Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The slow death of a romance”

Posted on January 11, 2013


From watching David Lean movies on your laptop to watching a brand-new film on your TV set is, I suppose, just another step in the evolutionary ladder of cinema.

Before the announcement of the postponement of Viswaroopam,  a message on my mobile phone said, with blithe disregard about the rules of language, “Watch Kamal Haasan movie VISHWAROOPAM in Tamil 1 day before theatre release on airtel digital TV at 9:30pm on 10-Jan.” It’s surreal. I think back to my growing-up-in-Chennai years when first-day tickets for a Kamal Haasan movie could be obtained only if you knew somebody who knew somebody who had a direct line to the Prime Minister. Or so it seemed. The fan clubs would hoard up all tickets, and as films were released only in a handful of theatres those days – four, maybe five – there weren’t all that many tickets to go around. Sometimes the chap who ironed our clothes – a fellow fan, who would fill me in on the box-office fate of this film and that one; I hardly stop to speak with him these days – would help with a ticket. Other times, there was no choice. You just had to wake up early and go stand in a long queue and hope you’d luck out in the black market.

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And now this device in my hand was promising a brand-new Kamal Haasan movie a day before its release. In my house. And I won’t have to lift a finger. At least, apart from the ones I will use to punch in digits and initiate this miraculous transaction. People have been going back and forth about whether this is a good thing, the fact that a major film is being made available on television alongside its theatrical release, when even in the US, Hollywood follows this practice only with the small films, the niche films that are released only in big centres like New York and Los Angeles, and if you’re an indie-movie buff in Anycity, Kansas, where the local theatres will only play big movies with big stars, then this is how you get to watch these other films. Theatre owners are wondering how this can be good for business. At home, viewers have other worries. What if, during this one-time-only screening, there is a power cut? What if… What if… What if…

But my concern is less practical, more… I don’t know what to call it. And it’s this: if this business model succeeds, will some of us stop going to the movies altogether? It appears unthinkable, but the things we think we will never do are the things we take to doing as easily as breathing because that’s the only way forward. As a kid, I’d hate it if I walked in late and missed the censor certificate. “You’re not seeing the film in its entirety,” my inner OCD-afflicted nascent cinephile would wail. But I got over that. Then there was the time I wouldn’t watch a Hollywood film I really wanted to on a pirated print. I’d hold out for the day it would come on a big screen, if only the one at the USIS. Then there was the philosophy that a film had to be watched in one go, the way it’s meant to be, and not split up over viewing sessions lasting a few days. And once you grow up and life gets in the way of movie-watching, that’s almost always how you watch movies, in bits and pieces.

These are things I’ve gotten used to and don’t think about twice anymore – it’s ease over ethic. Movie halls are  no longer temples where we worshipped stars and images, but hang-out joints that keep us distracted for a couple of hours. This is how the world works, and this is why we don’t see the David Lean movies being made anymore. Which director wants to set up camp in the deserts of Jordan, waiting patiently for the sun to cast just the right kind of shadow over the dunes, when audiences have only one eye invested in this spectacle, the other focused on the Twitter timeline on their smartphone? There’s no romance left about going to the movies any longer. To foster romance, you need distance, you need waiting and longing, and none of that is necessary when you have tickets for the film readily available the Monday after its release, because the rush rarely extends beyond the first weekend.

In this scenario, I suppose, the instant availability of a big-star movie like Viswaroopam is just another nail in the movie-going coffin, another twig tossed into cinema’s smouldering pyre. I no longer have to go and see Kamal Haasan. Kamal Haasan will come to my living room. (Actually, the TV set at home is elsewhere, but the line “Kamal Haasan will come to my bedroom” doesn’t sound quite right.) Of course, that’s still some time away, maybe years, maybe decades, but it will happen. And when this practice becomes the norm, who, I wonder, will go to the theatres anymore. The roads are going to become more clogged with traffic, the air more difficult to breathe, the tickets and snacks more expensive – who’s going to want to step out for a film when you can get it while lounging around at home with a bottle of beer? And I suspect this move will bring back those who stopped going to theatres because they already couldn’t handle the roads and the pollution and the prices. Is this is a new beginning for cinema or the end of movie-going? I really don’t know.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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