India’s experience with the multiplex

APARNA SHARMA

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IT is unlikely that India’s experience with the multiplex form of cinematic exhibition can be comprehended without understanding the mechanisms of the liberalized economy in which it emanated. But to locate its persona and impact as being solely the affections stemming thereof would in some ways amount to a limited and inadequately informed view. Since its inauguration in 1997, the Indian multiplex experience has been smattered with instances that stand in opposition to its immediate environs. Incoherent, inconsistent, possibly transitional yet aggressively attentive, these lend to it markings of an indigenous, self-derived and developed nature.

Though patterned along the ‘shopping mall’ model of the multiplex as developed and prevalent in the West, and sustained by the retail boom unleashed by the economic liberalization policy of 1991, the Indian multiplex site sports all the features of an up-market turf. It has aligned with and extended the transformation of India’s urban milieus being re-visioned within the framework of consumerism. The multiplex’s steady proliferation in the metropolis’s and simultaneous penetration into some smaller cities and towns testifies to its increasing popularity, coinciding with the rise of disposable incomes in the hands of the urban Indian family.

But in terms of its exhibit, i.e. the films on its screens, it makes for a space that mirrors a complex cinematic multiplicity. The increasingly curious mix of parallel, regional and art cinema along with the mainstream, both domestic and foreign, is what distinguishes most multiplexes in India, such that the Indian multiplex has come to position itself, not so much by identifying with particular kinds of films, as by being a theatre for accessing the ‘latest’ from a wide spread of cinematic fare – mainstream or fringe – in comfortable, colourful and inviting surroundings.

 

 

While the former, mostly Bollywood films which, given their steadily improving production quality and contact with newer territories, especially overseas markets, aligned quickly with the multiplex’s swanky appearance, the latter too, mostly low budget, non-narrative films, easily if not as promptly, penetrated into the multiplex without bearing any proximity with the site or its vicinity which is enlivened with an array of branded local and global products and services.

The multiplex intervention, as of the moment, can be termed as appropriating varying audience segments to stabilize and secure its own position, establish its distinction and engage the audiences in a varying film viewing exercise. It has emerged as comprising a mix of seemingly contradictory strains wherein central and peripheral tendencies coexist. Taking cues from each other, multiplexes all over the country are making for variables that don’t just originate in, or correspond with, the existing common needs of their audiences, but have also identified and accommodated overlapping tastes and preferences by readying access to fare, which may have previously been considered as lacking numerical encouragement vital for profitability.

 

 

Most art films and much of parallel cinema have usually faced reluctance from distributors and exhibitors alike. Given the limited response they face, bodies like the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) have regularly stepped in to support them financially alongside promoting them at foras like film festivals and national network television. Their penetration into the multiplex can first be located in simple mathematics – the proliferation of screens, enhancing access to films. More important than simply the number of screens is the fact that even though more cinemas are getting converted and new multiplexes are being set up, the number of seats has not increased in equal proportion. It is only when new multiplexes are constructed that seating capacity has recorded an increase.

While the capacity at a single screen cinema is usually in the region of 850 to 1000 seats, or sometimes a little over that, a single screen in a multiplex seats a far smaller audience, because when a cinema is converted from one to multiple screens the seats get divided among them, though not equally. Anupam PVR, India’s first multiplex situated in Delhi, was converted to four screens, two with a capacity of over 300 seats and the others with 150 seats.

The pattern continued, shaping into a trend, with the result that even when a new multiplex is constructed the seating capacity per screen rarely parallels that of a single screen hall. Consequently, the number of admissions per screen stands far reduced at the multiplex. However, though non-mainstream films are unlikely to attract audiences of the size as a conventional Bollywood film would, their showings are still lucrative because the numbers they command constitute a greater, more competitive marginal value.

Further, the multiplex has not followed the conventional 12-3-6-9 time schedule as prevalent in most cinemas. This created opportunity to schedule and programme films on the different screens. The ability to manipulate schedules allowed for films of varying lengths to be accommodated. Since non-mainstream films are of varying lengths and usually shorter than an average feature, they could easily be integrated in the multiplex’s film menu.

Multiplexes have charted cautiously in relation to industry films. In relation to Bollywood, multiplexes have not depended entirely on conventional films as they are in any case competing with the single screen cinemas which draw larger audiences. This is not only because they have a greater seating capacity, but because they are more accessible. They usually outnumber multiplexes, are located within easy reach and, more importantly, offer the same product at a lower price.

 

 

Besides, a thriving video piracy industry coupled with a deep penetration of cable television, meant that the multiplex settled for exhibiting selected films – usually the awaited, big budget, publicized, mostly familial films. These films coincide with the multiplex’s redefinition of cinema as a family outing comprising other amenities like food and games. Since it needs only a section that would guarantee a sell out of its limited seats being offered at a higher rate, it tends to exclude the average Bollywood film. But in so doing it has managed to elicit viewership from upper class segments, who previously may have held reservations towards cinema going, given the lack of facilities like air-conditioning, upscale interiors and so on.

