Cinema in urban space


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A SIGNIFICANT strand of research in cinema studies has been devoted to understanding cinema experience in terms of the logic of exhibition practices. Recent research on the cinemas of Delhi gives us a sense of the range of methods used.1 The scholarship has looked at trade and local newspapers to understand how different genres and film circuits target particular audience segments. Trade associations and their proceedings have been explored for the main practices and players in the constitution of the trade. Municipal holdings relating to land acquisition and allocation, licensing, clearances around health, sanitation and fire have been analyzed to get a sense of the policies determining the institution and location of cinema theatres, their regulation and reproduction.

In the Indian context, where the trade archives are not systematically organized and preserved, and the municipal archives are not easy to access, perhaps most important has been the recourse to field research. This means extended interviews with trade professionals at various levels to cull a sense of the history of the trade and how it has changed over time: cinema owners, managers and workers, booking agents, distributors, publicity people. It also entails thick descriptions of everyday practices of work, organisation, cultural engagement and spatial networks.

One of the conundrums of this research focus has been the reconciling of this exercise, a social and institutional history of the cinema,2 with some of the traditional focuses of cinema studies. These include the interpretation of films in terms of their formal strategies and the way they place spectators in terms of social and political perception; and, more generally, an understanding of the significance of cinema as a technology of modern experience. As an apparatus which orchestrates sense perception and plays with perceptions of presence and absence, it has often been argued that the cinema is involved in a fundamental transformation of the horizons of human experience.3



Perhaps the reconciliation lies in the field of reception studies. How do audiences understand, interpret and experience films? How does the sensory field relayed by cinema relate to or impinge on our everyday rhythms of being? For example, how does going to the cinema relate to the sensory experience of cities, from the tactility of crowds to intimations of anonymity, the heightened registers of shock and speed, and the experience of simultaneity relayed through modern communication technologies?

The history of exhibition tracks the way films are shown in particular theatres or theatre clusters, and perhaps at different times of the day, to capture a sense of how the trade mobilizes cinema into the social domain. It would appear logical enough that reception analysis should be able to render the experience of audiences within this spatial order, and in ways that might be at variance with the trade imagination.4



Film scholars have used a host of sophisticated viewer response techniques. These include analysis of surveys of audience response undertaken by the industry and government in the USA and Britain; and a close reading of film periodicals and fan magazines, film reviews, viewers’ letters and popular star biographies. Interestingly, direct interviews have often been only one amongst these techniques and, arguably, not necessarily the most successful. Complex ethnographic approaches suggest how viewers often feel compelled to express certain opinions. This has included, remarkably, and suspiciously, a condemnation of cinema going as time wasting and morally suspect by regular film viewers in a Tamil city.5

Further, the spectators’ memory of the cinema may be clouded with a nostalgic reverie that often simplifies interpretations, as in the often-voiced contrast made between the quality of an earlier cinema and its present degradation. This suggests that however intricate the domain of reception analysis and indeed of an analysis of the trade imagination, interpretation, making sense of these materials, is inescapable.

While the empirical tracking of viewer reception is a complicated task, even more is capturing the experience of cinema. It’s notable how some of the most suggestive analysis of this experience has come from the annals of intellectual writing on the cinema rather than popular accounts. This includes evocations of the ramifications of the cinema experience for a modern sensorium in writers such as Benjamin, Kracauer, Brecht, the Russian avantgardists of the 1920s.6 Linkages have also been made between key dimensions in the experience of modernity and the initial impact of the cinema. Take for example the shock and trauma of the railway and automobile accident, catastrophes that underline the very contingency of life under modern technological transformations, and recall the audience that runs out of the auditorium as the train heads towards the camera in the early Lumiere brothers’ film Arrival at the Railway Station.7 This association between cinema and modern experience has provided a very creative entry point into the study of early cinema.



