How we watch films may have changed but not our passion for storytelling

For movie fans, the Friday release is sacrosanct, at least that’s what we were told, up until now. But times have changed, screens have multiplied and the urban movie-going experience has transformed radically; and come Friday night, most new releases are up for download in some form or the other on the torrent websites or for sale at your neighbourhood hole-in-the-wall CD shop or even on the footpath.

So, filmmakers and big production-distribution houses, who’ve been shouting from the rooftops about piracy and revenue loss — never mind that the multiplexes charge an arm and a leg for a ticket — are now forced to think out of the box. Take the Tamil superstar and producer-director Kamal Hassan, whose experiments with releasing his latest big-budget thriller Vishwaroopam, has triggered debate among entertainment pundits and analysts. His keenly watched plan involves releasing the film a day earlier through DTH on TV screens for a cool Rs.1,000.

Apart from being a bold attempt at a new distribution model, the Vishwaroopam experiment is an acknowledgement of the fact that the entire film watching experience has, and is, changing. For starters, ticket costs. Unlike in neighbouring states Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where the government controls ticket pricing, in Bangalore, catching a film in its first week, can cost up to Rs.350 (some premium tickets can even go up to Rs.500 depending on what value-adds are offered at the theatres). The result is an economic divide that’s as clear as day. Those who can afford it go to the multiplexes with the cushy seats and the technically superior sound and screen experience, while others make do with the single screens, most of which are languishing.

Ask M. Bhaktavatsala, film expert and old Bangalorean, about how film viewing has changed in the city, and he’ll tell you that it’s divided the filmgoer according to his/her economic status, and perhaps language. “Many of the Kannada films cannot afford the high rentals in multiplexes; some of them are screened due to government policy, but they don’t make enough money there,” he says. He recalls that in the late 1980s and even the 1990s, Bangalore was known for the over 100 cinema houses, some of them the best in the country. “Now, many of them are still up and running because they’re locked into lease agreements. They're poorly maintained. Many others are being demolished across the city.”

But are multiplexes all bad? No, says, Mr. Bhaktavatsala. In fact, he says that there was a time when audiences were beginning to prefer watching films at home, on their nicer screens in the comfort of their homes. The multiplexes pulled the discerning audience out of their homes, by offering them a better experience, he said. Some also believe that multiplexes, where the audiences are more clearly defined, have managed to impact cinema in a positive way and given room for small-budget, semi-alternative films.

The internet effect

But while ticket prices have gone spiralling upwards, legalities aside, the internet has been a leveller, allowing access to films from across the world. Torrent sites offer the best of cinema, and the more skilled internet user can find the most niche of arthouse cinema on the world wide web. Many internet companies are also investing hugely in offering video hosting and paid streaming services. Advocates of piracy argue that easier and more affordable -- or even free -- access to content will only expand the audience, or help bring in new audiences for theatres and live shows. And Bangalore too has seen a swelling audience for the movies, and in its presence as a global release venue. An associate at a leading production house says that the city is “up there in the league of all metro cities”, particularly when it comes to Hollywood releases. “Though we do believe piracy is bad and must be controlled, for some films it does provide a trailer experience. This is what Kamal Hassan too is banking on with Vishwaroopam,” the associate explains. He draws a parallel with music concerts, pointing out that music tapes and CDs, which were once unaffordable, are now downloaded, making it popular. "And so when these performers come down to perform, there are large audiences. The internet has done something similar for movies too," the associate says.

Film clubs

But what of the cities film societies and film clubs, which over the decades, in the absence of an official film festival were the go-to for cinephiles, who watched films together and then spent the rest of the evening steeped in discussion and debate on cinema? Over the years, many of them have closed, and the ones that haven’t have had to reinvented themselves as ‘cultural centres’ like the four-decade-old Suchitra Film Society.

Interestingly, the decline of these film clubs have not meant that the idea of collective viewing has faded. The traditional film societies have been replaced by many roving groups – a lot more informal – that source movies, sometimes from the internet or by purchasing a DVD, and project them. For instance, a welfare group for IT professionals in the city, the ITEC, has been screening films that “help increase social awareness”. Every week, members choose films and documentaries that deal with socially-relevant issues, screen them and then discuss them. Often, the discussions spill over into email groups and last for days. What sets these kind of clubs apart is that the focus here is on the issues, rather than the cinema, the art of cinematography, editing or script. Many other freewheeling groups like them can be found on the internet, most of which require infrastructure not more than a simple projector and a wide-ish balcony space.

Film fests

Film festivals too are an integral part of the cinema culture here. Though the five-year-old official film festival, the BIFFES, is held annually, the discerning film lover’s calendar is punctuated with theme-based film festivals. Like the LGBT film fest that has over the past few years been an integral part of the debate and activism surrounding issues of sexuality and gender.

But cobbling together these fests is a complicated affair. Unlike in the past, when most organisers or film societies were able to procure the films through foreign embassies, these days even the smaller films come at a big cost, points out Nitin Manayath, lecturer at Mount Carmel and organising member of the Bangalore Queer Film Festival. Big distributors buy smaller films, even those in the alternative film space, and charge up to Rs.1 lakh for a single screening. “This makes it difficult for us, and every year it gets tougher. This also has to do with the proliferation of the film festival format.”