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Cinema halls, locality and urban life

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Cinema halls, locality and urban life
  Cinema halls, locality and urban life ■ Lakshmi Srinivas University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA ABSTRACT ■ Drawing on ethnographic field research in Bangalore, amulti-ethnic, multi-lingual city in South India, this article explores therelationship between cinema and the city and the significance of theurban setting for the cinema experience, for moviegoers and film businessinsiders. Contrary to received understandings of cinema as a universal andplaceless experience, interviews with audiences, filmmakers, distributorsand exhibitors reveal that locality is important for the framing andembedding of cinema, for the meanings associated with any particularfilm or genre. The article suggests that urban space-cultures which situatecinema are consequential for both the box office performance of the filmand the audiences’ experience. KEY WORDS ■ space and culture, urban entertainment, audiences,movie theaters, Indian cinema How do urban space and culture shape the cinema experience for bothmoviegoers and the film business? I examined this question in Bangalore, amultiethniccityinSouthIndiathathasbecomeknownasthesub-continent’s ‘Silicon Valley’ (though the city is actually situated on a plateau).Starting in the 1950s, Bangalore became a center for government-fundedheavy industry, including aeronautics, machine tools, heavy machinery,metallurgy, and electronics. For decades it has been known as India’spremier science and technology city. The population grew rapidly in the1970s, and in the 1980s the real estate market boomed. In the 1990s, multinational corporations started moving in. graphy Copyright©TheAuthor(s),2010.Reprintsandpermissions: Vol 11(1): 189–205[DOI: 10.1177/1466138109355213] ARTICLE  Cinema in Bangalore is an important part of urban leisure and reflectsthe population’s pluralism. Since linguistic, ethnic, regional, and classcultures have a spatial dimension, cinema is embedded in the spatial config-uration of the city. In 1998 I conducted a field study of moviegoing inBangalore that is anchored in the settings in which cinema is produced andconsumed. I examined the framing of cinema in urban space and the signifi-cance of locality for cinema. Filmmakers, exhibitors, and distributors whomI interviewed discussed the importance of the location of various theatersand of the audience’s geographical distribution for a film’s release. Conver-sations with audiences revealed their expectations of theater spaces andtheir practices of distinguishing among theaters in the city.Few studies have explored the relevance of locality to cinema or havelooked at movie theaters as social and cultural spaces within a broaderurban setting. 1 Studies of Indian cinema have focused largely on the analysisand interpretation of individual films and genres, stars, directors, and fans,largely neglecting the social context of their exhibition and the history andinstitutions of film distribution. 2 The few ethnographies on audiences andmovie-watching in India that are located in specific cities do not addressthe links between theaters and urban spaces in any depth. 3 We do not havean understanding of contemporary cinema as it is shaped by the places inwhich the movie experience is elaborated. 4 Locating a plural cinema The‘cosmopolitan’cityofBangaloreishometoamultiplicityofethnocul-turalandlinguisticgroups.AccordingtorecentestimatesBangaloreisthethirdmostpopulouscityinIndiaandthefastestgrowingurbanagglomera-tion.TheareahaslongattractedmigrantsfromneighboringregionsandfromotherpartsofIndia.In2001slightlymorethanone-thirdofthecity’spopu-lationofaboutfivemillionspokeKannada,thelocallanguage,whileTamilspeakersformedclosetoaquarterofthepopulation.Smaller,yetsubstantialminoritiesspokeTeluguandUrdu.Thecity’sresidentsincludeanumberof othergroups:Gujerathis,Punjabis,Marwaris,Marathis,Bengalis,andspeakersofMalayalam,Tulu,andKonkani.ManyBangaloreansaremulti-lingual.Thepopulationisalsodiverseinreligiousaffiliation.Avarietyof Hindugroupsmakeup79percentofthepopulationwhileMuslimscomprise13percent,bothroughlythesameasthenationalaverage. 5 Thecityhassmallernumbersof Christians,Jains,Parsis,Sikhs,andAnglo-Indians. 