Our cities and their cinemas
Has the new urban Indian cinema become inaccessible to the very people it mines for stories?
At the City Scripts festival in Delhi earlier this month, two panel discussions used different lenses to examine the symbiotic relationship between films and urban life. In one, the screenwriter-film-makers Urmi Juvekar and Kanu Behl spoke about “The City In Cinema"—how Indian cinema has depicted specific cities and city subcultures. In the other, critics Trisha Gupta, Mihir Pandya and I discussed “Cinema In The City"—how urbanites have experienced films over the decades. These are separate topics, but they overlap in some ways.
“The Cinema In The City" discussion included our personal experiences during the onset of the video era (all three of us being from the generation that grew up in the 1980s or later), the concurrent downgrading of the single-screen hall, and the rise of sleek, homogenized multiplexes. Speaking for myself, as a child I remember having the vague sense that movie halls were not respectable places. This was partly because many Delhi theatres had become neglected and shabby by the late 1980s, but also because of the vulnerable nature of our family unit: a young divorced woman, her son, and her widowed mother. We lived in Saket, a stone’s throw from the Anupam theatre—which would become the country’s first multiplex a decade later, in 1997—and we were undiscerning movie-watchers, but not once did we go to Anupam; this shady-looking building was not for us. Much better to rent “original copy" video cassettes each Friday, even if the prints included those silly ads dancing about on the bottom of the screen.
Other things were discussed—for instance, the colourful histories of old-time single-screen theatres, as chronicled in Ziya Us Salam’s book Delhi: 4 Shows—but I want to come now to “The City In Cinema". As Juvekar noted, Hindi cinema has moved towards more intimate, personal narratives compared to the generalized, “broad-stroke" storytelling of the past. “This shift has been partly facilitated by the medium becoming cheaper and more accessible," she said. “It’s a bit like the selfie culture—you take many more photos now, and they are mainly photos of yourself." And this means the use of settings that have a distinctive character, rather than all-purpose representations of city, village or small town.
When she began researching for Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!—based on the real-life thief Bunty—Juvekar met people who thought of Bunty as a hero, and then she realized that Delhi, a city overrun with aspirational stories, had to be central to the narrative. “We wrote it in terms of where the character comes from, and how the setting defined him." Behl had a comparable experience while scripting his directorial debut Titli, which is about both upward mobility—a young man tries to pull himself into a better world against many odds—and about emotional violence within a particular type of family. “When we asked ourselves what this film was really about, we knew what milieu it needed."
It’s a good thing that gritty new “multiplex films"—including not-very-mainstream films that probably wouldn’t have filled 1,000-seater halls in the old days—are telling stories about underdogs and marginalized lives. But this also raises a point that tenuously links the two City Scripts panels.
Film-watching in its traditional form has been conducted in public spaces that are, theoretically at least, open to all: people from assorted backgrounds, with different sensibilities and expectations, come together in the same space, and the results can be discomfiting or intrusive in some contexts while being bonhomie-creating in others—much like the business of living in a crowded, messy democracy is. During our session, Gupta mentioned a Bandit Queen screening where a mad scramble by people queued up outside the door (many of them drawn by the potential adult content) resulted in a man sitting, unbidden, on her lap.
Personally, I have been irritated when the chap seated next to me during a Siri Fort Auditorium film festival (open to all, low-priced or free screenings) leans over and asks, “Iss phillum mein SCENES honge na? (This film will have SCENES, right?)". But I have also felt stirred when viewers in the same hall have hooted and clapped raucously during a dramatic, paisa-vasool scene that seemed to demand exactly that sort of appreciation. Or at the entry of a much adored superstar (as the documentary Videokaaran tells us, Rajinikanth fans have been known to pre-install a garland at the exact spot on a screen where the actor’s face will be when he makes his first appearance).
How does one reconcile this passionate, demonstrative film-watching with the requirements of being quiet and decorous in a multiplex? Besides, the very nature of these modern theatres—the conditional access to the plush mall, the overpriced tickets—ensure that less-privileged viewers are debarred from them. As Pandya pointed out, Hindi cinema has become bewafa (disloyal) towards lower-middle-class viewers who had stayed faithful to it by frequenting halls during the video-and-television era of the 1980s.
Put differently: Bunty and his friends, or Titli and his brothers (one of whom works as a guard, stationed firmly outside a mall), may be convincing subjects of the brave new cinema. But in the multiplex age, how easy would it be for these city-dwellers to regularly watch films on a big screen, the way they would like to see them?
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.