Screening out the Public – Cinema and the City

The late Charles Correa, in his book A Place in the Shade, calls Mumbai a “great city but a terrible place”. “Great city” because of the range of encounters and opportunities it affords to the people; “terrible place” because of the poor quality of life and deteriorating physical environment residents have to contend with. Drawing on this insight, it could be said that an ideal urban space is one where diverse people can pursue an enriching collective life in a healthy environment. But experiences of Indian cities, as evidenced in the ongoing efforts to make them world-class, beautiful and ‘smart’ suggest that there is a lot more focus on making them better places, in terms of built infrastructure, as opposed to better cities which are accessible, democratic and welcoming to everyone. This impulse reflects clearly in the ways Indian cities, like Mumbai, are being transformed only for certain privileged sections of their populations, while ignoring the issues of access to housing, transportation, livelihood and leisure for the rest. While there are ongoing conversations on living and working conditions of the urban poor, there is comparatively very little discussion on the kind of access they have to a vibrant and inclusive public culture, the very essence of the cities in the sense Correa implies. What are the places where they retreat to catch a breath, meet other people, build communities, however transient, and gather resources for the imagination of a better life? Could ‘cinema’ be said to be one of such sites? While cinema has regularly dealt with the city and vicissitudes of urban life, it might be worth looking at the ways in which the city and its residents engage with cinema to explore this question.img_20160928_160422

Cinema, across different sections of the society, has been one of the mainstays of public culture in the Indian cities. Over the years, it has seen tremendous growth in terms of number of releases, screens, box-office receipts and well as improvement in exhibition infrastructure, technology and, of course, content. But these seemingly positive changes have been made possible to a large extent, one could say, at the expense of certain sections of the audience, to be precise, the poor. Dispossession and eviction caused by large infrastructure projects, privatisation and gatekeeping of semi-public and public spaces, predatory real estate activity and subsequent gentrification are some of the reasons which curtail the poor’s physical access to the city life and, by extension, in its common goods. Take the example of the Eastern suburbs of Mumbai, namely Chembur, Govandi, Deonar and Mankhurd, which have been at the receiving end of the changes of the kind mentioned above. In an investment advisory report issued by Frank Knight in 2012, Chembur emerged as one of the top three investment destinations in the country. Connectivity, social infrastructure and land availability in these areas, widely known to be poverty hot spots, were cited as reasons as to why the real estate prices were projected to more than double in five years.

Sunil Gholap, Head, Programming and Marketing, Movietime Cinema Pvt Ltd, agrees that these ongoing changes are likely to benefit their new property in Cubic Mall, Chembur East. A six-screen complex, built over the single-screened Basant Cinema, Movietime has emerged as a favoured choice of audience not only from the immediate neighbourhoods but also, as Gholap pointed out, from places as far away as Ghatkopar and Navi Mumbai. He added that their reasonable ticket prices, between Rs. 100-250, and diversity in programming ensure that their patrons come from a cross-section of society. Though Rs. 100 may seem like a reasonable admission price, in an area where an overwhelmingly large part of the population – almost 50% – works as casual labour, it is unaffordable for many. It would be interesting to study in this context the role such niche places and their regulars have in creating an opportunity for new experiments with forms and narratives which, even as critics are struggle to label, are appropriately being called ‘gentry films’ in the trade circles. A significant section of the potential audiences, it seems, are not only being priced out of their neighbourhoods and public spaces but also out of cinema at large.img_20160928_152120

Not very far from Movietime is Amar-Sharad, a two-screen theatre which, according to its manager, Yashwant Salgaonkar, caters primarily to the low-income residents of Chembur, Govandi and Deonar. Tickets here are priced between Rs. 50 to 60. Karan Ashwin Gupta, who runs a cold drinks stall right outside the theatre, believes that a lot of people come here not because they like it but perhaps because they cannot afford anything pricier a or better. Though the theatre largely screens new films, Gupta believes it will do a lot more business if spruced up a little – the auditoria are hot and humid most of the months and chairs extremely uncomfortable, if not broken. But fixing the theatre, as the owners perhaps realise well, would require asking more of an already price sensitive audience. On asking whether they would eventually follow the mall and multiplex model, Salgaonkar declined comment.img_20160928_154921img095

Across the harbour line railway tracks in Shivaji Nagar, a resettlement colony, Taj Video Centre does brisk business showing old films on a large television screen through the day; tickets here come at Rs. 10 a show. On asking what kind of an audience does his establishment attracts, Ganesh points towards a man wearing a lungi and vest, whom he had just physically removed from the small ramshackle theatre, and says “like him”. “They have nowhere to go after work or when there is no work and hence come here”. The man in img096question shakes his head and concurs. It is the daily wage workers, like him, that form the bulk of the audience for video centres like Taj. Even though their operations are on the right side of the law – as many as nine permissions are required to set up a video centre in Mumbai – they are often identified as ‘seedy’ and ‘disreputable’ places, largely surmised from the kind of films they screen – the quintessential Bombay masala films, with a smattering of dubbed Hollywood action and horror that are made to appear more risque on their posters outside than they really are. Operating under the sharp glare of law enforcement and the civil society bodies, it is quite likely that such precarious places will be not be allowed to exist for long.

The rich diversity of contexts in which different constituencies of people experience cinema, as sketched above, is often flattened in the favour of an abstract notion of an ideal spectator in mainstream discussions. For far too long such discussions have remained resolutely focused on the text. In the broader context of politics as well the horizon of analysis is often no bigger than the screen, even as large sections of people are being screened out of cinema in the name of beauty, development and that great tool of social violence, taste.

While gleaming multiplexes like Movietime have their dedicated constituencies of audiences, it would be a mistake to undermine the contribution of places like Amar-Sharad and Taj Video Centre in keeping cinema accessible to sections of audiences the city constantly pushes out to the margin. Even though they might not be very comfortable or hospitable places, their existence itself is a better measure of cinema’s vitality on the whole than a string of artistically accomplished films, which could only be shown in sterile and exclusive spaces. In the absence of alternatives, they serve a very important function in restoring the hurly burly of public culture that makes Mumbai uniquely a great city even if a terrible place.


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Faiz Ullah Written by:

is at Centre for the Study of Contemporary Culture, School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences,

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