(Caution: a bit of a ramble and a rant.)
Was talking to some friends - about films, good and bad, about books and the market, the usual sort of random chatter.
Somebody mentioned walking out of film theatres after having paid for tickets and how much it hurt. I said something about how it isn't so bad when you watch the same film on television or DVD because it costs less. Then later, I chatted to somebody else about people's expectations from those who need and consume entertainment/media. And was relieved to find that I was not the only one who thought that most artistes have unreasonable expectations of their audience, and its tolerance of their art.
I can only illustrate this through a personal example.
Born into this movie-mad nation, I grew up watching predominantly Hindi films. I have lied in order to watch films. Got into a lot of trouble for the sake of films. Drove from one town to another to watch films. Wept real tears if I couldn't watch a film. In short, I did the usual stuff millions of young people in this country do, just to be able to watch films.
By the time I went to college and starting buying movie tickets myself, I spent an average of Rs 28 per movie outing. The ticket (balcony) cost Rs 17, a cold drink or pastry or popcorn or samosa in the interval cost Rs 5-7, and Rs 2 for the tempo ride either way. If we were in an awful hurry and took an auto instead of a tempo, we spent maybe Rs 32.
This was a small town, true. But even when we went to the bigger cities, we never spent more than Rs 50 per head for a movie.
I still remember the first time I went into a PVR complex to watch a film. I was quite impressed with all the glass and the deep colours and carpets and humungous tubs of popcorn which nobody could quite finish. I didn't know how much it cost. My uncle, being a kind, gentlemanly type, did not enlighten me.
A year later, I bought my own PVR ticket for the first time, and almost died. One hundred rupees! Just for one ticket? I tried to confine myself to non-posh, cheaper cinemas. Two years later, the cheaper cinemas started disappearing and ticket prices began skyrocketing.
Within four years, I went from paying Rs 17 for a ticket to Rs 150, on an average. Another two years and I was paying Rs 200. On weekends, this could be Rs 250. Add to that some popcorn, a cup of coffee, and auto/taxi fares. A movie outing could cost Rs 500. Per person.
I couldn't afford that. Not every week. Not twice a week. Not then, and not now. Friends who make thrice as much money as me also agree that Rs 500 per head for a movie outing is outrageous. It means Rs 2000-2500 for the average family outing.
How many students, how many struggling artistes, how many young couples, how many teachers, how many non-corporate professionals in India can afford to spend such money on weekend entertainment? I can tell you, not many writers can.
And the thing is, these are precisely the people who might be interested in a new or different kind of cinema. If there is only one film being released every Friday, then perhaps they will patronise that one film. But if there are two or three, then they will watch only one; that is, if they step out of the house at all.
Recently, I read somewhere that occupancy in multiplexes stands only at around 40 percent, and I am not surprised. I went from watching almost every film I could sneak out for, every film that happened to be playing in the local theatres, to watching maybe one or two films in a month.
If you were a freelance writer, watching one movie a week would mean being able to sell at least two to three extra stories to the newspapers every week. I cannot name a lot of movies that were worth so much time and effort. Can any filmmaker working in this country honestly stand up and say his/her work is good enough to claim one tenth of the average audience-person's income?
The gains that were made through the multiplex culture - allowing for five or six different films to show simultaneously - are lost because of unreasonable pricing. There are enough people here willing to watch almost every kind of cinema you can conceive of. I rememner that we were just a bunch of students at a convent in a small town, yet we went to watch Deepa Mehta's 'Fire' two times, while cinema halls were being attacked in other places. We didn't know what to expect from the film but we were willing to give it a chance. I would like the chance to go on giving all kinds of films a chance. But get real about how much I'm willing in invest in that sort of chance.
Now, I find myself getting more and more intolerant of the few movies I do watch.
When I was spending Rs 17, I could walk into a hall playing 'Daag - the fire' with my mother, just because I couldn't think of anywhere else to go and sit on a hot afternoon. I saw the movie through. It was bad but it didn't hurt. We all sat through some films simply to be able to make fun of them.