In relation to Hollywood films too, multiplexes find themselves playing on limited ground as releases in non-western territories are usually a couple of months after the film’s release in home territories. And the access to films through DVDs before a theatrical release (at least in metropolis’s) has implied a replication of the approach as adopted towards Bollywood films.

 

 

Initially, multiplexes were projected primarily as theatres for English films. That changed soon, because despite their popularity English films are rarely accessed by non-English speaking, illiterate and non-affluent audiences. These films seldom transcend metropolis’s and large cities and, on the screens, they compete for space with films from a flourishing native industry that appeal to a wider audience. The apprehension towards foreign films is not determined by the urban or linguistic divide only. Within the different income regions of say a metropolis itself, one finds multiplexes located in posh localities exhibiting foreign films along with substantial numbers of non-mainstream films. However, when located in the lower income group areas, multiplexes get smaller, being composed of fewer screens and English films (mostly well advertised ones) constitute a smaller portion of the assortment.

As one moves away from the Hindi heartland, the film menu tilts correspondingly in favour of native languages and no longer reads bilingually (i.e. comprising only Hindi and English films). Neither is it always trilingual, say in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, or regions such as South India. Here films in the immediate native language get complemented with those from other regions, in differing dialects.

 

 

With the multiple screens accommodating a spillover of linguistic access that may be rooted in a host of factors – education, migration, employment and training or just proximity – this gets converted into overlapping cinematic preferences. The variation is not simply of language, but extends to genre as well, including treatment in relation to content and construction in terms of form.

Responses at the multiplex to the non-mainstream films have not been completely negative. In fact, a few low-budget, non-mainstream films, despite a cast comprising prominent film stars, could only secure screening at multiplexes in some territories. Such a trend coupled with the entry of vernacular films into non-native regional territories, and an active Indo-western intersection has also facilitated the entry of non-mainstream English and non-English foreign films into some multiplexes.

The multiplex also constitutes the primary site for the increasing territory of films directed by overseas Indians, whose representations span both the Indian diaspora and the home-land. Sociological in their orientations while dealing with the diaspora, these present traditions and lifestyles as altered by being away from the homeland; and in terms of the homeland, they highlight native habits and attitudes as seen from a ‘foreign’ eye. Explicated mostly in humorous, familial scenarios that involve the play of customs and rituals along with the essential element of entertainment materializing in song and dance, these films are developed along non-native patterns of construction, aesthetic and language.

Their duration too is a variable, almost always under three hours. Despite being located within the native community and thus being readily decipherable, they too like other foreign films have enjoyed limited appeal not extending beyond the largely educated audience that’s bilingual and enjoys familiarity with diaspora experiences and attitudes. Though films surrounded with more publicity are played at a few single screen halls as well, the multiplex is more promptly identified with non-native cinema. Add to that the fate of films like Fire (1997), and the polarization between the single screen and multiplex cinemas stands further sharpened.

 

 

Given the fast pace of its spread, its acumen towards cinema of diverse kinds and a long gestation period, central and state governments are encouraging major investment and offering sops to investors and developers who comprise real estate entities, film exhibitors and distributors, film processing companies and media conglomerates. But the concessions are accompanied with conditionalities aimed to prevent concentration of multiplexes in select regions and in some cases to promote regional cinema. A microcosm of retail culture including significant portions of global brand names, the multiplex site makes for the kind of up-beat location that coincides with government attempts to alter conventional images and all that compliments the bandwagon. It also enables foreign tourists to access cinema.

While multiplexes may be emerging as local macrocosms of native and foreign cinema, they constitute a kind of exception when compared with their western counterparts, most of who pressured by their functional mechanisms and operating in advanced, more developed markets characterized by deeply entrenched segmentation which extends into film exhibition as well, have ended up institutionalizing and popularizing the blockbuster syndrome. It is thus necessary to recollect a few trends that may not bear directly on the subject but do not bypass it either, having operated upon audiences as much as the multiplex itself has.

 

 

First, the multiplex is preceded by and concurrent with a tradition in parallel cinema that reached a peak in the 1970s. More recently a trend in rethinking, innovative cinema has gained prominence for confronting pressing social and political issues like feudalism, sexuality, terrorism and separatist movements within the scale of mainstream films. These films occupy the space between the mainstream and art film, reaching audiences without the essential melodrama typical of Bollywood films in which characters are foregrounded, on occasions distanced, from their milieu. These films situate sharply defined characters as the site where the opposing pulls of an irreconcilable crisis operate. They have gained critical acclaim at home and abroad alongside box office endorsement. While the attraction of some can be located in the dynamics of stardom and a heady mix of song and dance, all interpellate the audience through commonplace situations, traumas and experiences.

Despite the difficulties it faces, the fringe comprising art and off-beat films has been sustained both independently and in collaboration with firmly positioned industry players. Similarly, it is important to remember that non-Hollywood cinema too has commanded an audience promoted by international film festivals, film study circles, national network television and cross-cultural exchange programmes with other nations. The preponderance of single screen cinemas has not come in the way of screening critically acclaimed foreign films from time to time.