Similarly, research has tracked how transformation of cinematic technologies have altered experience through sound, colour, widescreen formats, heightened camera mobility as in steadicam, special effects and digital technologies. And there has been a new focus on how the cinema interacts with the configuration of entertainment and consumer sensoria, as with the history of shop window displays,8 theme parks and roller coaster rides9 (something recently invoked to situate Spielberg’s Jurassic Park films). The film’s intersections with other media forms and visual industries such as music, fashion and advertising have also made for a more dense understanding of the cinematic sensorium.10



Regularity may be as important as transformation in understanding film experience. How does the cinema as experience and vehicle of narrative construction play itself out on an everyday basis? Here it can be understood not only as a medium of unrelieved disequilibrium, but as something experienced repeatedly, regularly, even predictably. We should not underestimate the significance of the cinema as a form of regular, normalized public congregation, sometimes assuming great symbolic functions: the re-opening of the cinema in Sarajevo was indication of a will to public congregation and a shared culture in the genocidal context of the former Yugoslavia.

However, away from such heightened symbolic functions for normalization, let us consider the cinema as a more matter of fact everyday space: composed of the hall, its internal organization of foyer, auditorium, seating and the projected film, and its public presence, as in its façade, advertisements, marquees, hoardings. And let us see this space in relation to a broader space, in the market, near factories, schools, office blocks, in a mall, in residential areas; and how it is located in the depth of this space or on its margins, near main arterial thoroughfares, linking one space to another through transportation.

Let us argue then that the experience inside the hall, and of what is projected onto the screen, is distinctive, for you can’t experience it elsewhere, or through any other medium. But let us also suggest that this experience is also continuous with the space in which it is located.



Looking at cinema in this framework, as a cultural experience of space, there are instances when foundational cultural issues have been involved. For example Brian Larkin has shown how in the Nigerian city of Kano, Islamic authority had a significant influence on the public discourses and urban practices relating to the cinema. Islamic clergy and public opinion was strongly ranged against the cinema as a colonial imposition, as something which hit at the tenets of Islamic moral and social prohibitions and, perhaps, around the very representation of the human image.

Larkin draws out a significant distinction between the Islamic city and spaces beyond it, where new migrants to the city, as well as young people under Islamic tutelage, flocked to the cinema on a regular basis.11 A famous instance of such a cultural blockade of the cinema emerges with the Iranian revolution, when a large number of cinema theatres, again seen as cultural impositions, were burnt down, substantially affecting the film exhibition trade for a long time after. The paradox is that some of the revolution’s governmental elites, as well as filmmakers such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf who strongly identified with the revolution, have generated some of the most interesting and critically minded of world cinema in the most fraught political circumstances.

A spatial politics of culture has been more widely evident. In the colonial Indian context, this has been related to the opposition between the ‘native town’ and the cosmopolitan colonial sectors of the city. Kathy Hansen has traced how this operated in Bombay for the theatre,12 and Stephen Hughes has looked at the division of exhibition practices between these sectors.

Interestingly, such a division does not automatically imply one between indigenous genres and foreign cinema, as one might expect. Hughes has shown how the cinemas of Georgetown in early 20th century Madras were in fact devoted, not to the mythological films that were the earliest Indian film genres, but to the international action serial. The film trade saw this as emerging from the preference of predominantly working class audiences for such kinetic, visceral fare.13



Issues of class and social differentiation are crucial to the interrogation of the cinema’s public space. This is indicated by recent research into the history of Delhi’s exhibition practices and imagined cinema audiences. According to Kirit Desai, the owner of the Moti cinema off Chandni Chowk, a really substantial audience for the cinema only came about after the Second World War, and especially after the Partition, where there was a major exchange of populations. Before Partition, Shahjanabad had a ratio of over 40% Muslims; after, the number dwindled to the national average of 10%.

Cinemas such as Moti and Jagat would show the quality Hindi films of the time, from the work of Prabhat Talkies, Bombay Talkies, New Theatres, and then moving to films by the reputed filmmakers of the 1950s such as Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob and Guru Dutt. However, as Bhrigupati Singh’s research has shown, while the exhibition patterns in the two halls might have been similar, audiences seem to have been rather different. Moti was considered much more upmarket and attracted a socially complex audience. This is indicated in the hall’s exhibition of English films in morning shows. These were not necessarily action films, and their exhibition carried on until the mid-1970s. Jagat, on the other hand, close to the fish market and chicken markets, was seen as catering to poorer sectors of the old city.14



In addition to the largely commercial profile that the area is known for today, with its burgeoning wholesale and retail trade in spices, cloth, dry fruit, jewellry and electronic goods, there was a strongly residential profile to the city at the time. A number of film trade people stayed nearby, in the elite neighbourhood of Rajpur Road in the civil lines. In these early times, the trade relied on local audiences to fill its halls. Subsequent accounts of decline place emphasis on the depletion of the neighbourhood’s well-to-do local residents. When Kirit Desai reflects on how and when circumstances changed, he suggests that, somewhere in the 1970s, he notices a downturn.



