Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Memories of Silver

[This is the unedited version of an essay published in the Deccan Herald as Going, Going, Gone]

Memories of Silver

In a theme park near Bangalore, one of the attractions is a recreation of an 'old-time village theatre'. The box office is a rickety wooden shack with a tin signboard. There are faded posters of 90s movies with 'Coming Soon' hand-lettered on them. You cross all these, smiling, and enter into the actual 'theatre'. The best seats in the house are folding aluminum chairs, then there are several rows of backless wooden benches, and the cheapest seating area is just a sandy patch of ground. There are incandescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling, shaded by clay pots. The 'movie' is just a 10-minute long compilation of iconic scenes from old films (when I was there, they showed Gabbar Singh's introductory scene from Sholay). Inspired by the atmosphere, people around you clap and whistle at famous dialogues. You come out of screening feeling refreshed, feeling like you've just visited a simpler, more innocent time that has vanished forever.

Indeed, the way we watch movies has changed dramatically over the past few years. Leave aside the shift from watching one movie a week on Doordarshan, to having a dozen 24-hour-movie channels in your cable subscription. Forget the difference between having a couple of small video-cassette libraries in your neighbourhood, and of having the infinite resources of online shopping and the internet at your disposal. Take just the basic, most traditional, way of watching a movie by buying a ticket, sitting with a bunch of friends and strangers in a large hall and staring at a giant silver screen. Where once we had standalone, single-screen theatres with name like Alpana and Minerva and Rex, standing on independent plots of land, today we have shiny multiplexes, embedded into even larger malls, beckoning the young and peppy crowd. The multiplexes, while ostensibly in the same business as the single-screeners have changed every single part of the movie-going experience: from the way tickets are booked, to the seats, to the projection equipment - it's all new and 'improved'. But is it really a better way to be going about things? 

Take the way we decide which movie to watch. Once upon a time, the first we heard of an upcoming movie was by seeing its trailer before another movie. Or when we saw the posters in the lobby of the theatre. A week before it was due to release, the posters would spread out from the halls and onto every available public wall in town. If we were paying attention, we could hear songs from the movie on the radio. But it was possible for most of the movie to remain a secret. I still remember when Amitabh Bachchan's Shahenshah was released, it was not until after the release, when some classmates had seen it, that the rest of us heard the line 'Rishtey mein to hum tumhare baap lagte hai...". And we knew nothing of, say, the hot-air balloon scene or the courthouse scenes. We went to the theatre blind, relying on the superstar's allure.

Even after it was released, it was common for a good movie to take time to find its feet, to benefit from the slow spread of word-of-mouth. Sholay famously ran to empty theatres for a while before the word got out and the crowds started coming in. And the single-screen theatres were well suited to this kind of business: they worked on smaller margins, they had less staff. When a movie did do well, it could run for months or even years (we all know about the famous Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai, which has been running Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge continuously, for the past 17 years). Considering that the question to ask in those days was "Is there a movie releasing this week?" rather than "Which movies are releasing this week?" the model worked well. Almost every movie ran for more than a week, if not in the main shows, at least in the matinee and morning shows. It became a hit only when it completed 25, 50 or a 100 days.
That time is gone. Today, with the aid of multiplexes, a movie can be declared a hit and recover its money on the first weekend. A hundred shows run every day across all the multiplexes, mopping up all the demand quickly. Publicity departments for movies run at full steam to bring the audiences in as soon it's released. It's common to release details of the movie, interviews with the stars, have cross-promotion with television soap operas, sponsor TV shows and college events, even make up scandals and controversies just to get the movie in the public eye.

Take any recent blockbuster movie. We know all the lyrics of all the songs before it's released. We pretty much know what kind of story it is, and we know exactly what the leads will look like. We’ve read the trivia about the foreign shooting and the item song girl. We’ve seen the making-of interviews on the TV channels. What sort of revelation are we expecting in the theatre itself? And now that we're interested, we need to go see it on the opening weekend. The culture of long-running movies is gone; can you imagine even the biggest hits of today - Dabangg, Ra-One, Bodyguard, running in the multiplex longer than a month?
This is admittedly not the fault of the multiplexes alone; the very business model of movies is undergoing a change. But the frantic money-gathering around the first few days (which makes every movie a hit) is only enabled by multiplexes.

The rise of the multiplexes is killing not just the single-screen theatres themselves, but also any number of supporting businesses that grew up around them. Single-screen theatres tended to have a very basic selection of snacks (although everyone remembers with fondness the popcorn packets, the samosas in brown paper bags, and the crate of small Thums Ups - not to mention the rush at the counter during the interval). But just outside the theatre you invariably found several small snack vendors - a chaat wala, a bajji wala, fruit juice, soda and peanut sellers. Some of these vendors became well known in their own right. And medical shops, phone booths, even small restaurants were always available nearby, patronised by the crowds passing through the theatre.

