120 years of watching movies: The solitary and the communal viewer
How the company we keep in film screenings shapes our perceptions of cinema
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Two movie-watching vignettes, a decade and a half apart:
It’s 1990 or 1991, I’m a young teen standing a few feet outside the room where my mother and nani (maternal grandmother) are watching a film on our video-cassette player; peering in unobtrusively so they don’t ask me to come in and sit down with them. This isn’t a single incident, it is a composite of many. It could be that I am embarrassed by the tackier scenes—or the raunchier ones like the Ajooba song where Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor, shrunk to finger size, cavort inside the blouses of their girlfriends—or maybe I just want to watch the film “alone”. Though I don’t know it yet, my childhood love affair with Hindi cinema is about to end.
Cut to 2005, and I’m watching Rohan Sippy’s Bluffmaster! in a Noida hall with my girlfriend, soon to be my wife, in whose company I am finding my way back to Hindi films. We have just had a fight and it looks like the next 2 hours will be strained—I won’t say a word unless she speaks first, I have told myself sulkily as the screening begins—but around 45 minutes in, we are both sufficiently engaged by the film’s pace, music and likeable performances, to begin whispering to each other. Bluffmaster! is hardly likely to be remembered as one of the seminal achievements of its time, but in that situation, with the right company, it works.
Now that this memory montage has begun, other incidents unspool non-chronologically through my mind. With three friends, I’m watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou at the rundown Paras hall in south Delhi during a film festival. Godard’s experiments with cinematic form have long been subjects of wonder for us, and so, when the image on the screen shakes wildly and loses focus for a few seconds, even though we know this is a technical problem (one frequently experienced at this venue), the joke is inevitable. “What was JLG trying to say here?” one of us goes in a faux-pedantic tone. We conjecture. We crack up. An avant-garde director has been out-avant-garded by faulty projection.
A few seconds of frivolity enhanced that viewing, but at other times laughter is sacrilegious. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is playing in a small hall at the PVR Anupam multiplex in Delhi’s Saket area, part of a half-hearted (and short-lived) effort by the theatre to screen “international classics” once a week. Right film, poor print, wrong crowd. The seats immediately around me are empty, I made sure of that, but from two rows ahead issue the groans of young plebs who clearly equate the director’s name with “murder mystery”. “Hitchcock has lost it, man,” someone says, as if speaking of a school pal.
Chewing glumly on stale popcorn, I flash-back to a few years earlier when I’m viewing a restored Vertigo print in my room, letting the languid visuals, punctuated by slow dissolves and Bernard Herrmann’s music, wash over me. The quality of that experience is inseparable from the fact that I am alone.
Harrowing and invigorating things may happen at the same venue. Watching The Tin Drum at the Siri Fort auditorium in an uncomfortable seat, and with the stench of sweat in the air (not to mention a whispered “iss film mein SCENES hain na?” from a hopeful patron of B-porn), does nothing to help me engage. But years later, in this very hall, elderly viewers burst into cheers when the young Dev Anand makes his appearance in the 1951 classic Baazi, and I am swept along by the worshipful tide; somehow, the creaking seats and the bad print don’t matter so much.
These and so many other experiences were defined by the company I kept, or didn’t keep, while watching a film—and some of them cast a long shadow. Take those adolescent, from-outside-the-room viewings. Mainstream Hindi cinema circa 1989-91 was more chaff than wheat, but I wanted the option of enjoying even mediocre films without hearing family members snort “Kya bakwaas hai (What rubbish)!” This sheepishness helped birth my career as a Solitary Watcher, which dovetailed with a growing interest in old Hollywood and “world cinema”—new windows that I discovered on my own—and led to a phasing out of other people from my viewing life. Through the 1990s, I was almost always watching films alone, on cassettes hired from local parlours or embassy libraries, or during occasional film-festival jaunts.
There were stray moments that don’t fit into this arc: such as allowing myself to be taken to a Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge screening in 1995, and enjoying the film hugely. But it was only in the 2000s that I properly returned to communal viewing—and, not coincidentally, to a renewed engagement with Hindi cinema—in the company of my wife, and a few other friends, who were egalitarian viewers, capable of watching and having intense conversations about anything.
The internal divide continues, of course: Here is the solitude-loving nerd who still loves watching DVDs alone, replaying a scene endlessly or pausing a film to make notes, and here is the more social animal who is stimulated by seeing a film with someone else, discussing it afterwards, refining his own thoughts through conversation.
Many years after that disastrous Vertigo viewing at PVR, I read a Jim Emerson piece titled “Movies Too Personal To Share With An Audience”, which suggests that some films (Vertigo being among them) are best seen alone. That sounds right, given my own experience, but I’m wary of such a clearly spelt-out thesis. There are other intersecting considerations: the type of company matters, as does the mood you’re in on the day. Are you a professional critic with an urgent deadline? Are you showing someone a film for the first time (and playing mentor) or watching with a friend who insists on complete silence throughout?
You could make this broad statement: A larger-than-life Hindi film full of seeti-bajao moments—say, a Salman Khan blockbuster—works best with a crowd, while a less showy film is best seen alone. But I have had both rewarding and disappointing experiences that contradict this idea. For instance, it is possible to watch a particular film by yourself, and later with an audience, and to enjoy it both times—but to be stimulated by different things on each occasion. Watching Anand (1971) alone, I was stirred by Bachchan’s understated performance as the cynical doctor, and annoyed by Rajesh Khanna’s mannerism-laden inspirational hero; watching it with a large audience in a setting that lent itself to the grand theatrical gesture, I changed my mind and saw Khanna as the film’s true star and energy-dispenser.
And there are the serendipitous moments, which no amount of theorizing can prepare you for: when, for instance, a roomful of strangers unites in solidarity not over something cherished like Dev Anand (or Rajesh Khanna), but something execrable. Watching Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag, a terrible Sholay remake, should have been among my worst hall experiences. Instead it was marked by a wave of bonhomie: Audience members guffawed each time a scene desecrated an iconic moment from the original. “Khota film dono taraf se khota hota hai,” someone hollered at the screen, a riff on one of Sholay’s most famous lines (“Khota sikka toh dono taraf se khota hota hai”), and we all applauded.
If a great film can be underwhelming in the wrong company, a terrible film can become enjoyable with the right crowd. Perhaps what finicky movie buffs need is permanent access to a private screening room along with programming software that gauges our personality, pulse rate and frame of mind on a particular day and tells us exactly who we should take along for the ride. Perhaps that will be the next revolution in film-viewing.