Better-off residents had shifted elsewhere, and the old city cinemas were no longer attracting families and women audiences, always considered crucial to the cinema’s social legitimacy. Desai suggests that the change in the nature of markets also altered audiences in the area. It was around this time that the electronic goods markets emerged, and people used to come from far and wide to buy components and merchandise which they would be retailing elsewhere. This provided what Kirit calls a ‘floating population’. Perhaps we have an image here of the mobile ‘bachelor’ population, in the city for short stays, a restless, transient population hustling for goods and attracted to a cinema of sensation and distraction.

Plebeian audiences were also considered important, those involved in hard labour and variable hours in small repair shops, workshops and garages, in daily labour and the plying of rickshaws. Research at the Robin cinema, near the former Sabzi Mandi area, indicates a similar profile. A decisive moment for the hall was the shifting of the Sabzi Mandi to Azadpur, and the closure of nearby mills. A more middle class audience from the vicinity chose to visit the newer Amba cinema. Like other struggling halls of the old city, Robin does not have the financial capacity, or the anticipated returns, to seek new film releases, and screens older films with action stars such as Mithun Chakravarthy and Sunny Deol and the popular comic star Govinda as its staple attractions.

In general, given the changed audience profile for the old city, the substantial investments needed to bring in new sound and projection equipment did not seem worth it. A more socially complex audience, especially young people wanting to see English films, was also assailed when trade with the US industry broke down, suddenly removing the quality Hollywood film from the market.



Shortly after, in the early 1980s, thanks to relaxation of import regulations, the morning show supplied by the independent importer of sleazy, or at least sleazily marketed, foreign films came into its own. (Over time, the films marketed in this way include art films such as Goretta’s The Lacemaker, Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama, and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). In this account, from an estimable cultural pastime, the cinema of the old city had started to assume its current image of catering to a viscerally driven audience eager for immediate gratification.

People from the film trade recall that back in the 1950s there was hardly any activity in Connaught Place after seven o’clock in the evening. People would come by tonga from the old city to see movies at Regal, Odeon and Rivoli. Like some other halls of the old city, Regal, taken over by the Dayal family in 1938, was a hybrid exhibition space, featuring live theatrical shows along with movies. Its architectural design, featuring boxes, wings and green rooms indicates this earlier history.

In the account of the cinema’s current owner, Suddheshwar Dayal, there is a clear idea of the type of cultural capital the cinema was associated with. This included performances by the dance and drama troupes of Uday Shankar and Prithviraj Kapoor, visits by Viceroys and independent India’s new political elites, and exhibition of the reputed directors of the 1950s. This profile carried on down to the films of the parallel cinema of Benegal, Nihalani and Ray in the 1970s. By this time the hall had declined considerably.



Earlier, going to the Regal was evidently a culturally esteemed leisure time practice, associated with eating out at Devico’s, now the Standard restaurant and, from the 1950s, at the Gaylord restaurant. CP with its broad arcades, roads and parking arrangements, provides a readymade space for a variety of consumer practices and leisure time pursuits – buying, browsing, strolling ‘window shopping’, and spectator pleasures. This is quite in contrast to the dense wholesale markets of the old city that mobilized a variety of transports, headload workers and rickshaws, a space cluttered with the co-presence of labour, trade and consumption.

These halls too gathered their audiences after Partition, when the western sector of the city started getting a new population. It was in the 1950s, that new cinema seems to have emerged to cater to these new populations and the urban growth of this period. Cinemas such as Liberty came up in Karol Bagh at this time. From now on, when we think of a cinema as being continuous with its space, we need to think more carefully about what constituted that space. Often, this means looking further afield than the locality.