6 InIndia,thefilmbusinessisdecentralized.Hindi-languagefilmsmadeinBombay,orBollywood,arebestknownandmostwidelyviewedbothinIndiaandinternationally.However,regionalcinemacontinuestoflourish.Manystateshavetheirownfilmbusinessesthatproducepopular Ethnography  11(1) 190  entertainment for the masses in regional languages. 7 The South Indian statesof Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka (where Bangaloreis located) all have film industries that make full-length feature films in thelanguage of each state. B movies, martial arts films made in Hong Kong(S.V. Srinivas, 2003), and adult films contribute to the diversity of cinemaofferings.Bangalore’s linguistic and cultural pluralism shapes the cinema marketand the film experience. A movie enthusiast turned filmmaker described thecity as a place where ‘a person can watch [in] at least 3 to 4 languages andgo from one culture to another; world cultures, local cultures, you have somuch choice!’ A young cinematographer and filmmaker emphasized thechoices available to moviegoers: ‘People are very diverse. My next doorneighbor may [say] ... let’s go see the Kannada film ... his neighbor maysee Malayalam movies, then they start talking about “Titanic”. Finallysomeone says “let’s go see a Hindi film”, [so] they go for a Hindi film!’Films in English, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam arereleased every week. Moviegoers in Bangalore may see every kind of fare.One movie enthusiast reported that at one point in his life he wouldroutinely watch three films a day: ‘morning Kannada, then in the afternoonI watched Tamil or Hindi, and in the evening English (Hollywood)’. Sincetheatres are situated in specific urban spatial cultures, moviegoers’ decisionsabout what films to see are also decisions about how to experience the city. The Cantonment and the City Movie theaters serve as landmarks in Bangalore. People refer to theaterswhen giving directions: ‘I’m going to Jayanagar Nagar, near Nanda theater’;a theater location may be prominently indicated on the map enclosed witha wedding invitation. Older residents take pride in the fact that the cityonce had the largest number of theaters per square mile anywhere in India. 8 The city’s identity has been shaped by its commercial entertainment.The most striking distinction 9 that is significant for cinema and its publicculture is between two nodes in the central urban area. Residents refer tothe Cantonment in the northeast as ‘Cantt’ or ‘Town’, or in terms of itscommercial districts, Commercial Street, Mahatma Gandhi Road (M.G.Road), and Brigade Road. The other node is the City in the western partof Bangalore, where the old market area or  pettai is located. The Cityincludes the areas of Gandhinagar, City market, Krishnarajendra Market(K.R. Market), Avenue Road, and Kempegowda Road (K.G. Road). Estab-lished separately at different periods, the Cantonment and the City arerecognized as cultural spaces which have long organized urban life, leisure,and entertainment. 10 The Cantonment began as a station for British troops Srinivas ■ Cinema halls, locality and urban life 191  in the early 1800s 11 and was then settled by the British and by Tamil-speaking migrants from the Madras Presidency. When Winston Churchilllived in the Cantonment as a young army officer, he played polo, grew roses,and collected butterflies, as well as racking up an account at the BangaloreClub which remains unsettled. Officially designated a Civil and MilitaryStation in 1868, the Cantonment was an independent area under controlof the Government of India. In contrast, the old city was established as a‘fortified settlement’ in the 16th century by Kempegowda and belonged tothe princely state of Mysore. It was a walled town within four main gatesand developed into a dense and vibrant area of mixed residential, commer-cial, manufacturing, and religious activities (Nair, 2008). Cubbon Park 12 separated the Cantonment from the old city, and the British expressedconcern about the populations from these two sections mixing (Nair, 2008).In 1949 these two cities were brought together under the administrationof the Bangalore City Corporation. Yet the cultural differences between thetwo sections persisted long after the formation of Karnataka as a linguis-tic state in 1956. While the Cantonment was the site for English-speakingelites and Tamil immigrants as well as Telugu and Urdu speakers, thelinguistic culture of the old city has been described as ‘Kannada centered’,with some Urdu. Here too there is linguistic and cultural plurality, as immigrants from the north and south brought a mix of languages andcultures. 