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Single-screen Delights

Cinema Hall Audiences in India

S V Srinivas (srinivas.sv@apu.edu.in) teaches at the School of Liberal Arts, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience by Lakshmi Srinivas, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016; pp xi + 315, $37.50 | £26.50.

 

Lakshmi Srinivas’s House Full is an anthropological study of film audiences in India. It complements recent work on the intersections between movie star fandom, urban popular culture and religiosity by, among others, Shalini Kakar (2010), Roos Gerritsen (2012) and Constantine Nakassis (2016). While fans make an appearance in House Full too, they are not the central focus of the book. The author’s object of research, in her words, is 

the voluble cinema hall audience and an in-theater experience marked by spontaneity, improvisation, and performance that is far removed from the silent absorption of film associated with mainstream audiences in Anglo–American and Western European exhibition (multiplex) settings. (p 3)

This “active audience,” as she calls it, is typically sighted in single-screen cinema halls in India but, as she notes, is not unique to this part of the world.

House Full has six chapters as well as an introduction and a conclusion. The author draws on multiple spells of fieldwork spread over 15-plus years to provide us a graphic account of cinema halls and film viewing practices in the city of Bangalore (now Bengaluru). The book is well-researched and is accessible to scholars and students alike. It comes with an excellent index.

The author’s choice of field site (Bengaluru) and the period of her study (late 1990s) are both noteworthy. Historically, the city has been home to a strikingly diverse film culture. Long before the arrival of the multiplex, movie theatres in Bengaluru screened films in all the four major South Indian languages as well as Hindi and English. Bengaluru has played host to powerful fan organisations that frequently participate in agitations related to Kannada language politics; so much so that fan clubs figure prominently in Janaki Nair’s book on the city (Nair 2005). The late 1990s is a fascinating period for students of Indian cinema. This was the moment when Bombay cinema was “Bollywoodised” to fit into an emerging cultural industry that was not about film viewing or the box office any more (Rajadhyaksha 2003). In Bengaluru, like in other Indian cities, stand-alone cinema halls were demolished to build shopping and residential complexes. Those that remained were in a visible state of disrepair.

Sociality of Cinema Spaces

This book is not about the politics of cinema spaces and film viewing. This disclaimer is in order because, from the 1970s, academic writing on film audiences has tended to focus on the political significance of film viewing and allied activities.1 Earlier anthropological studies too brought the cinema–politics linkage into sharp focus. For instance, Sara Dickey (1993) ends her book on cinema in Madurai with a chapter on “Fan clubs and politics.” House Full is largely concerned with the sociality of cinema spaces and the activities that it facilitates. In a welcome change from available literature on film audiences and fandom, female viewers figure prominently in Srinivas’s account.

In Chapter 2, the author asks the non-trivial question: How does the apparently disjointed popular film make sense? She notes that film-makers in India did not have access to reliable market research and the script itself was a skeleton that had to be fleshed out even as the film went into production. The result was an assemblage of diverse elements whose appeal was largely a matter of guesswork; neither did these components have much to do with the story. This is a familiar point, thanks to M Madhava Prasad’s adoption of Marx’s “heterogeneous mode of manufacture” to explain how the Bombay film industry assembled movies till the 1990s (Prasad 1998: 42–45). Srinivas complements Prasad’s explanation by attempting to show how such loosely assembled films might actually work. She does so by drawing our attention to viewing contexts in which, she argues,

The film itself becomes a space in which the relationship between audiences and stars is expressed and constructed, making the audience very much a participant in the making of a film, which is both a performance and a contract with the audience. (p 61)

She returns to this claim much later in this book, when she describes actual viewing practices. She points out that some of the viewers are “repeaters” for whom there is no element of surprise. They are likely to consume films in bits and pieces, walking in and out. Moreover, viewers are not always attentive to what is happening on the screen. The issue therefore is not how coherent a film is, or how wonderful its story, but what it facilitates at the audience’s end.

In Chapters 3, 4 and 5, she shows that audience composition cannot be taken as a given. It is determined by the locality in which theatres are situated, the spatial organisation of cinema halls, ticket prices, and viewer perception of appropriateness of the film in question. She also notes that the experience of comfort is not such an important consideration for most viewers. On the contrary, viewers watch films in spite of cinema halls being uncomfortable and also places of risk.

Knowing that they are going to be uncomfortable and at risk, why do viewers choose to go to the movies? She proposes three frameworks for understanding the appeal of cinema. Some viewers, she argues, seek “risk, adventure, play” that is more or less guaranteed at certain points of time in the life cycle of a film’s run, and in some parts of the city (pp 146–49). Crowds, touts, chaos, noise and the occasional riot during a film’s opening week are not just normal, but a part of the excitement of going to the movies for these viewers. Film-going could be a “treat” for some (pp 150–51) and a family outing for yet others (pp 151–53). The “social experience,” as the author puts it, involves negotiating actual or perceived risks from other viewers and creatures too (mosquitos). Reinforcing the finding of earlier researchers, she notes that the value of this space lies in the heterogeneity of the audience.

