David Lean movies on your laptop to watching a brand-new film on your TV set is, I suppose, just another step in the evolutionary ladder of cinema

Before the announcement of the postponement of Vishwaroopam’s release, a message on my mobile phone said, ‘Watch Kamal Haasan movie VISHWAROOPAM in Tamil 1 day before theatre release on Airtel digital TV at 9:30pm on 10-Jan’. It was surreal. I thought of my growing-up-in-Chennai years when first-day tickets for a Kamal Haasan movie could be obtained only if you knew somebody who knew somebody who had a direct line to the Prime Minister. Or so it seemed. The fan clubs would hoard up all tickets, and as films were released only in a handful of theatres those days — four, maybe five — there weren’t all that many tickets to go around. You just had to wake up early and go stand in a long queue and hope you’d luck out in the black market.

And now, a device in my hand promised me a brand-new Kamal Haasan movie a day before its release. In my house. People were going back and forth about whether this was a good thing, when even Hollywood followed this practice only with the small films, the niche films. Theatre owners wondered how this was good for business. At home, viewers had other worries. What if, during this one-time-only screening, there was a power cut? What if..

But my concern was less practical; if this business model succeeds, will some of us stop going to the movies altogether? It appears unthinkable, but the things we think we will never do are the things we take to doing as easily as breathing because that’s the only way forward. As a kid, I’d hate it if I walked in late and missed the censor certificate. “You’re not seeing the film in its entirety,” my inner nascent cinephile would wail. But I got over that.

Then there was the time I wouldn’t watch a Hollywood film I really wanted to on a pirated print. I’d hold out for the day it would come on a big screen. Then there was the philosophy that a film had to be watched in one go and not split up over viewing sessions lasting a few days. And once you grow up and life gets in the way of movie-watching, that’s almost always how you watch movies, in bits and pieces.

These are things I’ve gotten used to and don’t think about twice anymore — it’s ease over ethic. Movie halls are no longer temples where we worshipped stars and images, but hang-out joints that keep us distracted for a couple of hours. This is how the world works, and this is why we don’t see the David Lean movies being made anymore.

Which director wants to set up camp in the deserts of Jordan, waiting patiently for the sun to cast just the right kind of shadow over the dunes, when audiences have only one eye invested in this spectacle, the other focussed on Twitter on their smartphone? There’s no romance left about going to the movies any longer. To foster romance, you need distance, you need waiting and longing, and none of that is necessary when you have tickets for the film readily available the Monday after its release, because the rush rarely extends beyond the first weekend.

In this scenario, I suppose, the instant availability of a big-star movie such as Vishwaroopam would have been just another nail in the movie-going coffin, another twig tossed into cinema’s smouldering pyre. If that had happened, I would no longer have had to go and see Kamal Haasan; Kamal Haasan would come to my living room. Of course, that’s still some time away, maybe years, maybe decades, but it will happen.

And if this practice becomes the norm, who, I wonder, will go to the theatres anymore. The roads are going to become more clogged with traffic, the air more difficult to breathe, the tickets and snacks more expensive — who’s going to want to step out for a film when you can get it while lounging around at home? I suspect it will bring back those who stopped going to theatres because they already couldn’t handle the roads and the pollution and the prices. Will it then be a new beginning for cinema or the end of movie-going? I really don’t know.