The other side of the screen
3 October 2013
The curtain rises.
One of my earliest memories of watching films has less to do with the film itself and more with the anticipation of the moment when the film was to begin: when the red velvet curtains rose inch by inch and disappeared into some mysterious space above the screen; the moment when the lights dimmed and people hurried to their seats by the light of the usher’s torch; when the projector began its whirr and threw a beam of mote-filled light over our heads. It was a magical anticipation, as dream-like and associative as cinema itself.
The theatres were large but the audience felt close, as if we knew each other even though we’d never met, as if we could make assumptions about each other like friends can, all because we shared for the duration of the film the womb that was the theatre.
For a long time this was the way I watched films: the late night show with my parents, the popcorn or chutney sandwiches at Sangeet Theatre in Secunderabad (or even better, ‘rolls’ stuck on each finger of one hand) and finally, the ride back , nearly asleep on the backseat and watching the moon follow me home.
It wasn’t until I was eight or so that I had my first experience of watching a film in a setting other than a classical film theatre. My grandparents stayed in a small town called Mettur, and every Saturday there was a film screening in their neighbourhood. Sometime in the late afternoon a screen would be set up in a clearing and a table and projector would appear, but oddly enough there were no chairs, or apparent seating arrangements. Come dusk and first the children would gather, followed by the adults. They came as if for a picnic, with rugs, pillows, even blankets, certainly chairs – both the solid ones that needed two people to carry them and the foldable ones we called ‘easy’ chairs. Clearly, the people of Mettur came prepared to enjoy both the film and a light snooze.
The film they screened that time was The Bullet Train, and I remember wondering later how it was possible for anyone to expect to sleep through all the excitement. For me, the film will always remain memorable for the way I saw it. Not having come early enough to grab a prime spot in front of the screen, I found that the only available space was behind the screen. I was delighted with my position – I thought it was an unusual and funny place from which to watch a film, and I got the sense that I was watching not just the feature but also portions of the audience.The rituals of viewingThat screening at Mettur taught me that audiences are by no means uniform, and are, if anything, eccentric and individual in their attitude to watching cinema. So much depends on where one watches a film: a traditional large single theatre that divided people into those in the stalls and those in the balcony seats seemed not just to expect, but actually invite different degrees of decorum for the audience. Nobody I have ever watched a film with has flung coins at the screen, but it was not unusual to hear whistles, catcalls, energetic clapping and ribald comments, especially during a popular blockbuster. This has always bothered me less than the now-familiar glow of cellphones, as people simultaneously watch films and report about them on social networks.
Other more informal settings demand different behaviours from the audience. In school, for instance, the weekly film in the auditorium was similar to the screening in Mettur – while students were strongly discouraged from bringing their pillows and blankets, they still sprawled, shifted around and whispered explanations to each other.
When screenings moved from a large auditorium to a smaller room and the VCR replaced the 16mm projector, everything changed. We lost the wonder of watching the projectionist thread the reel into the projector, the wait between reels (this was a single projector and thus no automatic changeover from one reel to the next) when everyone began to discuss the film, and the noise level rose from whispers to a hubbub that would magically be silenced once the film resumed. Instead, we fought for a clear view of the really tiny screen that was set up on the same level as us. There may have been attempts to arrange people height-wise but they didn’t seem to work. Some of us came early and grabbed seats on the single bench set by a window that we opened as soon as we walked in – ventilation was nearly as important as a good view in a tiny room with a large number of people.
In classroom settings, screenings usually meant darkened windows during the daytime, and nearly always repeat screenings, often with a light on for easy note-taking. The idea that a film could and indeed must be watched more than once was a new one for me until I attended a film appreciation course run by P K Nair (ex-director of The National Film Archives of India).