Perhaps symptomatic of a more territorially mobile population was the emergence from the 1950s of what could be called ‘cusp’ or corridor cinemas. Dotted along various axes of transport – the Delite on Asaf Ali Road, Golcha in Daryaganj, Filmistan between old and new cities – these halls were positioned to seek audiences from beyond their locality. Significantly, each of these has been in a position, in the last couple of years, to invest in renovation.

Sometimes there could be a distinct disjunction between a hall and the space it is located in. A hall such as Shiela in Paharganj next to the New Delhi railway station would be a case in point. When V.V. Giri, the then President and former trade union leader was asked to write a note in a commemoration souvenir on the hall’s tenth anniversary in 1971, he applauded the owners for providing cinema to a working class district. The cinema owners had a rather different understanding of the hall’s location, seeing it as attracting audiences from the adjacent CP area rather than locally.



In its first ten years, Shiela’s most successful film was My Fair Lady, suggesting that it had successfully attracted CP’s substantial English film consuming public. Its success was based on its presentation of itself as a vehicle of new cinematic technology, boasting the first 70 mm screen in the country, and inviting an important US architect, Ben Schlanger, to design its premises.

The southern and eastern swathes of the city got their cinema halls as populations started settling there from the end of the 1960s. An interesting early foray is the case of the Eros cinema, located in the refugee settlement of Jangpura. There are other instances of cinema allocations emerging in the wake of rehabilitation after Partition. The Alankar cinema plot, in the major refugee colony at Lajpat Nagar, was allotted by the Ministry of Rehabilitation at the end of the 1950s, although disputes amongst the allottees finally led to an auctioning of the plot to another party much later.

The Sood family, who run the Eros cinema, also invested towards the end of the 1960s in Rajouri Gardens, where they set up the Vishaal cinema. Clearly important players in the city’s real estate, they bought up a cinema plot at Green Park, and also own the Park Royale hotel. The real estate giant, Ansals, bought up the Green Park site and built Uphaar, venue for the catastrophic fire of 1997 that led to many deaths and dramatized the hazards of poorly maintained halls. In the map of urban planning after independence, Uphaar emerges on the basis of allocations for district and community centres. And these plans acquire substantial implementation towards the end of the 1960s.

Uphaar in the Green Park District Centre, Sapna in Kailash colony, Savitri in Greater Kailash, Anupam at the Saket district centre, Sangam in Moti Bagh, Chanakya at Yashwant Place – these are the typical halls of a period in which the state appeared to be working out a design and a space for a life of leisure, one not too far removed from the spaces of residence. Chanakya cinema, started in 1970, was leased by the Khanna family from the New Delhi Municipal Council. Interviews with the owner, Rajesh Khanna indicate that he imagined an elite audience for his hall, one which would drive to the theatre from various parts of south Delhi.



East Delhi halls came up during the same period; with the exception of Radhu Palace in Shakarpur, again apparently part of a district centre area, others start on a temporary basis. Swaran, near Jagatpuri, for example, started as a temporary theatre, and only subsequently got regularized. Others such as Gagan and Chand are clearly oriented to working class audiences. Like the cinemas of the old city, they invest little in the way of overheads and keep ticket prices low.

Within a decade, this second configuration of cinema and urban space – oriented to distinct middle class audiences in the south, to lower middle class and worker populations in the east – rapidly tumbled into crisis. There are key developments involved here. First, the embargo on US imports in the mid 1970s almost immediately depleted the cinema of the mainstream English film, thereby undercutting a significant cultural strata for film going.



Subsequently, the connotations of the English film shifted with the emergence of a c-circuit or soft porn film with the opening out of import policies to independent importers around 1984. Simultaneously, the cinema trade underwent its first major crisis with the proliferation of pirated video-cassettes during the period. This was also the period when a high incidence of bomb attacks linked to the Khalistan movement hit at public gatherings in cinemas and enclosed market spaces. From this point onwards, there has been a continuous sense of crisis within the trade down to the present time. Each advance in domestic leisure technologies and of regimes of copying and illicit distribution have functioned like sledge hammers on the fabric of the cinema as a public institution: from the advent of videos and colour television in the 1980s, to the importance of cable satellite relays from the early 1990s, and down to video CDs at the present time.

