Abbas Kiarostami did something spectacular in his film Shirin. He turned the audience to themselves and made Hugo Munsterberg feel proud! The film is about a hundred odd women watching a film on Shirin-Farhaad. Throughout the film we, who are watching Abbas Kiarostami’s film Shirin, watch close up shots of those hundred odd women watching the film on Shirin-Farhaad, while listening to the film that they are watching! Through their reaction we see the film that they are seeing!
The hundred odd women are well behaved women who are watching movie devotionaly, without letting their focus divert! It also looks like some multiplex hall and the film is an engaging classic love story. Now imagine capturing the audience reaction in a small town single screen theater in India while they are watching a masala Bombay cinema!
Multiplexes are quite sophisticated. If you get a sense of heart rate using a monitor over there, in single screen theater it is like holding the hand of the audience, being in direct touch, and listening to the pulse!
It is here in single screen theaters of India that cinema became interactive cinema of its own kind. Unlike the theorized interactive cinema where the filmmaker makes the film interactive by inviting the audience for participation here the audience take charge and make it interactive, whether the film being played on the screen invites interaction or not.
One of the earliest film theoretician Edgar Morin described at length the mechanisms of the mind involved in the experience of the spectator, which he believed, is one of ‘participation’. The spectator participates in the film by means of ‘identification’ with the protagonists or even with the objects and by means of ‘projection’ of his own feelings into the protagonists and objects on the screen.
In one of my blog posts earlier, titled Opium Of The Masses, I had argued on similar lines as to how cinema enables people to live an idea-self, which is quite distant in real from their real self, during the hours in the dark. Well, the participation, which Morin speaks of, can happen through ‘identification’ and ‘projection’ provided the characters in the film are identifiable with. Provided the cinema is identifiable with.
When it isn’t so, more than often, it is not booed by the audience. That can be done only during live performances so that the performer can rework on performance while performing itself and make the performance acceptable. But cinema is not a medium which gives a chance for this. So the audience starts to rework the film for themselves by giving directions to the characters as to how to behave what to do how to do. And obviously the characters don’t! But the audience is left with the satisfaction that, “Had it been the way I thought then the film would be a super hit.”
The dialogues of the characters receive witty spontaneous impulsive answers from the audience where the audience outsmarts the dialogue writer. Quite often these replies to the characters in screen, speaking in Hindi/Hindustani, are in local tongue. The silent audience gets to listen to a sentence in Hindi/Hindustani and a response to that in say Kannada, Tulu etc which make it an unmatched experience! This interacting with the characters gives a sense of being Supreme Being powerful and it gives a kind of satisfaction of having the last word.
In these non-interactive interaction with cinema the audience usually mock at the film. Recently while watchingDhoom-3 the unbelievable stunts of the characters made a few guys sitting in front of me, stand up and with their hands up and then bow down! A disrespectful disrespect, not through words but by the entire body to mock and register the protest and also have that thrill of having the final word!
In the court of cinema hall all objections can be voiced! The audience is quite open about their objections and raise objections voice objections as a matter of right! When people came to the cinema hall to watch Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s first film they knew nothing of the Director. They came for Nana Patekar who by then had made a place for himself in the hearts of the audience for his dialogues! But they come to watch Bhansali’s filmKhamoshi and ooppss their dear Nana Patekar is deaf and dumb!!! The audience started screaming, “Naana kuch bolo warna hamaara paisa waapis karo,” (Naana deliver a dialogue or two else return our money) While watching Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan how many upper caste people not approving of reservation passes castist remarks!
When going to a single screen theater in a small town one should be prepared to listen to extremely castist, racist and sexist remarks! That gives a glimpse into the mindset of the people of this country! Whether the film is good or bad whether it is a film with characters with which/ whom you can identify or not the female characters of the film just can’t escape sexist comments. From direct reference to their body parts the audience also invite the female characters to their home their bed! The girls among the audience seldom raise their voice even when the hero of their dreams is also on screen! Maximum some will scream during the entry, thanks to the darkness in the hall which gives some kind of anonymity which gives a kind of courage to cheer for their beloved hero!
We are not just sexists, castists and racists. We are also nationalists! When that kid in Karan Johar’s Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham adjusts his voice and sings the national anthem, the cinema hall came to silence as every audience stood up and paid respects to the national anthem. When Sunny Deol in Gadar said, “Hinduatan zindabad tha zindabad hai aur zindabad rahega” oh man one should have seen the audience raising their hands punching it in the air to say, “Zindaabaad, zindaabad.” The audience is always participative. And it is in this participation that it reveals unknowingly the pulse of the nation.
Cinema in India is not just an art. It is not just a business. It is something beyond art and business. It is obviously, now I realize, more than what I argued once: Opium of the masses! Its only when we shift our gaze from the screen to the audience that we realize it. There is no point being judgmental about the audience behavior in the hours of darkness in a cinema hall. It calls for some non-judgmental analysis from serious sociologists and academicians.
There are things to be analyzed by filmmakers too (barring those who are committed to the artistic aspect of cinema which I respect)
Decades ago in a small town in Karnataka Girish Karnad’s film Kaadu (Forest) was being played. An arthouse cinema. People had come from nearby villages on one evening to watch the film. They buy the tickets and seat themselves in the hall. The lights go off and a beam of light hits the screen! Unlike always the screen is still more or less dark. They can hear nothing! Obviously saar. Arthouse cinema! Its all dark (for heaven’s sake the film is titled Kaadu to mean Forest) and the sound is only of the crickets and the owls! The audience couldn’t understand what was happening. They assumed it was some prank being played by the projectionist. Some of them turned to the projectionist behind them and started throwing their voice to him, “Sound sound” to indicate that they cant hear and also instructing him to increase the volume levels! There is no improvement. They try concentrating on the visuals. Dimly lit screen with no dialogue (the characters speak through their eyes and actions in arthouse cinema boss). Slowly torch lights lit up in the hall and the torch light is thrown on the screen! The audience had come from nearby villages and had carried torches with them for it will be dark by the time the film gets over. They throw torch light on the screen, like throwing the torch light on their way back when they can’t see the path ahead, to see what is in the screen!
Now tell to what extent the audience participates in the film. When the paths shown in the film is dark the audience uses the torch in their hand to throw light on the dark paths in the screen! If one is to throw light on the way audience look at cinema and how they respond to cinema during the hours in the dark then there is a clue as to what cinema means to them, apart from giving a glimpse into their socio-psychology. It is certainly beyond art. It is beyond business. It is not just an opium of the masses. It becomes visible only during the hours in the dark.
[The title for this post is taken from T.G. Vaidyanathan’s book of the same title]