13 The Cantonment and the City form organizing nodes for the ways peopleexperience the city. The wider streets and spacious bungalows of theCantonment offered a different lifestyle from the City’s bustling market, itsnarrow lanes full of shops and stalls. Bangaloreans recognize the Canton-ment and the City as cultural zones. Residents of the city in the 1940s and1950s described the Cantonment as another world where they went to learnWestern ways such as how to use a knife and fork and try out their English-language skills on waiters who themselves were not fluent in English (Vishwanath, 2009). Bangaloreans who had grown up in what were considered more conservative, less cosmopolitan locales admitted to feelingintimidated and inferior to the more Westernized residents of the Canton-ment. 14 The City was similarly alien for Cantonment residents. Manybelonging to the middle and upper-middle classes are prejudiced against theCity. Members of these classes, especially women, typically avoid the City,which they perceive as a crowded place where they have to be alert to avoidpickpockets and ‘eve-teasers’, the term used locally by residents andEnglish-language newspapers for men who sexually harass women on thestreets. Ethnography  11(1) 192  Locality and heterogeneity Cinema is embedded in and shaped by the localities of the city. Part of theattraction of the Cantonment for older residents were theaters that screened‘English pictures’. The Liberty (earlier Globe), 15 Imperial, B.R.V., Plaza, andRex were among the first; the BluMoon, BluDiamond, and Symphony (allon M.G. Road and the Lido in Ulsoor) were later additions. The City wasalso known for its many cinema halls. K.G. Road was lined with ‘talkies’.A cinematographer who lived in the City for several years counted 50–60theaters in the area. ‘It was Asia’s number one road with so many theaters!’Theaters such as Prabhat, States, Sagar, Kempegowda, Himalaya, Geeta,and Majestic screened Kannada and regional cinema. The Alankar,Kalpana, Menaka, Abhinay, Kapali, and Tribhuvan were added in the1950s and 1960s (Vishwanath, 2009).A cinematographer saw the drawing power of movies in the Cantonmentas having to do as much with the attractiveness of the area to moviegoersas with the film. ‘People will say “we’ve come all the way to M.G. Road”– They won’t want to go back without seeing a movie, so they will go to James Bond.’ A young man in his 20s whose tastes were eclectic andspanned Bollywood, Hollywood, Kannada, and Tamil movies goes to watchmovies in the Cantonment because ‘M.G. Road is fun at night’. A schoolteacher in a boys’ school in the Cantonment reported that when she askedher 10th standard class to write an essay about what they did on weekends,one student responded, ‘I hang around outside Rex or Plaza [theaters] oron Commercial Street looking at beautiful girls.’With its high-rise, glass-fronted buildings, trendy boutiques, departmentstores, five-star hotels, and restaurants, the Cantonment is a place to spendtime with family and friends and people-watch. Cafes, ice-cream parlors,and small eateries provide spaces for socializing for groups of middle-classhigh school and college students, young professionals, and families. Peoplestroll on the elevated walkway and sit on the benches; they buy snacks fromthe street vendors and window-shop. Markers of the city’s colonial past areeverywhere: a statue of Queen Victoria remains at the Cubbon Park end of M.G. Road, a spot for street vendors to gather and a favorite perch forpigeons. M.G. Road was srcinally opposite the military parade grounds,an open space that still exists in the heart of the commercial area. TheBritish Council library used to be housed above Koshy’s store and restau-rant (earlier Parade Café) 16 on St Mark’s Road, named after the church.Higginbotham’s bookstore is an institution on M.G. Road, as was the now-demolished Victoria Hotel. Brigade Road which leads off from M.G. Roadhas more shops, restaurants, bakeries, pubs, clubs, and movie theaters.The City is where the old fort and temple, the old market area, a majorrailway station, and the interstate bus terminus are located. A lot of old Srinivas ■ Cinema halls, locality and urban life 193
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