Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | From grand theatrical sublimities to OTT absurdities
Taapsee Pannu in Thappad.
Taapsee Pannu in Thappad.

Opinion | From grand theatrical sublimities to OTT absurdities

The death knell on the grand illusion of the movie hall’s eternal appeal rung in when a spate of new film releases recently got to reach audiences via over-the-top streaming platforms

Many many years ago, I had watched a musical called Annie. On 70mm. It was about an eponymous red-haired, freckle-faced little orphan girl who is adopted by a stern, never-been-in-love millionaire. One of the many fun things Annie does to “humanize" her foster father is to take him—along with her governess (who, by the end of the reels, becomes her foster mother)—to the movies.

That particular sequence, where they all get dressed to the nines for an evening out, is something I recall whenever I toy with intimations of cinematic mortality. Those lines they sing—“Let’s go to the movies/Sitting in the darkness/What a world to see!/Songs and romance./Life is the dance./Sitting in the darkness, popcorn on your knee"—I had imagined would, like an old classic, endure happily ever after. But instead, they’ve gotten a reality check.

Is “The End" popping up on the big picture screen? Well, yes. At least for the foreseeable future. The death knell on the grand illusion rung in when, recently, a spate of new releases got a vent via OTT (over-the-top) streaming. I just read somewhere that the London Film Festival, to be held in October, will be a virtual one this year: Over 50 films will have online premieres. We can now watch a sweeping drama debuting on a smarty-pant gadget while lolling around in pyjamas on a dishevelled couch. And the popcorn can always be microwaved.

The last time I watched a movie in a theatre was in early March. Other than it being titled Thappad, the experience itself was like a slap in the face: There were six of us in an auditorium designed to accommodate at least 150. Covid hadn’t yet checked in like that annoying guest who doesn’t want to leave, but it was lurking around the corner—so, inside the hall, all six of us looked at the other far-flung five with a certain amount of suspicion. Everyone continually sanitized their hands, and collectively heaved a sigh of relief when the movie ended.¬¬¬

Soon after, all theatres downed shutters. Temporarily, it was emphasized. But I’m not so sure how the scene will play out once (and if) the covid phase gets over. In markets like China, for example, where screens are being reopened in a phased manner, only re-runs of popular films are being shown, since new offerings cannot be granted a sliced—and selective—audience.

For me, the grandeur of the big screen had in any case been on the decline since the advent of multiplexes. It’s simple: Most of them are housed within mall premises, and there’s something distinctly unholy about cinema being reduced to a stopping point on a retail trail.

Growing up, when movies were an outing, a treat, I never forgot a single film. I’d remember lines, scenes, actors’ names. Plus, there were a host of memories. Like when, as school kids, we were not allowed to watch an “Adults only" film, and how we sidled, shame-faced, into a neighbourhood theatre to catch a “wholesome family" one. Or when a bunch of us college friends had watched (a re-run of) The Exorcist armed with extra kathi rolls (those days, you could easily smuggle in outside food), so we could busy ourselves eating if the going got too scary. Or when my grandmother told me how the ladies who sat in dress-circle seats at a My Fair Lady screening (sometime in the 1960s) got a vanity case each.

Till a few months ago, I had steadfastly refused to fall prey to the excesses of mindless OTT bingeing, falling back on my vast DVD collection whenever I wanted to enjoy cinema. In late March, I capitulated like a row of pins flattened by a curveball, and am now hooked to the single-minded pursuit of endless entertainment.

These days, no memories are created. But there’s a lot of forgetfulness. I’ve lost track of plots and twists as I navigate overpopulated platforms, watching whatever catches my fancy. Nothing stays anymore; even great shows and movies blur into nought in my consciousness.

A few days ago, I was watching the riveting The Head, an HBO original, but four episodes down the line, I realized this was one of those slow releases, not a binge; I’d have to wait for the next two weeks for the final two episodes (it’s a six-part series). I was mildly irritated. But also deeply concerned—because I’m pretty sure I’m going to forget what exactly happened in the first four chapters… what if I confused it with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix?

Indian serials that earlier showcased squabbly mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law in tacky drawing rooms have suddenly adopted snazzy production values. I watched Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime, and immediately lost its train of thought because I was on to Aarya on Disney+Hotstar. Back in the day, the terrible Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi would remain lovingly etched in my mind because it dared to disrupt my quotidian routine for a time-bound half-an-hour.

In The Dangling Conversation, one of their finest renditions of lyrical craftsmanship, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel posed, back in 1966: “Can analysis be worthwhile? Is the theatre really dead?" Today, that seems like a rhetorical question.

Sushmita Bose is a journalist, editor and the author of ‘Single In The City’.

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