People power

Posted on February 13, 2016


Watching a movie with an audience makes it a very different movie.

During the latter half of Sanam Teri Kasam, which was released about a week ago, we’re told the heroine has a brain tumour. Ailments are always so lovely in the movies. At home, a cold means red eyes, sneezes that can blow the roof off a car, fingers coated with snot. In the movies, there’s just a dainty hat-choo into a handkerchief. That’s how this tumour is too. A tiny trickle of blood descends from a nostril every time the heroine suffers an attack. By the third trickle, the audience had lost interest. The heroine is getting married to the hero. “Kal main saadi pehnoongi,” she says. (She’ll wear a sari.) She asks what he will wear. The man in the seat next to mine said to the screen, “Kuch nahin.” (Nothing.) The theatre burst into laughter, and I couldn’t catch the hero’s reply. The filmmakers must have hoped for a tender reaction. We were clutching our sides.

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In the extraordinary book of conversations between the legendary film and sound editor Walter Murch and writer Michael Ondaatje, Murch says that a film “engages each member of the audience as a participant in the work. How each moment gets completed depends on each individual person. So the film, although it’s materially the same set of images and sounds, should, ideally, provoke slightly different reactions from each person who sees it.” One part of what he’s saying – that not everyone sees the same film – is true whether you watch the film in a theatre or at home. But there’s something else when you watch a film with hordes of strangers. You become aware of their reactions. As much as you want to see the movie through your eyes (and your eyes only), a live audience shapes your viewing experience in ways both subtle and obvious.

The first time I watched Visaranai was at the Mumbai film festival. Festival audiences are cinephiles, and respect for the medium (and the fellow film lover) is an ingrained trait. The film was visceral, so you could hear a few gasps, but there was nothing to distract the audience, nothing to break the spell that you were the only one in the theatre and they were playing the movie just for you. I watched the film again during its wide release two Fridays ago, and it felt quite different. The story has to do with four Tamils who work in Guntur and are arrested when a local big shot’s house is burgled. They are tortured beyond belief, and then told that if they confess to the crime before the judge, they will be let off with a small sentence. The four men agree, but in court they take their shirts off and show the judge how badly they’ve been beaten. The audience roared in approval, and I realised how this was now playing like a “hero moment.” In Mumbai, this scene was about a pathetic nobody making a last-ditch effort to save himself. In Chennai, the same moment played as though he was slyly outwitting the bad guys and making a dash for freedom. Same scene. Very different feel.

This is why the concept of a “DVD review” is popular abroad. Because the print review that appears at the time of a film’s release is either from a press screening or a visit to the theatre, and it’s a very different movie on your DVD. I’ve seen people watch a movie on YouTube, many years after its release, and then come back to my review and say their experience was totally different. Well, what did they expect? Again from Murch, this time from his foreword to Anand Pandian’s Reel World: On Location in Kollywood: “In a single large theatre… you might find an audience of 600, with an average age of 25 years, which works out to 15000 years of human experience… Fifteen thousand years of hopes, dreams, tragedy, success, plain, pleasure… all jumbled into the theatre waiting for a thin beam of light…” How can individual response not be influenced by the collective?

India is especially interesting in this regard. We get worked up about everything. The recent Bangalore Naatkal has a scene where a husband and wife make love. He touches her hand. She turns. It’s all quick cuts, we see nothing below the neck. And yet, people were whistling, commenting. I’m sure there are others like me, who have trained themselves to shut out this sort of thing – to the extent that it’s possible. But for the rest of the audience, the spell is broken, the mood is destroyed. I hate watching serious, talky films (like Bridge of Spies) with an Indian audience. They’ve been trained by our mainstream cinema to expect loud dialogues, loud background scores, sometimes both at once – and they don’t have the patience for other kinds of films. Conversely, I would hate to watch an Indian masala movie in a theatre abroad. The hollering, the whistling, the hero-worshipping – the film plays so strangely without any of this. You feel like the Kamal Haasan character in Pushpak / Pesum Padam, who cannot sleep without the dishoom-dishoom sounds emanating from his local movie house. Our default setting is noise.

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