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The multiplex myth

VIJAY NAIR
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Dabangg has proved that while the multiplex has changed the economics of films, it doesn't necessarily provide an outlet for a more urbane brand of cinema… VIJAY NAIR

“D abangg” has busted at least two major myths that Bollywood had invented for itself in recent times. The first being a bound script is mandatory for the mega block buster to bring in the big bucks. Remember all that fuss about “3 Idiots” and who really deserved credit for the film's somewhat jumbled screenplay? Another myth that the Salman Khan pot-boiler debunked has to do with that elusive ‘multiplex' audience that the larger production houses decided to cater to with limp offerings like “Pyar Impossible”, “We are Family”, “Tasveer” and “Kites”. All these movies and many others were meant for the more sophisticated urban audience at these plush Meccas of film viewing who apparently preferred their cinematic diet more gourmet and less masala. Despite the fact that most of them sank without a trace, many filmmakers continued to believe in a mythical creature called the multiplex audience.

Assumptions?

They seemed to be convinced that such a creature actually exists. The one who frequents only the smaller cinema halls in suave malls and needs to chomp through tall packets of popcorn and nachos doused in chilly dip instead of the stale samosas and chips fried in dubious oil that were on offer in the crumbling “Regal Talkies” cafeteria with the sneering man overseeing the counter. The latter was reduced to the status of a “single screen”, never mind that some of these dilapidated halls could accommodate more numbers than all the single screens put together in the glittering mall. From Indore to Ahmedabad, from Delhi to Bangalore, the multiplex was the most visible symbol of the new shining India.

That they changed the economics of films and film-making cannot be disputed. Films don't need to run for 25 to 50 weeks to be deemed a smash hit anymore. Just the returns from the first one or two weeks are enough to educate us about their success or failure. The fundamentals of retail management have always advocated volumes. Multiplexes were instrumental in increasing the number of shows multi-fold. You didn't have to wait for a month to catch the latest blockbuster. The first weekend ensured as many people managed to catch it in their neighbourhood as were willing. It is virtually unheard of nowadays to hear anyone complain about the disappointment of returning home because tickets weren't available. The higher ticket rates are not a deterrent for the avid fans who want to catch the latest on the big screen in their gold and premium class luxury.

What has not been clear over the last three or four years is whether multiplexes had changed the audience profile of the most democratic of Indian entertainment. Do more attractive interiors necessarily mean a more sophisticated audience with more refined tastes? The families drive in for the movies in larger cars and park them in multi-level labyrinthine car parks, the dating youngsters who snuggle to each other in their seats wear designer wear. You no longer worry about who could be seated next to you when you decide on your evening's entertainment. But do all these changes also mean that the audience is ready to experiment with a more urbane brand of films?

The signals were confusing all along. Why would a smart social commentary like “Firaq” that plays out like a relentless thriller fail so miserably despite bagging all the critics' awards besides wowing audience in international festivals? On the other hand, would there be a parallel galaxy of Ranvir Shorey, Konkana Sen Sharma, Rajat Kapoor and Sahana Goswami if it wasn't for the multiplex phenomenon? Is it correct to surmise that the audience for a “Life in a Metro”, or “Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi”, or “Dor” is very different from the one who watches a “Singh is Kinng”, or “Ghajini”?

Unpredictable

The box office prophets of yore made a distinction between the front stalls and the balcony audience. The former would whistle and shower coins on their screen idols while the latter looked down in grim disapproval. So it wasn't uncommon for them to predict while a film appealed to one section, it had nothing to offer for the other. Only to be proved wrong. For, the eccentric Indian cinema buff has made seamless transitions between the two seating zones just as his tastes have veered from the sublime to the ridiculous. In the days gone by, when a much-awaited film starring the current heartthrob released, it wasn't unusual in the first weekend to find a perfectly turned out bourgeoisie family seated next to an auto rickshaw driver. The compromise was resorted to because balcony tickets were sold out even in the black market and the middle class family couldn't wait to watch the action. Just as regularly, a front stalls frequenter decided to give himself the luxury of watching a film with the balcony crowd.

The truth is, cinema is the only true leveller in our socio-economic context. From an MGR to an Aamir Khan, the raw charisma of these demigods cuts across social classes and knows no refinement. The biggest hits attract audiences of all kinds in all types of theatres. Be it a big budget “Ghajini” or “3 Idiots”, a modest “Peepli Live” or “Attithi Tum Kab Jaoge”, all of them became profitable because of patronage from different classes of cine goers. Sure there are films that appeal more to one section of the audience. But that distinction is based more on a metro city versus mofussil town and not the single screen versus the multiplex difference.

“Dabangg” settles the debate once and for all. The film rides on the raw appeal of Salman Khan and has nothing else on offer. Whether he is raising one eyebrow to demonstrate myriad expressions ranging from romance to ridicule or bursting into an impromptu jig in the middle of a brutal fight scene or serenading his lady love like a roadside Romeo, the sheer energy of his performance manages to hook you regardless of your background.

It doesn't take long for you to realise what this mindless mayhem of a movie offers to the appreciative audience is another Rajnikant. And anyone who believes the appeal of Rajnikant is restricted to a particular class is being foolish.

You don't need a Japanese to tell you otherwise.

The truth is, cinema is the only true leveller in our socio-economic context.


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