It has been 6 months of being prisoners at home and scavenging around on the streaming platforms to justify bearing the self-proclaimed tag of a ‘movie buff’. With an invisible beast waging devastation outside, people living in fear of strained medical services growing inaccessible by the day, and many more trying to hold on to their livelihoods, fussing about shut theatres feels disgustingly selfish and insensitive. Nevertheless, this is what we are. Us ‘movie buffs’, damaged souls, deprived of our big screen nutrition, and the collective experience that comes with it.
Yes, there are the web-shows to compensate and the binge-watching with groggy eyes late into the night. The deep-dive character studies of flawed humans unravelling amidst meticulously designed dystopian societies over sprawling episodes and multiple seasons. Writers and showrunners with liberties they have never had before churning out stories with limitless space to build characters and their worlds brick by brick and truly play god.
Not surprisingly then, amidst the anticipated movie releases on digital platforms during this period, it has been the shows (Panchayat, Patal Lok, et al) that have been more talked about. Them sucking you in with the ‘watch next episode’ tab popping as soon as the credits for the current one rolls up. You wake up in a daze, triumphant after enduring 30 episodes over the weekend, still, half-mumbling dialogues sleepwalking through the rest of your work-from-home day. Desperate to be recognized for your accomplishment you reach out to friends who have seen them with memes of the shows eager to gain a sense of community. A few minutes into the attempt to generate a feeling of goodwill, you are told that there is a better show of the same genre, even the same plot, streaming on another platform right now, ought not to be missed. You realize that the world continues to be divided in other ways.
Theatre-addicts have never been able to describe their favourite movie-going experiences in tangible terms. More often than not, they have mentioned being touched, moved, or being under a spell, which lingered on for hours, or at times, for days together. The other, cruder term that has also been used for the lack of a better one is ‘magic’. The magic in the breaking away of Forrest’s crutches as he escapes a gang of bullies or the magic, literally, in the final duel between Harry and Voldemort; the magic in the monstrous ape taking on man for his love atop the Empire State building or the magic in a whale somersaulting over Pi’s rag-tag boat.
Closer home, one would think, there is not a better word to describe the feeling of seeing kachra turn the ball for the first time on-screen in Lagaan or the visceral action play out on the Hooghly Bridge in Yuva. How would have the sheesh-mahal sequence come across if Mughal-e-Azam would have streamed on your mobile screen with a digital-only release? Would Jay & Veeru’s valiance at Gabbar’s den still be a part of our pop culture folklore if it had not released on a 70 mm? Would the dead girl emerging for the first time from under the stairs in RGV’s ‘Bhoot' still have stunned you into silence as it did you and everyone else seventeen years ago in the theatre? Skill aside, wasn’t there a bit of magic in there every time?
These references point to something instinctive that is brought out by the large screen in a dark theatre with fifty others like us who have signed up for the surrender. Master filmmakers across the ages have used this ‘collective energy’ to hypnotize unsuspecting viewers and political regimes have used it as a potent mass-propaganda machine. Anthropologists have compared it to the primitive story-telling rituals of tribes around their campfires, which brought them together and helped build their shared cultures. Cinemas, other than sports, were the bearers of collective, shared cultural experiences in the previous century just like plays were for the one preceding. With them shut and viewers still avoiding them in all probability shortly, there would be nothing much else to shape our shared experiences with.
Streaming platforms, with all their richness in content and customer-centric algorithms, are not designed to deliver social, collective entertainment or cultural experiences – ones that define the pop-cultures of generations and are the stuff of anecdotes when passed on as histories to the subsequent ones. With the deluge of content as well as platforms, the control lies completely with the viewer to 'personalize’ his experience as minutely as he wants to. While that is a convenience for the viewer as well as an enabler for storytellers who want to take a diverse range of stories to the end consumer, the experience of being drawn into another world by the sheer scale of the big screen either alone or, better, with friends or family is an experience that remains unmatched.
With a pandemic raging now, and the ease of technology otherwise, there is no reason good enough though to get back to the theatres. For us, damaged souls, the favourite reminiscences of them will have to suffice in the near future.
There is a lot to catch up on in the binge world meanwhile.
With a little less magic.
Suryadipta Guha is a General Insurance professional from Kolkata with an abiding interest in cinema. His writings have been published in the Film Companion and the portal Flickside.com.