Film and Cinema in The Contemporary Media Landscape
What is the significance of the cinema in the contemporary media situation? Is it a dying form, in the process of being replaced by new media technologies? The audio visual entertainment form we have always referred to as film/movie/cinema, is now available through cheap digitalized formats. Despite stringent laws against piracy, there appears to be a widespread consensus that their enforcement is extremely difficult. Copying technologies are cheap and easily available, and are part of a decentralized economy that feeds into informal circuits of distribution and consumption. Film, previously available only at the cinema, is now an object of consumption which can be bought in the local market and viewed through cable television; though there are no estimates available of the grey economy, it would be reasonable to argue that in terms of viewing conditions, the cinema has been displaced as the primary location for film viewing.
The question then arises as to whether the object we used to call film can be legitimately called that anymore. After all, the dominant consumer form is really digital, not celluloid. We could still argue that the large scale economies which support the production of cinema, with the huge outlays on film sets, camera technology, stunt work and, of course, stars, leave their imprint on the character of a product which is still avidly sought out and consumed in the bazaar as vcd and dvd. Further, as a form of story telling, we may assume, too, that the particular combination of attractions provided by the cinema melodramatic narratives, action spectacles, song and dance sequences, comedy items is also not going to disappear overnight. Even when the technological base is shifting, there is still something in the nature of the product which has not. As cultural form, with durable links to a long history, let us still call this thing film, if not the cinema.
Let us now think about film and cinema in terms of property. The new technology of copying, distribution and delivery is governed by immateriality, that is what is so slippery about it for the maintenance of property rights. When film moves into this technological spectrum, there are attempts to develop a more elaborate system of rights to determine who controls the commercial exploitation of films. As research done by Puloma Pal (film city), Lokesh Sharma (cable TV Network) and Yamini Jaishankar (enforcement )shows, a variety of rights have emerged, relating to video, satellite broadcast and cable exhibition. This is going to be another important area of conflict, in which legislation is sought to entrench rights, and such rights are regularly flouted.
However, when we talk about the cinema, there are other issues of property which are not based on immateriality. The cinema is a physical space, and is therefore part of a network of the urban market in real estate. As it happens, this material property form has been subject to a variety of restrictions, for example, where government planning has allocated a plot for cinema exhibition. As we know, with the steep decline in the success rate of films over the years, there has been considerable pressure to alter land use. Cinema owners, whether as direct property owners or as lessees of government property, have sought a range of strategies to maximize returns, whether by introducing multiple screens, or renting out a portion of the property for shops and eating places. Puloma Pals' article indicates the elaborate plans to set up multiple screens, sometimes in alliance with the development of malls. Groups such as the PVR chain have ambitious country wide agenda for the development of multiplexes. This is not the only future for the cinema. Research into some of the older cinema halls of the city, as in the case of Faizan Ahmeds work on Robin cinema near the old sabzi mandi, suggests that low capital investment in overheads and through the featuring of low rental re-runs, may still provide the possibilities for eking out a space of survival.
But let us look more closely at the new multiplex context. What does the cinema mean in this format? Is it one item in a menu of commodities ultimately founded on the cinemas transformation into rentable physical space? Is it equal to having a hamburger, buying a shirt or a music cd? Or does it have a special place within this new strategy of commercial exploitation? Clearly, for real estate companies, it appears to be sheerly real estate, for whose full exploitation government restrictions on land use must be altered. For the exhibitors, a commercial strategy for film exhibition must include the possibility of earning income from allied services, pleasures and attractions, from parking lots to food courts and shopping malls. But arguably, none of this makes the cinema equivalent to the other leisure and consumer activities that the cinema space houses. As a form, it provides us imaginary pleasures, an immersion in sensations of sight and sound and scale, and the strange allure which simultaneously places us as vehicles of individual perception and public gathering. Rather than relay us through a host of leisure and consumer practices, as happens in the space of the mall, it draws us into its singular, imaginary universe.
We should not forget this strange and continuing appeal of the cinema when we examine the new media landscape. Rather than one consumer item amongst others, it continues to exercise a particular sway, enact a distinctive desire. In small screens the cinematic model of the contemporary seeks new strategies not only of survival, but, perhaps, of reinventing itself as a public form. For the cinema is still, par excellence, the main form for the congregation of audiences, the gathering of publics. And public forms in India do not so easily follow models developed elsewhere. As Ravi Sundaram has pointed out, in the Indian context, the development of a space of consumerism on the model of the American mall is a difficult proposition. The American mall seals itself off, constitutes a world in itself. Here, the earlier patterns of urban space use, including the bazaar, small grocery shops, cheap dhabas, sweethouses and food venders, is not something easily wished away, and exists cheek by jowl with the new multiplex cinema. If this is the complex public space that surrounds, say, even a PVR Anupam, what would be the resonance of its new, multi screen avatar in lower income neighbourhoods? Jeebesh Bagchi has been developing the argument that we should also see this new form of cinema in terms of the possibilities it offers, instead of only focusing on how it produces new elite cultures. The notion of the niche may have ramifications for how film is conceived from the point of production. The older assembly of high-end star and production values may give way before a host of small budget films without, necessarily, the new Bombay English language cinema being the only type of product emerging.
Such an imagination, perhaps already available in work such as Haasil (Trigmanshu Dulia, 2003) or Paanch (Anurag Kashyap, 2003) may, in turn,provide new possibilities for putting `filmand `cinemaback together again. Reportedly, new, smaller cinemas, projecting digital films, have already emerged in states such as Maharashtra. The immaterial form of film may not find its sole outlet in a market for privatized consumption. It may find its way back to the cinema, in a sense repairing that rupturing of public congregational life which its apparent passing had signaled. However, this will be on new terms, with new definitions of film industry, filmmaking and film audiences. It is also likely to bring into the domain of cinema the contests that have emerged around its new, immaterial versions. Sarais media projects will try and research these new constellations as an important part of its agenda.