There were three types of response to this – at the levels of production, distribution and exhibition. A high-end cinema emerged, especially from about 1995, which looked as much, if not more, to foreign markets than local theatres. At the level of distribution, there were attempts to integrate the cable trade to film distribution practices by organizing shorter periods within which films would be distributed in theatres, to be followed by legitimate exhibition through satellite channels. In practice, there was considerable infringement of these agreements, and television rights were sold before the stipulated time, as theatrical returns often proved short-lived.

Finally, and perhaps most complexly for the experience of cinema, was the emergence of exhibition models of multiplex, Cineplex and ‘miniplex’. Future projections in the trade signal a new drive to segment publics and create niche audiences for the markedly spatial experience of the multiplex, where the cinema is only one in a menu of leisure attractions. However, whether this will remain on the model of the elite Anupam complex is open to question. The Priya Village Roadshow company’s efforts to extend this model, for example to Naraina, with a strongly working class profile, has been unsuccessful. Further, many theatres in Delhi are now lobbying for changes in land allocations, with the hope of reducing theatre space hugely, and letting out the remainder of the space for commercial exploitation. This bid to convert the cinema theatre is widespread across the city, suggesting that the cinema is unlikely to retain the elite niche profile of the first multiplexes.



But cinema is also a content that can be manoeuvred, along with music, into formats that fuel the media efflorescence in unregulated markets and everyday practices. In this transformation of film publics and practices, are we witness to the other side of the creation of an elite niche public, as new technologies of reproduction ensure a distribution of film and music beyond branded merchandise and the portals of the plush multiplex? The bazaar becomes a crucial locus for such transactions. Popular media practices have transformed a Lajpat Rai Market or a Palika Bazaar from substantial clothing markets into sellers of electronic goods.



Mapping a space like Palika is like conjuring with a layered sense of the history of Connaught Place and its environs. The market emerged in the wake of the destruction of the Coffee House, perceived as a venue for discussion and dissent under the Emergency of 1975-77, and shopkeepers along the Panchkuian road were shifted here. The market condenses a fairly rapid patterning of rise and decline in the history of commodities. An unregulated electronic commodity trade puts older trades in clothes, jewelry and handicrafts into the shade, only to careen into a new cycle of crisis engendered by the availability of cheap portable equipment for digital reproduction.

If there is a distinctive dimension to this new context for contemporary film experience, it lies in this sense of a dispersal which cannot be regulated. Technologies such as the cheap CD writer and MP3 compression undermine centralized locations for reproduction and distribution. New locations emerge, both for reproduction and, indeed, re-assembly, as CDs are customized for the individual consumer of popular music. Portability and cheapness ensure that equipment can be quickly shifted away from the intrusive eye of the detective agency hired to monitor copyright infringements.

A cottage industry defined by low capital investment and ad hoc locations presents often insurmountable posers to the official industry. Instead of the big market, we have the image here of a congeries of localities and, in these dispersed fields, intimations of a reinvention of marginalized selves. Local ethnographies have shown how socially marginal neighbourhoods are transformed by access to new media technologies.

There are countervailing pictures of the mediatized city as it is experienced in the locality. The history of the cable trade suggests both the dynamics of reinvention, as figures move amongst trades such as scrap dealing, groceries and cable operation, but also of containment. Here the big corporate players appear to have successfully combined with local operators in a bid to restrict flexibility and autonomy, both of the trade at large and of the consumer.



There are indications here of substantial deals amongst the corporates as they whittle down small players who disrupt their design for territorial division, the enumeration of subscribers, and maximizing of profits. While a burgeoning legislative regime has not as yet proved effective in its monitoring of copyright infringement in dispersed markets, cable legislation and corporate negotiations seem to have provided another, more forceful regime of regulation of the trade and of access by the household.

Tracking the history of film in the city intersects with other city itineraries. The media history of Delhi’s localities is defined by mobilities of trade and of consumption, histories of uprootment and resettlement, and is part of a wider history of technological transformations, legislative and administrative regulation, and social and political history. After Partition, refugees arrive and camp in front of the Lal Qila, inaugurating rehabilitation policies that provide the genesis of the Lajpat Rai market. Across the river, the Swaran cinema is associated with a terrifying moment in the history of the city, as most members of the Sikh family who run the hall are victims of a murderous mob in the anti Sikh riots of 1984. Cinemas are torn down and cable networks relayed as the metro carves a path for itself through Delhi today. Here, a violent history of the city intersects with the history of the cinema.



