The Social Picture Show: On the Movie-Going Experience in India

The audience is as much a part of the Indian movie-going experience as the film itself. Singing anthems, whooping and hollering, rooting for favorites, calling out fouls and simulations, and getting a halftime snack fix – few differences aside, it’s possible to forget you’re in a dark room with 3D glasses and imagine yourself in a soccer stadium. Regardless of which side wins the denouement, audience participation is all part of the picture show.

A few words first on Indian movie theater protocol. Going to the cinema is still an affordable and regular Sunday afternoon outing, and for popular films and timings, it’s recommended to book seats in advance. Not just tickets, but assigned seats. Seat prices don’t change based on the viewer’s age or professional status, but, like many public spaces in India, based on the class your seat is in, which in some theaters ranges from VIP, Premium, and Executive, to Normal. Unlike in the United States, the seats farthest from the screen are the most coveted, so much so that the rows are numbered starting from the back, and seats from the upper half of the theater are more expensive than the empty front, so that the VIP sit in the last row, like an inverted stadium.

Anthems and intermission are also in the mix. Following a 2016 Supreme Court ruling, which has since seen some back and forth, it is mandatory for cinemas to play the national anthem to the image of the tricolored flag, and for citizens to stand and sing, in order to “feel this is my country and this is my motherland.” A practice some have dubbed popcorn nationalism, and which has recently been questioned by the same court that instituted it. The intermission, or interval as it’s known in India, is an older institution, and one that is more difficult to uproot, not because it maintains the Bollywood three-act structure as some claim, but because audiences buy snacks at that time rather than before the start of the film.

Intermission sales are such a large source of revenue that theaters halt all films halfway. This is fine for Indian movies with natural fade outs, but might leave you startled in the middle of a battle scene of a Western film like Dunkirk. Snacks include the usual popcorn-soda combo, with the additional chaat masala layer between salty and caramel popcorn, as well as samosas and Thums Up. Last time I ordered a soda it came without a lid or a straw because of a new no plastic policy, a whimsical Corporate Social Responsibility move that made drinking the soda turned draft beer tricky in the dark.

Now to the audience. It isn’t made up of hooligans, but definitely rowdy and demanding spectators. Despite the fairytale-like nature of some Bollywood films, audiences don’t feel alienated from the plot, and don’t shy away from expressing approval or discontent for what’s on the screen. This comes in the form of whooping during action scenes and near-kisses, or booing evil-doers and power cuts, Bangalore’s personal nemesis. It’s also shouting out “Don’t do it” to that character opening doors in horror films and “Are you done?” during overly dramatic scenes of reunion, as well as laughing at jokes said on screen or in someone’s text message, except that one time during Black Panther when a punchline with a Coachella reference went over everyone’s head. Repeat viewing is not uncommon here, perhaps because of people’s experience with traditional performances of epics known from childhood, meaning that sometimes you’ll sit next to someone singing along to all twenty songs of the film, or asking you to make space for them to walk in a quarter into the screening, which is always the sign of a good story about to unfold.

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About algerow

Class of 2017, major in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Sobti Family Fellow for the year 2017-2018 and current intern at Jana Urban Services for Transformation in Bangalore