The multiplexes, of course, have brought most of those businesses in-house. Selling eatables at sky-high prices is a model borrowed from US multiplexes, and it is the major source of revenue there. I'm not sure how much it contributes here, but the prices are definitely on the incredible side - a hundred rupees for a medium popcorn! Fifty plus for a sandwich! To make things worse, the "security check" at the entrance looks out for outside food with much more vigour than for bombs or weapons. It's even included in the pre-movie notice in some places: For your own safety we must check and remove all weapons, cameras, and outside food. Gone are the days when you could bring in a pack of glucose biscuits to avoid the interval-time rush.

Single-screen theatres in smaller towns outsourced even things like parking. This brings to mind a story my college professor was fond of telling. At the theatre he used to frequent, the bicycle parking was handled by local entrepreneurs who would rope off a segment of the pavement, leaving just enough gap for a cycle to enter or exit. They would then sell space in these improvised parking lots for movie-goers. (leaving your cycle outside these lots would mean a mysterious loss of air in its tyres). When my professor and his friends, in their college days, went to watch Dev Anand's Jewel Thief, they got a proposition from one of the entrepreneurs to park their cycles in his lot for 10 paise each. A competing lot owner then offered them the lower rate of 5 paise. Seeing his customers about to switch, the owner #1 tried to hold them to their word of honour. But finally, seeing them about to go to owner #2, he spat at them, "Fine, go! But let me tell you, Ashok Kumar is the Jewel Thief!"

Well, maybe bringing parking under the theatre's management wasn't such a bad idea. On the other hand, competition and outsourcing kept the prices of the food and the other facilities to the bare minimum. As each of these simple, low-end activities have been brought under the umbrella of the multiplex and turned into additional income sources, the average price of a movie outing has been rising. This includes, of course, the prices of the movie tickets themselves, but snacks/dinner, parking, and any number of extra attractions provided by the surrounding mall. Where an evening outing to the movies was something easily affordable by any class of people, today a movie for two, with dinner, could easily go above a thousand rupees. And if you're going on the weekend? Even more than that. Once a great leveller, movie watching has become an elite activity.

Beyond all these disappointments, what sticks in the mind is the boring homogeneity of the multiplexes. Once your ticket (printed by the same model of printer everywhere) has been torn and you step into the lobby, you could be in almost any multiplex in any town in India. It could be day or night. The food counters are always the same, the decor is the same colour shades, the walls displaying the posters look the same, even the security guards all wear the same sort of uniform everywhere. Where are the large lobbies with red carpets, the chandeliers, the paintings and distinct wall decor that marked each theatre differently? What about all the fancy type faces and metal letters announcing the name of the theatre, outlined in stark relief against the evening sky?

Many single-screen theatres that had been around for a while developed their own identities, for good or bad. Where this one was frequented by 'mill workers' and was best avoided by families, that one was grand and had a big lobby and air-conditioning and perfect for impressing out-of-town relatives. Other theatres stood out because of the genres of films they showed - in Bangalore, for example, Urvashi theatre near Lalbaug has been a hub for Tamil movies, and every Kamal Hassan release is accompanied by a gathering of his fan club there, putting up huge cutouts of the star. Rex, at the junction of Brigade Road, on the other hand, specializes in the latest English releases.  Theatres like these come into the common vocabulary of the local populace, become cultural icons. The Majestic area, after all, is named after the long-gone Majestic theatre. The distinctive outline of the Eros theatre in Mumbai has even been used as a backdrop in advertisements.

The upswing of the multiplexes has been steadily drawing business away from the single-screeners for the past two decades. As incomes rose, and more big-budget movies were released (both Indian and foreign), audiences were drawn towards the bright lights of the multiplexes which, let's face it, provided a cleaner, more assured experience, even if more expensive. The single-screeners began to be the second option - favoured by people with lower incomes, or who desperately wanted to see a movie and could not get a ticket in the multiplex. As time has gone by, many smaller single-screen theatres have gone bust, their land sold out to developers to build malls and apartments.

But all is not lost yet. Some hints at salvaging the situation come from the way US single-screen theatres have reinvented themselves - as specialists in specific genres, as hosts for film festivals, as showcases for vintage films, as nostaliga trips. There's no reason Indian theatres cannot do the same thing. Indeed, some venues are already doing it.

In Mumbai you have the Gaiety-Galaxy theatres which have been rebuilt as a set of 7 smaller screens. They're now becoming famous as the hangout for movie industry folks - they see a fair number of premieres, and even when normal shows are running, there are camouflaged visits from film stars and directors, to gauge audience reaction to the film.

In Bangalore we have the story of the erstwhile Symphony cinema, on M G Road. When it got closed down 'for renovation', the general sentiment was that it would get turned into another boring multipex. But it has become a luxury single-screener, with the spaciousness of the old-style space, and prices lower than other multiplexes - a new landmark. Then there's Rex, which is actually doing well just because of it's strategic location. With the large number of food stalls surrounding it, it has become a hangout spot for college students. Hopefully these trends continue, creating and updating these old landmarks with something new to look forward to.

To sum up, while the multiplexes are doing well and will not go away, there is still something to be got from the older single screen theatres - a trip down memory lane along with a pack of popcorn. Will you go on one this weekend?