Mr. Nair used to take a standard set of films with him and travel wherever he was invited. The films never changed in all the years I attended his course: Zoo and Glass (Bert Haanstra), Big City Blues (Charles van der Linden), Happy Anniversary (Jean-Claude Carrière & Peter Etaix), Solo (Mike Hoover), 23 Skidoo (Julian Bigg), and always some Norman McLaren and/or Jiri Trnka. The second time I attended Nair’s course, I thought I could easily slip out of the screenings, having already seen all the films before. He gave me an earful and sent me back in. Honestly, I can’t imagine why this was a new and radical idea to me – I was already a champion re-reader of books; why did I think films were single viewing only?
In the years that followed, I grew used to a film-student way of watching films: not just in the occasional note-taking I still did, but in my not wanting to sit right next to anyone else. I didn’t like to share even a row, much less an armrest or leg space. I demanded total external sensory deprivation in order to pay complete attention to the film.
Of course, that’s not how people usually watch films. After all, India is a nation that worshipped the TV as a sacred object once a week during the years the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were telecast. Cinema began as, and for the most part continues to be, a communal activity. While it is true that every film has a direct, personal relationship with the individual viewer, it is also true that a film screened to many people is different from a film seen by a single person, even if viewers now share links to videos on YouTube, and the comments space replaces a real-life gathering where discussions take place.
- The patience of a saint (or an audience)The Malaysian-Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang made a film called Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) about an old cinema theatre that is about to be closed. In its last days, it screens a film called Dragon Inn, an old sword-fighting classic. There are about three or four people in the whole theatre, including the girl at the ticket counter and the projectionist, and it’s as much an elegy to a way of watching films as it is an exercise in patience for a modern audience used to a different pace of cinema.
I watched Goodbye, Dragon Inn at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), and though the film is only 90 minutes long, people began to groan aloud, make rude comments and finally leave, until the theatre in which we were watching Goodbye, Dragon Inn began to eerily resemble the theatre in which the film Dragon Inn was set. That the theatre in the film was about to close seemed as much a comment on a certain kind of cinema as it was about audiences.
Another film that usually tests the patience of even cine-literate audiences was Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu. At the IFFK, five extended single shots produced an unusual amount of restlessness in the audience: people ate, laughed, walked out and came back in, throwing a constant bar of light across one portion of the screen. There was no silence or sensory deprivation to be had in that screening.
Later, someone said he’d watched the film at an art gallery, with five screens across different rooms showing one each of the five shots that comprise the film on a loop. I wondered what that experience must have been like: to watch the film out of order, re-ordered by chance, inclination and patience. I remembered an article in Time magazine that talked about an Asian film that was designed in such a way that the film reels could be screened in any order at all, completely at random. It was so unbelievable an idea that I have now come to think of it as apocryphal, or the product of a fevered imagination. (I’d watch a film like that, though. Several times. Once a week, even.)Technology changes everythingTechnologies bring their own audiences. If people began by jostling each other to put their eye to the magic lantern and make themselves dizzy with moving pictures, it was because cinema was first an enchantment of the travelling circus and only gradually a more plastic, variable art form. People have watched films in the privacy of their homes with their own projectors and theatres; in the seats closest to the screen which were the only sources of affordable entertainment; on the walls of terraces, in seedy basements in Paharganj or Darjeeling, in prim houses with red oxide floors in Seshadripuram in Bangalore that turn out to be mini-theatres every afternoon and evening. The experience of cinema is as varied as the people watching it: those looking for escape, transformation, revolution, knowledge, all find room under the generous space that is cinema.
We’ve moved away from film formats – the larger ones tethered to theatres, and the more portable 16mm projectors – to VHS tapes and DVD, and now to Blu-Ray and films available to download and view in a dizzying number of formats on one’s TV or laptop, tablet or smartphone. It’s possible to view images that occupy one entire wall of a large room, or are the approximate size of a large postage stamp.
