House Full: Sociologist Lakshmi Srinivas looks at Indian cinema from the audience's perspective

Vrushali Haldipur

Feb,04 2017 10:27 03 IST

The Indian film fan is a creature of decidedly peculiar habits. He is prone to declaring his love for his icon with a passion. One fan may roll on the ground, another may forgo a meal to pay for a first day, first show ticket, while yet another may break a coconut on his head — all for the continued success of his idol. But a day at the matinee, munching peanuts can also reveal a society’s hidden anxieties and class identities, reveals sociologist Lakshmi Srinivas in her new book which trains the microscope on the Indian movie goer or habitué to find out what makes him tick.

house full book review

Cover of 'House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience'

House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience approaches cinema from the point of view of the audience, which has been largely ignored. “Indian cinema studies have traditionally only focused on film theory, cult of celebrity and retrospectives of directors and actors. I wanted to bring in the viewer's perspective, and explore the variations that distinguish the Indian film viewing experience," says Srinivas, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. For her unique study which spanned over 15 years, Srinivas went to single screen as well as the newer multiplex theatres in Bengaluru and extensively interviewed habitués, fans, theater managers, directors and producers in the South Indian film industry and Bollywood, to offer some delightful sociological insights into what most would see as mundane activities.

Film fans in India take a personal interest in the success of a movie starring their favorite actor. In some cases, their power extends to the making of the film. Directors have revealed how the wrath of fans has often forced them to change story lines. Fans of Tamil film icon MGR could not bear the thought of his character dying in a film, so they agitated and the plot was changed, MGR lived on and all was well with the world again.

New releases of films are treated with the reverence accorded to religious festivities, but taken to the extreme — some fans will perform an aarti in front of a cut out of their idol, while others climb the thousand steps of a local temple on their knees to pray for success of the film. Others will donate blood and pledge their eyes at the first show, to show their solidarity with their idol. Braving the interminable long ticket lines, massive crowds at the theaters makes the die-hard fan an active participant in the star’s continued success and glory. The theaters reciprocate. Like devotees at a temple are given prasad, movie goers for a Rajkumar film were given ladoos for every milestone show. Women attending a Ramesh film with a wedding as its main plot were presented with glass bangles, ‘blouse piece’ and jasmine flowers, mimicking the experience of going to a South Indian wedding. In the United States, Rajinikanth fans get together at the local theatre for the first day, first show of the latest Thalaiva film, smashing kumkum anointed pumpkins (in lieu of coconuts) outside the theatre for good luck.

"The process of watching a film — with all its obligatory rituals, makes for a heightened experience and this in turn creates a form of collective identity that viewers can tap into. You get the sense that they feel a deep bond with the film and its stars, knowing that they have helped in its success. Often, at many theaters, you will hear the fans discussing the next film of their favorite star, and how they plan to make it to the first day, first show, almost like you would hear rock music fans talk about the upcoming concerts that they simply would not miss," says Srinivas.

Fans queue up outside a Chennai theatre for first day first show tickets. File photo

Fans queue up outside a Chennai theatre for first day first show tickets. File photo

The book examines the various social calculations and constructs a film goer makes with each trip to the theater, offering fascinating sociological insights into what most would see as mundane activities. Choosing which theater to go, standing in endless queues for tickets (or not), haggling over 'black' tickets, choosing seats — these commonplace activates are loaded with meaning. For instance, middle class movie goers and women tend to avoid waiting in ticket queues, as it they see it as being beneath their status. The ability to avoid standing in queue or queue by proxy distinguishes the 'class' movie goer from the 'mass' or 'public', writes Srinivas.

Srinivas also examines how seating in the theatre can reveal the social insecurities of the habitué, as well as the complex social calculations that are involved in the process of selecting a seat. Interviews with cine goers reveal that middle class viewers often insist on a prestige balcony seat, which presents them as 'respectable and of a certain status, different from those in the cheap seats, the front stalls (also called Gandhi class), filled with presumably, 'lower class' viewers and ‘rowdies’. Even the people sent out to purchase tickets for the middle class movie goers — typically domestic workers, office employees, errand boys or chauffeurs — will insist on balcony tickets for their employers similarly, theatre staff and scalpers can read the class and social status of the viewer and can assume seat preference. So when two middle class women ask for tickets to the lower stalls, they are advised to sit in the balcony by both scalpers and theatre staff. Srinivas writes, “Middle class movie goers may find that their cinema experience is constructed by the normative world of office employees, domestic workers, ticket clerks, scalpers and auto rickshaw drivers.”

Watching a film in India in a raucous, crowded single screen theatre with a multi generational audience can be a full-blown multi sensory experience when compared to the antiseptic environment that an American theater with a Hollywood film offers — empty seats and silent watching.

As a movie goer says in the book, "to experience the real feel of Indian cinema, one must watch movies in single screen theatres. The whistles catcalls and claps are an integral part of the whole cinematic experience here." Movie going in India is a community experience — with members of the extended family and friends — cousins, aunts, neighbours of said cousins, babies, grandparents et al, all joining in for a day at the movies, in a theatre that is extremely diverse in social make up. People will talk, take a walk, come back, and pacify a fussy baby, without missing the superstar’s punch dialogues. Contrast that with the American experience where movie going is a somewhat solitary experience, governed by standardised rules about how to behave.

Fans of Rajinikanth offer 'palabhishekam' to a cutout of the superstar. File photo

Fans of Rajinikanth offer 'palabhishekam' to a cutout of the superstar. File photo

Srinivas writes that American students, who were assigned to watch Bollywood films in theaters in the United States as part of the research, could not make sense of the experience. They found the talkative and multigenerational mostly South Asian-audience annoying and left the film half way through.

But it’s not just cultural factors that account in the difference in European/Hollywood and non-European film going experiences, argues Srinivas. The way American/European/multiplex way of watching a movie — silently, no talking back to the screen, no lively interaction with seat neighbours etc has in fact, been specifically engineered. Hollywood has been actively subduing the voluble and restless audiences in a bid to legitimise and elevate the film experience. In the first act of American cinema in the 1900s, films were 'low class', audiences were predominantly working class, the theatres had live skits and other forms of entertainment to keep the masses from walking out or throwing eggs at the screen. In order to gentrify, a concerted campaign was started, as Adolph Zukor said, "to kill the slum tradition in the movies". By silencing the audience, by reducing into a powerless homogeneity, it is argued; theaters in the United States were able to create a standardized movie watching experience that would attract more feet into theatres worldwide. And the results are far reaching. In India, observes Srinivas, watching a film at the multiplex is a ‘ clean, ‘decent and high end experience, for the upwardly mobile, far removed from the front stall types, the hoi polloi that they would be forced to rub shoulders with in a single screen theatre. Also fading, the fervent celebrations and hysteria that accompany each new release — these are now relegated to a few single screen theatres.

The bigger questions on culture, though still persist, says Srinivas. What do the changes in Indian cinema mean for public culture? Will the multiplex erase the single screen — if so, what then of its patrons, the front-benchers, the Gandhi class, who form the backbone of any star’s fan base? And that, one suspects, may induce nervous producers to smash a coconut on their own heads.

House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience by Lakshmi Srinivas; published by University of Chicago Press; pages: 312; price (paperback) Rs 3127