be that there is an internal segmentation of the cine workers where writers, lyricists, music composers, or post-production personnel might be gainfully engaged with existing or new projects. Therefore, cinema might be no different than other periods of work for such artists. However, for workers who provide labour like being spot-boys, lighting personnel, sound recordist, or camera crew, and the minor actors or junior artists, the cinema can only be imagined in the hope that they will get gainful employment once production activities begin. 

The majority of people who contribute to our film and entertainment business are not seen and are providing labour for this labour-intensive industry. The abrupt joblessness brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown has put the cine workers in a curious suspension of livelihood and an uncertain return to the craft. The numerous skilled workers providing set design services, electricity maintenance, make-up artists, and even food services, are unfathomable entities for the masses who have not stopped consuming cinema. This seems to be a very good opportunity to rethink access to a security net for cine workers. The film star as a celebrity, in their personal capacity, can only do so much in supporting the needs of unemployed cine workers. It is the creation of a secure fund, provision of health insurance, access to food and stable housing; in short, the roti, kapda and makaan, that requires urgent attention. The meaning of a job and stable income has suddenly acquired a new perspective, and for the cine worker, the cinema may no longer be an opportunity to be part of the glamour and glitz. The social address of the cinema for these labourers and other such labourers is foreshadowed by the necessity to survive when the means of survival have become virtually unattainable. Perhaps, it is a good time for us to reflect on the centrality of cinema in our everyday reality, not by acclaiming and reliving the glorious exploits of the screen image, but by recognising the asymmetries embedded in a unidimensional consumption of cinema.

In Conclusion

We can think of the significance of the cinema as being defined by the modalities of consumption, the sites of audience interactions, and the apparent absence of the industry personnel at these sites. This may lead us to recognise that the conflict that is shaping between film exhibitors and producers/distributors is about protecting terrains, and not about a social payback for the non-screen cine worker. Thus, cinema in the lockdown suggests a virtualisation of cinematic activities, both at the site of production, and at the site of exhibition and consumption.

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