Once, film clubs and the Film Federation Society of India supplied all parts of India with films in all kinds of languages. It took time for films to become available at festivals, special screenings, on TV or DVD. No longer: much-awaited films now turn up in a variety of formats, and are available to anyone with an internet connection. We seem to have arrived at that moment when it is simultaneously possible to have unlimited access to any film from anywhere in the world, made in any decade, while also being burdened by so much obsolete technology that severely limits access to films.
I have my student film that I made in my first year at the Film and Television Institute of India: a five minute 16mm film that I can no longer watch because no one I know has a 16mm projector. I had a copy of my diploma film on VHS but I neglected to transfer it onto DVD when I could and now I can no longer play the tape, not just because I don’t have a VCR, but also because the tape is physically damaged beyond repair.
All that fragile technology, all those films we remember but can no longer see, or if we can, they no longer look the way we remember them; all that now is available so easily – all those gigabytes of film on my laptop that I don’t think I can reach the end of even if I watch, as I used to do so easily once upon a time, two films a day – but just doesn’t seem worth watching without the right company. If there’s a difference in technology, there’s also a difference in the way I watch films: the easier it is to obtain something, the more numerous the distractions that keep me from watching the films with the attention I once gave a Tsai Ming-liang or a Kiarostami.
Perhaps those rituals of going somewhere, finding the right seat and the right people for company are as necessary to the process of watching a film as the availability of cinema along with the right technology.
- They made a film about itIt is not surprising that filmmakers themselves are as conscious of the act of viewing as they are to the form and content of their cinema. In the relatively simple stories that are Mooshak-e-Kaghazi (Paper Airplanes, Farhad Mehranfar, Iran, 1997) and Road, Movie (Dev Benegal, India, 2009), the protagonists travel with their films like itinerant entertainers and educators, screening films for people in far-flung places, changing the audience and themselves by the simple act of showing films.Other filmmakers are interested in the subtle, if fleeting, transformations that occur to audiences while watching films. In 2008 Kiarostami made a film called Shirin in which he filmed a number of actresses watching a film. Apparently Kiarostami himself had no idea what film they were supposed to be watching until he later decided that the film would be based on the Kushrow-Shirin tale. Alain Resnais went a step further with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012) in which he has the people who had acted in a certain play, gather together many years later to watch a recording of them acting in that play. They don’t just watch themselves, though; they begin to re-enact scenes from the play, complicating the relationship of an audience to the cinema it watches. This is something completely different from the more light-hearted interventions that are John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero or Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.When I recall these films, I think back to that time I sat on the other side of the screen in Mettur, watching the audience watching The Bullet Train. Of course, I don’t really remember their reactions to the film; it’s a retrospective lucidity to imagine their faces turned up to the screen, lit by the flickering light of the film. It is much more likely that what I really saw was their feet under the screen, or perhaps portions of the faces of people who sat to the side and not dead in front of the screen. I might have even seen the shadows of people as they crossed the screen while leaving, electing to sleep at home in comfort.These days, I sometimes watch the back of my son’s head as he watches films on my laptop, earplugs in and giggling at something. Sometimes he calls to me in much too loud a voice when something scary is about to happen. Watching him immerse himself in the solitary pleasure that is film viewing today, I don’t know if what I feel is nostalgia or gratitude that I got to experience cinema is so many different ways in so many different places with all kinds of people.I feel certain that this solitude will also change as technology once again mutates, as it surely must. But in the century of cinema’s existence, this is perhaps the closest it has come to the purely oneiric: one person in a private relationship with images and sounds that no one can intrude upon or experience alongside the viewer. Many things have changed in a hundred years, but this movement from the communal to the solitary is perhaps the most significant.~ This article is one of the articles from Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree: web-exclusive package.~ Sridala Swami writes poetry and books for very young children. Her first collection of poems, A Reluctant Survivor, was published by the Sahitya Akademi in 2007. A second collection, Escape Artist, is forthcoming. Swami is currently Writer-in-Residence at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She blogs at The Spaniard In The Works.