Audience Experience: Becoming One Soul — An Excerpt from Don’t Call It Bollywood

If a movie theater is a Temple, how does this change the way you behave? In America and other Western cultures, the “proper” way to watch a film is silently, respectfully, intellectually, and with your focus firmly on the screen. In recent years, art theaters like The Alamo Drafthouse have advertised that only those who watch a film the “right” way are welcome. They enforce total silence. Any audience member who is incapable of complete attention and understanding of the film is not welcome. Films are too important to be seen by just anyone.

So who is it who is excluded by these rules? Babies, of course. Popular Western culture has accepted that one of the worst crimes of humanity is to bring a baby into a movie theater. Even small children, with their clear unmodulated voices, constant requests to visit the bathroom, to change seats, their announcements of emotions — ”Daddy, I’m scared! Daddy, that was funny! Daddy, I want to go home now!” — this is not acceptable when watching Films-with-a-capital-F.

And in some cases, of course, the elderly should also not attend. Those who are a little deaf, incapable of lowering their voice and constantly asking their companions to repeat lines. Those with a touch of dementia who need every plot movement explained to them. Best that they stay home also.

What about the disabled? Certainly, a simple physical disability is not an issue, there are those handy set aside areas for wheelchairs and walkers. But what about the mentally disabled? Who combine the worst features of the child audience and the elderly, announcing emotions, asking questions, all in the full volume of an adult voice. What if they have a disability that makes them truly unable to control the sounds they create? Someone who calls out uncontrollably when excited, for instance. Or someone with respiratory issues that result in coughing, hacking, unpleasant noises at inappropriate times.

And the final, most accepted, exclusion: those who use cell phones during a film. Films are a time to be alone, to be in the present, to let everything outside go away for this brief time. Parents of young children, caretakers of elderly relatives — they certainly aren’t welcome to take their charges with them to the theater, and if there is an emergency or a question from back home during the film, well, the baby can go without its formula until the picture is over, then you can text the babysitter where it is. The elderly relative can continue their dementia induced panic attack for another hour until you are free to check your messages and call them back and calm them down. This is a movie! Either be here entirely, or don’t be here at all.

On the other hand, if you go to an Indian film, this is what you will see: small children learning to walk, and learning to dance, in the aisles. Old men exclaiming in Hindi as they see something that reminds them of their youth. Parents on their first date night since the baby was born, holding hands and texting the babysitter. A child being passed from mother to father to uncle to aunt to grandparent, as they each get a chance to talk him through his first movie experience.

More than that, what you will feel is just overwhelming joy, community, and a magical connection between people. On a good night, with a good film, there will be that moment where you all become one, there is a mighty gasp or cheer or sob from 100 people united under one emotion. More likely, there will be a moment when someone, or a group of people, speaks for you all. There will be a teenage girl who whistles when the hero takes off his shirt, followed by a chuckle of understanding or a cheer from the rest of the audience. The group of college boys who stomp their feet and clap when a particularly impressive fight move is accomplished, followed by an echo as other audience members follow their lead. The small child who starts crying loudly as the hero dies, acknowledged by the rest of the audience with sympathetic chuckles through their own silent tears.

In America, films are a solitary experience, the filmmaker is giving you a message from on high to which you must attend and respect. In India, the film is translated by the audience with which you watch it, and experienced differently every time it is seen. The biggest profit for Indian films is, and always has been, from repeat viewers. The length a film runs is measured first in weeks, then, for hit films, in months, and for the superhits, in years. The film Bobby (1973) ran in the same theater for three years. Sholay (1975) ran for five. The film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) (1995) has been running for over twenty years now. After its twenty-year anniversary, the theater tried to cancel the run, but was stopped by audience outcry. After twenty years, multiple releases on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, not to mention being available illegally and legally through multiple streaming sites and regular free broadcasts on television, people still want to see it in the theater with an audience.

In the West, theaters are re-creating the experience of watching a film alone in your living room, just with a bigger screen. In that case, why go to a theater? Surely it is better, and cheaper, to merely wait for the DVD and watch it at home, alone. Certainly, there is no real reason to rewatch the film in the theater: you have already seen it once, what will be different the second time around?

To watch an Indian film alone is to lose half the message. They are not designed for solitary enjoyment. After every dramatic confrontation, every plot twist revealed — the narrative will pause, switch to another story, give the audience time to compare notes and share emotions on the happenings. Important points are usually repeated, often the same pivotal thirty second scene will be shown multiple times in flashback. That way, if your baby is crying or your phone is ringing, no worries — you will have a chance to pick up what you missed when it is repeated later. The hero is introduced in slow motion, not just for dramatic effect, but to give the audience time to whistle and cheer at his entrance.

They are also designed for repeat viewing. There is a pause to allow tension and excitement to build before the best jokes, the best songs, the best fight scenes. By the second week, this pause will be filled with anticipatory laughter, cheers, and a whispered “watch this” to new viewers. There may even be a musical cue, or a shouted dialogue on screen, alerting those who have stepped out that they better hurry back in or they will miss the best part. Rarely, for the very best of these sequences, the audience may temporarily swell to twice its size as people wander in from neighboring theaters, or purchase tickets late, just so they can stand in the aisles and cheer and watch, and then quietly fade away when the peak emotion is accomplished.

