Movie theatres will never go out of fashion, but let's stop pretending it is the 'right' way to watch films
Theatres were never supposed to become harbingers of quality cinema. Cinema is strictly a demand-supply business.
Spare me the guilt! This was my instant reaction each time I came across an opinion claiming that the exercise of exhibiting cinema in India had likely been vitiated by the sudden decision of some producers to release films on OTT platforms.
This lateral movement includes, in the Hindi space, at least for now, Shoojit Sircar’s much awaited Gulaabo Sitaabo and Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi. It is likely more will join the list in the coming months. Before we jump the gun and declare theatres as unworthy of our money because they don’t support indie or arthouse films, let me reject that argument, as if from the comfort of an imaginary, ignominiously priced recliner.
Theatres are businesses, calibrated to maximise profits, not brownie points for supporting reclusive artists or niche films. The sooner you move past your bitterness about not having access to quality cinema, the better. It is what it is. That said, if you put reservations aside, theatres aren’t the best way to watch quality cinema anyway.
Before you look me up on the internet to pointedly reject me as a lunatic, hear me out.
Theatres were never supposed to become harbingers of quality cinema. Cinema is strictly a demand-supply business. It largely sells what people want to buy. And people buy into illusions more readily than they buy into reality. Like how the overpriced cola at the theatre near you feels refreshing even though you’d otherwise pretend to drink a less caloried version. In India, people flock to the theatres to escape their own limited lives.
Theatres are neither obligated nor should they be forced to accrue financial loss in favour of cultural gain.
I watched Newton in an empty theatre in Pitampura on a day when all shows of Judwaa 2 playing in the next hall were sold out. Unlike Varun Dhawan, let’s not kid ourselves ever again. My problem with theatres isn’t with what they show, but that they aren’t even a convenient or pleasant way to watch films. Most chains time their shows so the person watching either sits hungry or chokes on an oversized tub of popcorn that is likely to turn into a nightmarish intestinal spasm by the time you reach home. You either hold your pee, or risk being ‘uffed’ or ‘kck kck’-ed by strangers who instantly deem you a public enemy in that awkward moment.
Overactive bladders certainly have no place in the cinema. The Hunt for Red October is rather delicate in comparison to the hunt for the perfect seats, the subsequent rush to reach on time, the perils of missing a trailer that isn’t exactly a state secret and the nervousness of disassociating with public rituals like shows of patriotism and exhibitions of civility. Not to mention the crippling fear of tripping and landing face-first into someone’s privates. Compare all of that to the comfort of your home, your time, your taste, your sound, your sense of lighting, your bladder’s fundamental rights and you have pretty good deal.
On a more serious note, most advocates of ‘theatres are the right way to watch cinema’ are people in the business of cinema.
The exhibitor, of course, the maker who would like to see his creation to soar financially, and the critic who without his VIP pass to a press screening, is just another human being with an opinion. This collective lobbies for the theatrical experience, some for the money, others for prestige. The makers and exhibitors don’t want to miss out on the cash and the critic does not want to lose his exclusivity, his chance to be the first to see, and the first to therefore be heard. What better way to liberally distribute and commodify (Let’s not kid ourselves again) art than to take it home to the consumer, where they can better see, engage, explore and indulge? Especially, without having to experience the cold shivers from watching a couple with a 2-year-old slowly ascend the steps to the empty seat near you. Or without having to recoil at the idea of watching alongside a group of men who seem to stuck inside a closed loop of puberty.
I haven’t even mentioned the finances yet, the possibility that you could watch so much more, perhaps a month’s worth of content for the price of a single multiplex ticket. Include a large popcorn, and the mineral water that does not exist outside of the theatre and you are already on your way to a large screen TV on easy EMIs.
We are not averse to paying. But that shouldn’t itself be the justification of a medium. Add to that comfort, personal space and undisputed control over ringtone volume and this forced manoeuvre feels natural, perhaps long due. Theatres won’t go out of fashion, of course. People don’t want to just escape their lives, but everything that reminds them of it, which includes the sofa cum bed at home. But if theatres want to pretend, by releasing statements to the public they usually con, that this is about some ethical seesaw, then friends and foes, we need to call their bluff.
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