Two weeks ago at the Emmy Awards, host Jimmy Kimmel performed an opening monologue as glamorous celebrities in the audience laughed and applauded, till we spied Kimmel himself in the audience, the joke being that he was in an empty auditorium and the crowd shots were from other events. This weekend Bigg Boss rolled back on to Indian screens—the show streams on Voot Select—and host Salman Khan kicked things off with the exact same gag. As he spoke of the weirdness of 2020 (and the weirdness of Bigg Boss still getting sponsors in 2020), we saw Anil Kapoor, Jacqueline Fernandez and Farah Khan laugh it up before it was revealed that the host was, in fact, by himself, talking to empty seats.
To the untrained eye, it may appear as if Khan copied Kimmel. I assure you that it is the other way around. Indian film events have used canned reaction shots for decades now. At any movie award, stars in empty theatres take several takes to get their dance moves right, while a glitzy crowd is added on for the TV audience. Celebrities actually fill their seats for maybe a fifth of the running time. This is why cameras conveniently cut to Ranbir Kapoor looking pensive whenever Deepika Padukone is dancing, or, inevitably, Rekha in a signature Kanjeevaram whenever Amitabh Bachchan is feted on stage. Exposing the empty auditorium to viewers is merely a peeling back of the curtain.
Canned crowds are most deafening during the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches, streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. The crowd roars for unimpressive singles as ferociously as for the catch of the series. There are shouts and chants (“Dhoni! Dhoni!”, “RCB! RCB!”) and every now and then the prolonged whoa of a Mexican wave surrounds a hollow, vacant stadium. Sporting events around the world, forced into closed-door situations bereft of crowds, are creating atmosphere in their own ways: Baseball matches in the US and football matches in Italy, for instance, are using computer-generated animated crowds—as in the background of sports video games—so that empty seats don’t look as empty.
To paraphrase the koan: If you creamed a boundary and nobody was around to applaud, did you really hit it? It must feel surreal to play in an empty stadium. Particularly for players from the subcontinent, their game born on crammed and noisy streets, and bred under the gaze of indiscreet audiences. Reportedly Virat Kohli, India’s spirited captain who feeds off the energy of a loving crowd, was caught off-guard in the early matches by the emptiness of the ground—even as younger players made their mark, freed up to play their shots without hopeful eyes on them.
I am no IPL watcher—I hung up my cricket-watching boots the day Sachin Tendulkar hung up his playing ones—but somehow, this damned year, I find myself switching on a few overs every night, watching players I don’t know giving it their all. To me it’s a balm, a representation of the ordinary—of the way things were. Watching cricket is like peeking outside the window and convincing myself things are getting back to normal, even though with coronavirus numbers spiralling to crazy highs, the distraction seems as empty as the stadiums.
The combination of impassioned cheers and empty stands is deeply unnerving but—a bit like Virat Kohli—I guess I am getting used to it. Alarming. We are effectively saying the spectacle goes on even if the spectators don’t, and that performers can create the crowd we like. Our news channels claim they know what the nation wants to know, our film-makers claim they know what audiences want to watch, and now—with television and film viewership more obscured than ever before—they get to create their own applause, their own cheers, their own laugh-track.
Sport—particularly the circusry of the IPL—may be a free-for-all of cheers and hoots, but imagine this taken further: a poor stand-up comedian egged on by his own pliant, amused audience, or a politician who fills up a divisive rally with sounds of assent.
A clip is doing the social media rounds of our prime minister in Himachal Pradesh, waving with pageant-winning poise as he glides through a tunnel he is inaugurating—with nobody around for him to wave at. He is looking not at the camera but into the distance, perhaps imagining the crowds there would have been, and imagining that they would like being waved at. That isn’t far removed from the crack of a perfectly middled cover drive, ricocheting off empty seats. Is there a better metaphor for an echo-chamber?
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.