By the third or fourth or fifth week, the dialogues may be accompanied by a slight hum, as the audience recites them along with the characters. Indian films excel at “one-liners.” These may be catch-phrases that encapsulate the nature of the hero, such as the quote from DDLJ recently used by President Obama in an address to the Indian parliament, “Bade Bade deshon mein, aisi choti choti baatein hoti rahti hain” (“In big countries, small mistakes like these often happen”). DDLJ’s hero “Raj,” India’s first transnational hero, was born and raised in London, is comfortable traveling through Switzerland and France, and still at home in India, and therefore does live in many very large countries. And in those countries, as he moves between the mores of Europe and India, he does make mistakes, but the countries are both large and difficult, and in comparison, his mistakes are small.

The dialogues memorized can also be poems, philosophies, zen koans almost. One of the most famous lines of Indian film is “Tumhara naam kya hai, Basanti?” (“What is your name, Basanti?”). It is said by the character Jai in Sholay, following a lengthy monologue delivered by the heroine “Basanti.” After a five-minute speech in which she talks about herself, saying “Basanti” does this, “Basanti” does that, she asks their names and points out that they haven’t asked her hers. And in response, Jai asks her name. It is a joke, a gag, and yet it has also been repeated ad nauseam in other films, ads, newspaper headlines, and daily life. It encapsulates the feeling of asking a question to which you already know the answer, and yet it still must be asked.

Other dialogues, or song lyrics, are memorized purely for their beauty. Some of the greatest poets of independent India have worked in the film industry, making a living by writing lyrics for songs. In the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Sudhir Ludhianvi, arguably India’s greatest modern poet, created searingly beautiful diatribes against society, such as this one from Pyaasa (1957):

 

Yeh mehlon, yeh takhton, yeh taajon ki duniya

Yeh insaan ke dushman samaajon ki duniya

Yeh daulat key bhookhey rawajon ki duniya

Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai

 

(This world of palaces, of thrones, and of crowns

These enemies of humanity, the world of social mores

This world of tradition, so hungry for wealth

How would it matter even if one acquired this world?)

 

The poetry is not limited to the lyrics, but can spill over into dialogue. The great monologues of Indian film, like the great monologues of Shakespeare, can stand on their own, out of context. For instance, in the middle of the comedy Om Shanti Om, the central character pauses to present a lengthy speech in poetic meter at an awards ceremony, giving his philosophy of life:

 

Itni shiddat se maine tumhe paane ki koshish ki hai,

hi har zarre ne mujhe tumse milane ki saazish ki hai.

(so strongly have I striven to win you,

that every atom has conspired to unite me with you)

 

Kehte hain … Agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaaho to puri kaaynat usey tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai.

(It is a saying … when one desires something whole-heartedly then the entire universe works to bring it to you)

 

Aaj aap sab ne mujhe meri chaahat se milaya, thank you, thank you very much.

(Today, all of you have brought me my heart’s desire. Thank you, thank you very much.)

Main aap sab ka shukar guzaar hoon, ki aapne mere khwabon ko yakeen mein badal diya, itna ki I feel like the King of the World.

(Today I am grateful to you all, as you have transformed my dreams into reality, so much so that I feel like the King of the World!)

 

Aur aaj, is baat ka bhi yakeen ho gaya, ki humari filmon ki tarah humari zindagi mein bhi end mein sab theek ho jaata hai. Happys Endings.

(And today, I have come to believe that, just like in our films, in our lives, in the end, everything comes good. Happy Endings.)

 

Aur agar … aur agar theek na ho to woh the end nahin hai doston, picture abhi baaki hai.

(And if, and if everything has not yet come good then it is not yet the end my friends! The film is not yet over.)

 

This speech became part of Indian pop culture so quickly that by 2011, the British made film Best Exotic Marigold Hotel quoted the speech exactly and attributed it to an Indian “saying.” Apparently, the Western filmmakers assumed that something so widely known and casually quoted must be a long-standing belief rather than a philosophical blank verse poem dropped into a comedy film released a mere four years earlier.

Very rarely, there will be a film that combines all these experiences within the audience. A film with dialogue so rich and poetic, it serves as a philosophy, a poem, and a character piece. With a structure so engaging that the audience returns again and again, week after week. Where the experience of watching it in a theater is something completely unlike any other part of life. Where certain moments will inevitably create a moment of pure connection between audience members, whether it is a crowd of thousands at a movie palace or a half dozen people watching together in a living room.

In the Yoga Vasistha attributed to the sage Valmiki, he says “O Rama, there is no intellect, no consciousness, no mind and no individual soul (jiva). They are all imagined in Brahman.” When watching the great films of India, with the right audience at the right time, for just a moment, you can feel your individual souls flow together, becoming one being completely transfixed by the beauty that surrounds you.

This is an excerpt from Don’t Call It Bollywood: An Introduction to the Hindi Film Universe, by Margaret E. Redlich.

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