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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The unique paradox of a cinema hall’s charm

The easing of covid clamps on movie theatres has made us wonder if and why we missed the classic experience of cinema. Yes, its appeal is superior, but would that justify going?

As curtains part once again to expose us to the wonders of cinema savoured the classic way, in a movie theatre, that twitchy beam of overhead projection could place more than just our state-ordained safety protocols in the spotlight. Halls must fill no more than half their seats and be kept duly sanitized, among other things, while their patrons must wear masks and not treat film intervals as occasions to swarm refreshment counters and washroom facilities. All this makes corona sense. The behaviour of Indian cinema-goers, though, will be under the watch not only of security personnel, presumably, but also an entire industry keen to identify the post-pandemic new normal of on-screen entertainment. Over-the-top platforms—such as Netflix, Disney-Hotstar and Amazon Prime—have fared predictably well in the seven odd months that big screens were forced to go on the blink by a tiny virus. Some of us seem won over for life by their wide choice of assorted fare streamed affordably and instantly onto handsets, laptops and TV panels. Yet, for many, the wait for good old theatres to reopen, as they finally did as part of Unlock 5.0, must have felt eternal. This may have something to do with the unique paradox of a cinema theatre’s charm, an appeal that grew especially salient during the hiatus.

Watching a good film in a dark hall full of strangers is a crowd experience as much as an intimately personal one, and neither aspect of it can satisfactorily be simulated by an app swiped into “play" mode on a smartphone. Comic moments, for example, are not quite so enjoyable without the collective response of anonymous laughter all around. Well known to TV producers who use canned guffaws, this is an audio sensation that is contagious in its own right. The very sound of it tickles us. Cinema tends to get truly evocative, though, when emotions are stirred deep within. Filmmakers in command of their art recognize the value of a hall’s ambient darkness. At one level, it allows us to immerse ourselves in another world as sentient individuals. At another, it grants us an invisibility that helps turn our empathy expressive. In the glare of light, we are usually too self-conscious to cry ourselves cathartic. In the dimness of a theatre, we can freely let our composure come apart. There are various other feelings, too, that films arouse better if watched how they were meant to be.

The allure of a theatre visit, however, should not eclipse what else it could expose us to. Think covid-19. Even if people are seated well apart, the risk of airborne infection in a closed space goes up more than proportionally by the audience size and time spent. That is reason enough to stay away. But what if a must-watch comes along? Given the wringer that our Hindi film industry has been through over the lockdown, the likelihood of such a movie appearing anytime soon does not seem terribly high. We would welcome being proven wrong on this, of course, but consider the scenario. As if film shoot disruptions were not bad enough, Bollywood has found itself trolled by righteous busybodies keen to portray it as a haven of depravity. So badly have our entertainers felt clobbered that some studios have sought judicial intervention against what looks like a smear campaign. How this will affect their art is hard to tell, but we hope that our dream merchants respond with the resilience of creative artists who perform best under pressure.

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