More specifically, cinema history provides us with stories of audience congregation and dispersal, urban regulation and tactical manoeuvre, the reinvention of technological formats and social selves. The spatial coordinates of the cinema move through a series of registers. The cinema is defined by local spaces, with their own logic of social distinction; it has more fluid linkages to audience congregation as the city, its transport networks and forms of mobility undergo change; and it develops in an interactive relationship to market and consumer practices, ranging from the bazaar through to the mall. Finally, and most complexly, the film is defined by networks, of distribution and exhibition, and those arising from the contemporary deployment of technological formats for copying, distribution and delivery.

An engagement with the space of the cinema does not resolve the problems we had started out with: how to reconcile a social history with a history of film interpretation and cinema experience. Nevertheless, it provides a significant entry point for researching the question of experience, posing as it does the linkages between the cinema, the rhythms of everyday life and the experience of space. There are indications here that the particular dispositions of energy, attention and distraction, the key features of tactility and of perception, may be crucially organized in the relations between the sequestered spaces of the cinema and those outside. This does not wish away what actually unravels on the screen, and what sense people make of films. It merely returns viewing experience to its location, and asks us to look at that context itself as a venue for cultural practice and meaning making.



1. The reference here is to work being undertaken by the Sarai programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. All references to Delhi’s cinema history come from ongoing work by the Sarai project, ‘Publics and practices in the history of the present: old and new media in contemporary India’. The research team includes Bhrigupati Singh, Bhagwati Prasad, Faizan Ahmed, Lokesh Sharma, Puloma Pal, Rakesh Kumar Singh, Ritika Shrimali, Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan.

2. Douglas Gomery and Robert C. Allen, Film History – Theory and Practice, Knopf, 1985, would be a standard text in this tradition; also see Douglas Gomery, ‘Movie Audiences, Urban Geography, and the History of the American Film, The Velvet Light Trap, 19, 1982; Shared Pleasures: History of Movie Presentation in the United States, University of Wisconsin Press, 1993; Robert Allen, ‘Motion Picture Exhibition in Manhattan, 1906-12’, Cinema Journal 28 (2), 1979; Mark Jancovich and Lucy Faire with Sarah Stubbings, The Place of the Audience: Cultural Geographies of Film Consumption, London, BFI, 2003.

3. For an account of this divide between film history and film theory, see Thomas Elsaesser, ‘The New Film History’, Sight And Sound, Autumn 1986.

4. For a survey of the issues and methods, Judith Mayne, Cinema and Spectatorship, Routledge, 1993.

5. Sarah Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

6. e.g., Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception, Routledge, New York, London, 1994; ‘Early Russian Cinema’, by Siegfried Kracauer in, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays edited by Thomas Y. Levin, Harvard University Press, 1995 and other essays.

7. Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 1997.

8. Anna Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.

9. Linda Williams, ‘Discipline and Fun: Psycho and Postmodern Cinema’, in Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams edited, Reinventing Film Studies, Edward Arnold, London, 2000.

10. Ranjani Mazumdar is currently undertaking a research project on these linkages for the contemporary Bombay cinema.

11. Brian Larkin, Cinema Theatres and Moral Space in Northern Nigeria, ISIM Newsletter 3, July 1999,13.

12. Kathryn Hansen, ‘Parsi Theatre and the City: Locations, Patrons, Audiences’, Sarai Reader 02, The Cities of Everyday Life, Delhi, 2002.

13. Stephen P. Hughes, ‘The pre-Phalke Era in South India: Reflections on the Formation of Film Audiences in Madras’, South Indian Studies, no. 2, July-December 1996.

14. Bhrigupati Singh, ‘Aadamkhor Haseena (The Man Eating Beauty) and the Anthropology of a Moment’, paper presented at City One, conference on the South Asian urban experience, Sarai-CSDS, 9-11 January 2003.