In contrast, the last time I took some people out to a big-budget star-studded movie, I spent upwards of Rs 1500, and found myself cringing, wanting to walk out during the interval. It wasn't the worst film I'd ever seen; it just felt like that. It made me want to smack the filmmaker.
It is not like I expect tickets to stay at Rs 17 forever. I understand inflation. I understand infrastructure and maintainence. But reading about the current standoff between producers and multiplex owners, one would imagine that audiences are essentially interested in air-conditioning and the 'get-up' of the place. Or else, in just watching a film no matter what the cost in terms of time or money.
I say, ask me! I am your audience. And I am a good audience, reasonably intelligent and patient and generous when it comes to art.
Yes, I like nice cinema halls. Yes, I would like decent sound and clean toilets with running water. And I would prefer not to have rats and cockroaches underfoot. But that is not the point. The point is that I was anyway going out to watch movies despite the rats, despite the ripped seats, despite the amorphous, declassed 'crowd'. I resent being made to pay for facilities which should be the norm. All public spaces need to be clean. All theatres need to have decent toilets and running water and emergency exits. You need to hire enough staff and make sure that people do their jobs well. And I am willing to pay a little extra to make this happen.
But I resent being charged ridiculous amounts of money for popcorn and bad coffee. I resent people not respecting the little money I have and am willing to spend on their work. I resent the fact that people are paid in double-digit crores and they still cannot come up with anything remarkable, or even original. I resent the fact that those same people still want me to get out there and spend my money anyway, even though they wouldn't spit at amounts so small when it comes to their personal lifestyle or entertainment choices.
A pretty dress or a pair of shoes also give me pleasure. Music or theatre or going dancing gives me pleasure. If I have to pay Rs 40 for a cup of coffee in an airconditioned space, I might as well go to a cafe; why bother with cinema? If you cannot match a certain level of pleasure or offer the goods at better prices, then, well, tough! Make do with 40 percent occupancy. Go on raising ticket prices.
One of these days some cool cat in the media/software worlds will come up with a way to make internet cinema pay for itself. Already, we get most of my cinema from television or DVDs. Soon there will be something else.
In the meantime, sometimes, we pay those crazy prices despite the resentment. But filmmakers need to think about these questions - of the audience's valuation of the worth of cinema, of the common viewing experience, and of infrastructure. They will have to think a little harder than they seem to be thinking right now, especially if they want to make different kinds of films.
I stay away from a certain film not because I want a fixed amount of masala with my art. Nor because I am afraid of experiments. But if you're going to part me from my hard-earned money, then deliver. Deliver what I (which is not me personally, but the average audience member) expect and I will come to see your work again and again. I will come drawn by your name, your sensibility, your history, your passion.
Even if you cannot deliver, I will still come to watch some films. But I will play safe. I will start showing up to watch only when I am at least assured of some eye candy, or my favourite actors. For instance, I'll watch almost anything with Jude Law in it. And if I can watch Jude Law and get a reasonably interesting kind of cinema at the same time, why will I bother with a Hindi film heartthrob? More and more Indians speak and/or understand English. More and more of them have access to dubbed foreign films, or DVDs with sub-titles. Think of that.
I will probably watch Hindi movies anyway, even though I want to smack their creators sometimes, because I belong to this culture, because they're almost in my blood. But my loyalty to Hindi films is linked to their creators' loyalty to me and my expectations.
It is the same way with plays or books. I keep hoping that some storyteller is going to surprise me, enchant me, leave me with a scrap of beauty and truth, or change the way I think, or allow me to look at lives I'm not familiar with. But if he/she cannot do that, the least I expect is a little laughter and love. Which is why humour and romance - or the combination - draw people. Not because that is the only thing people want. But because that is the least they expect. There's a difference beween what people want, what they will settle for and what they expect.
The sooner we work that one out, the better it will be for all of us.