Second, in the backdrop of a film industry steeped in financial crisis, the small budget and independent films have received considerable approval and encouragement when compared with the industry product. With off-beat content and newer forms, their slice of the cinema is expanding. For them too, the multiplex constitutes a crucial exhibition space, given that they target specific rather than mass audiences.

 

 

Third, and to further unpack the possibilities at the multiplex, a brief recap of the functional impulse/s for it is vital. Upon introduction of liberalization, retail chains emerged and expanded as the momentum of consumerism slowly rose. Consequently, retail spaces steadily gained premium over commercial ones. Strategies to cover costs had to be revised. While rethinking products, prices and efficiency, retailers linked promotions, fun and entertainment to penetrate bigger chunks of the market and secure customer loyalty through customization.

In a climate of alliances and add-ons like food joints, the concept of holistic family entertainment experiences gained patronage. In such a scenario, the immensely popular leisure activity far older than television in India – cinema – suffering from inadequate exhibition facilities intersected with aggressive retailing and helped prompt the multiplex. This served to revive the diminishing cinema going habit by enticing audiences away from their television sets, with their clutter of imagery from all over the world drawing upon the cable and satellite boom. The desire for the image now combined with other leisure activities and occupations.

 

 

Once in place, the multiplex developed a counter to the unitary propensity of the single screen hall, founded on exclusion, perpetuating homogeneity and cultivating committed audience segments. While single screen cinemas identify themselves with films of particular kinds, say the Hindi masala and blockbuster, the English, or the porn movie, the multiplex has capitalised on an inclusive tendency to motivate and assemble diverse audiences.

On the one hand it has contained the influence of embourgeoising forces within its edifice, allowing on its screens the interplay of alternative and mainstream or conventional strains. Further it has limited contact with the West to no more than the fashioning of its site, preventing the hegemony of either Hollywood blockbusters as the result of a partial global encounter, or conventional Bollywood films that enjoy a pan-linguistic and cultural appeal cutting across regional, religious, class and other variants. On the other hand, it has remained an urban, largely middle and upper middle class leisure pursuit, with its highly priced tickets excluding the masses crowded in the lower regions of the income graph.

While the masses take to cinema readily, given their financial capacity and lack of identification with the plush appearance, products and services at the multiplex – in any case targeted at the socially and economically mobile sections – this numerically significant chunk of audience has remained confined to the outer edges of the multiplex experience. And it is unlikely that the dynamics of the multiplex in its present avatar will manage to secure their participation. Spatially too, multiplexes can mostly be spotted in affluent neighbourhoods, within the easy reach and concentration of young audiences.

So far a nascent experience, the number of multiplexes is soon slated to rise sharply. The full impact of its rapid spread, particularly over the last two years, is yet to be determined given the long gestation periods and concentration in and around selected pockets. As a result, it is too early to draw any conclusions about its impact or chart any definite course for its future.

Going by the variables that are emerging in response to the needs of immediate audiences, and the fact that in its present form it has acknowledged cinema as composed of diverse possibilities, the multiplex may in the future enhance segmentation and result in branded theatres exhibiting particular fare, say the art, mainstream, or foreign films, maybe even documentaries. The mechanisms of competition would then come into operation and influence aspects such as ticket pricing.

 

 

As a space commanding flexibility and an ease with manoeuvrability, the multiplex, concurrent as it is with the digital revolution, could even aid in the promotion of the format. Not simply by providing accompanying exhibition facilities like digital projection or digital sound, but by making available alternative display spaces for digital films that bear potential as a distinct genre. With the conveniences of its apparatuses, film form is already witnessing alteration in some parts of the world, and filmmakers without access to elaborate film equipment have received a fillip from this technology.

New territories in relation to content are being explored by a breed of filmmakers who are exploiting the ease of accessibility accompanying the medium. Redefining film form and content, digital films could prompt and occupy viewing spaces as differing from conventional films and embody forms like the ‘walk through’ film that may require simultaneous projection on more than one screen, not necessarily of conventional theatre size.

 

 

From its present shape, there only emerge more queries than any concrete predictions. Will the rapid spread of the multiplex and its concentration in particular zones with audiences constituting existing and potential markets for the retail entities supporting the multiplex, emerge as the dominant trend, and push doors for further segregation and institutionalization of segmented audiences, leading to branded multiplexes? Or will encouragement from the various governments drive away the multiplex, aiding its penetration into other urban and semi urban, non-affluent territories? Will the multiplex alter existing film form so as to align with its own plush and colourful appearance? Or will it encourage alternative films?

Its dispersal away from well-heeled spaces is crucial if the intention is for it to emerge as at least a pan-urban, if not a pan-Indian experience. Well meaning as government policies may be, without their committed implementation and in the absence of the shopping mall culture in other locales, the possibilities of the multiplex there remain suspect. But in the meanwhile cinema stands redefined for the Indian viewer as composed of fare other than the regular three-hour film. From the present assortment at least, sporadic and transitional as it may be, there are definitely more films to choose from. And the choices aren’t merely linguistic.

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