This diverse group, having arrived at the cinema for very different reasons, engages in a variety of activities from eating and chatting with each other, to dancing and screaming. Chapters 6 and 7 are devoted to eminently readable descriptions of these activities. Chapter 7, on the “first day, first show,” has a particularly well-written description of the author’s encounter with a group of overenthusiastic fans of the Kannada star Shiva Rajkumar, which is followed only minutes later by an unexpected meeting with the man himself (pp 206–13).

Remarkable Parallels

The author’s elaborate descriptions of viewing practices lead us to the problem of interpretation: What do we—as students of cinema and/or society—make of the “active audience”? We can take the cue from the author’s statement, which resonates with arguments made by other researchers working on viewing consumption of film and other media forms: “Reception is performance using the film as a backdrop” (p 218; emphasis added). By implication, sites of consumption of cultural commodities are also sites of consumer performances. Although the author does not herself make the connection, we are now in Web 2.0 country as far as consumer behaviour is concerned. Although this book poses the question to performances that unfold against cinema’s backdrop, the answer has the potential to throw light on much more recent cultural forms.

In an interesting methodological move, the author draws striking parallels between film viewing and the reception of folk forms (Tamasha and Nautanki) on the one hand, and practices associated with religious rituals on the other. These parallels allow her to make the case for interactivity, as feature film viewing inherits from much older forms. But she goes on to suggest that film viewing practices are derived from devotion:

The devotional aesthetic seen in [fan] processions and prerelease ritual shapes viewing and is seen in a range of practices that may be described as “pentecostal” (viewing or) engagement with the film, a crossing over from social respect (of the star) to worship. Similar to the Ram Lila festivities … where the swarups are worshipped, audiences respond to stars playing the roles of gods, as if seeing gods on the screen; the experience borrows from darshan at the temple. (p 218)

Is film reception devotion by other means? Or does the “borrowing,” in fact, lead us away from devotion proper?

Constantine Nakassis, in his book on youth culture in Tamil Nadu, suggests that we read performances by audiences/consumers as citations which bracket the “ontological status, fixity and coherence” of the very categories that are related through acts of citation (Nakassis 2016: 27). As for the performance of devotion by fans—which has been the subject of prime time news television in the past decade—Madhava Prasad goes to the extent of arguing that “fan bhakti” is not about devotion at all. It has to do with “subaltern sovereignty;” politics, not religion, is what the performance is about (Prasad 2009).

I am not suggesting that citationality and subaltern sovereignty are the last words on the subject of mimicry of traditional-religious vocabularies and practices in the domain of mass culture. But, the burden of interpretation has to be owned by those of us who study cultural forms and their consumption. To say the least, turning to religious and traditional practices for understanding audiences devalues our work. If religion is the master key, we should not be wasting our time on cinema, or politics for that matter. I mention politics because festivity is the default mode of electoral mobilisation too.

Even as the book highlights the linkages between acts of devotion and film viewing, it downplays the relationship between films and film viewing. This is in spite of the author’s insightful discussion of how disjointed narratives of popular cinema are particularly suited for distracted viewing by noisy viewers (Chapter 2). Some discussion of the textual cues that invite and incite audience activity would have helped demonstrate how films that are routinely dismissed as worthless by reviewers are, in fact, interactive.

My disagreements with the author’s conclusions notwithstanding, House Full is a welcome addition to research on Indian cinema in general and audiences in particular. This is the most detailed record yet of an important moment in the history of cinema and urban cultures in India. The stand-alone cinema hall is already a memory, an object of nostalgia even, for sections of the urban middle class. It is not the preferred space for sociality and leisure any more. We need not be surprised if the next generation of film students discover the cinema hall after reading this book.

Note

1 See Athique and Hill (2010) for a detailed review of literature on cinema halls in the pre-multiplex era.

References

Athique, Adrian and Douglas Hill (2010): The Multiplex in India: A Cultural Economy of Urban Leisure, London and New York: Routledge.

Dickey, Sara (1993): Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gerritsen, Roos (2012): “Fandom on Display: Intimate Visualities and Politics of Spectacle,” PhD
dissertation, Leiden University.

Kakar, Shalini (2010): “Star Deities of South Asia: Rethinking Fan Culture,” PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Nair, Janaki (2005): The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Nakassis, Constantine V (2016): Doing Style: Youth and Mass Mediation in South India, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Pinney, Christopher (2004): Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Prasad, M Madhava (1998): Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

— (2009): “Fan Bhakti and Subaltern Sovereignty: Enthusiasm as a Political Factor,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 44, No 29, pp 68–76.

Rajadhyaksha, Ashish (2003): “The ‘Bollywoodization’ of the Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol 4, No 1, pp 25–39.

Updated On : 28th Sep, 2018

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