Home / Opinion / The changing face of the urban leisure economy

Last week, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath recommended that single-screen-theatre owners who are shutting shop be encouraged to refurbish their movie halls as miniplexes instead. It is, in the larger scheme of things, a minor matter for a state’s chief executive. But the changing nature of movie-going in India also reflects upon urbanization and migration, and the dynamics of growth and equality.

The Indian cinema hall was once a great leveller, bringing patrons from all socio-economic classes under one roof to engage in a common activity. The multiplex revolution, with its higher ticket prices and lower seating capacity, changed all that. It broke down the social collective of 800-900—sometimes even more than a thousand—viewers who would pack themselves into single-screen theatres. In its place, it created smaller niche audiences who were willing to pay not just for the movie but the overall experience of movie-going. In general, this improved the business, and the art of Indian cinema. But it also effectively squeezed out the poor, particularly in urban areas, from one of the few public spaces that they could access for leisure and entertainment.

Of late, miniplexes—with only two screens usually, just the basic comforts and relatively cheaper tickets—have sought to fill the gap. They already have quite a presence in states like Goa, Gujarat and Punjab; it will be interesting to see how these establishments stack up against their bigger cousins in coming years.

This matters because, as Adrian Athique and Douglas Hill note in The Multiplex In India: A Cultural Economy Of Urban Leisure, “The multiplex cinema is a site of major significance for anyone interested in understanding not only the operating logic of the media industries but also the contemporary dynamics of urban development, public culture and social change."

For example, as Athique and Hill point out, the cinema hall in post-independence India, like the railway station, went a long way in bringing down class and caste barriers as well as in forging a common national identity in a newly formed state. The elite were especially concerned about “respectable women" having to come in such close proximity with decidedly “unrespectable men", but in the age before television, there were few other options, especially in urban areas.

This came to a head around the 1980s, when the middle classes began to abandon movie halls altogether. The latter were in terrible shape, at least in part because many state governments, having realized the benefits of offering the poor easy access to entertainment, sought to cap ticket prices, thereby cutting into the profits of theatre owners. With video-cassette recorders becoming popular too, movie halls just weren’t as attractive to the middle classes any more, and became the preserve of those further down the socioeconomic ladder.

This created a vicious cycle. As the number of viewers fell, profits declined and theatre owners invested little in upkeep, which further reduced the number of patrons. In fact, the situation had become so dire that in 1994, Rajshri Productions refused to release its multi-starrer Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! until owners renovated their halls to make them palatable to families again. The strategy worked—the middle classes returned to the movie halls, but only for a short period, after which they quickly moved on to multiplexes.

In the decades since, these trends and patterns have not just evolved but been completely turned on their heads. If in the 1970s and 1980s, movie theatres lost the middle classes, today it is the urban poor who have been priced out of the halls. In both cases, the availability of new technology played an important role. In previous decades, cable TV and video-cassette and disc players offered a new set of entertainment options, allowing the middle classes to create a new space for themselves. Today, it is Internet-enabled mobile phones that are revolutionizing how the Indian poor access entertainment; Internet penetration might still be low but it is set to grow at an impressive rate.

This atomization of shared popular culture and experiences—a social safety valve in times of rapid economic changes—could have multiple implications in the long run. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic develops as the Internet, and particularly social networking sites and apps, redefine how public spaces are negotiated in the Indian context.

Will the spread of technology spell the decline of India’s movie-going culture? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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