“Cinema is an oneiric medium and the cinema hall transposes you there”: Chaitanya Tamhane on his dream palaces

The director of Court and The Disciple reflects on his formative adventures in movie-going at Mumbai’s now-threatened picture palaces.

The Liberty Cinema, Mumbai

I didn’t grow up watching films in theatres. My family could not afford to go to the cinema. It’s something I started doing in my late teens when I was financially independent enough to afford it.

There are no arthouse cinemas in Mumbai. There are old single-screen cinemas – the epitome is a beautiful old 1,200-seat theatre like the Liberty – and there are multiplexes, and they all generally just show commercial Bollywood and Hollywood films.

Chaitanya Tamhane

For me, going to film festivals in Mumbai, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, that changed the game. For six or seven days these massive movie theatres became a gateway to travel around the world. Through film festivals like the Mumbai Film Festival, I had access to the best of world cinema – contemporary films like Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (2008) and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009), but also classics. Watching a restored version of Pather Panchali (1955), Satyajit Ray’s first film, was an absolute revelation. It was the most stunning, heartbreaking and evocative experience I’ve ever had in a cinema hall.

There was a time for about two or three years when people asked me “What do you do in life?” and I replied, “I watch films.” My identity was watching foreign films and adventuring all over the world through them. I decided to become a filmmaker only after discovering world cinema. Before that I was interested in theatre and other forms of storytelling.

When I started attending film festivals, access to foreign films was very, very limited. To experience those films in all their glory, on the big screen and with a bunch of strangers all are united with that same passion for films, felt like a secret that all of those 200 people were going to carry away with them. Some films only screened once at the festival – people would queue up for three or four hours to watch the film then take that memory back home. For a lot of films that we worship in festivals, there’s no chance of release in India, because everything released in the theatre needs a censor certificate, and the censor board is quite strict.

The exit doors at the Liberty Cinema, Mumbai

Cinemas in India have already been going through a phase of upheaval. Single-screen cinemas have been dying out as they can’t sustain the rents or resist the temptation of being bought up because of the property prices in a city like Mumbai.

Watching a film in the old single-screen cinemas in India is almost an interactive experience: people throw coins at the screen and dance when the songs are playing, and cheer and boo. People from across different classes would all sit in the same hall. In recent years the rise of the multiplexes (where tickets cost $5 or $6 instead of $2) has demarcated who can go to the movies and who cannot.

The marquee of the Liberty Cinema, Mumbai

Because of the pandemic, a lot more people have got used to watching films and TV series at home; the worry is they won’t feel the need to go out to the cinema. The other problem is that cinemas don’t have anything to programme. Exhibitors and distributors are not happy, as the major commercial releases have been released directly on to streaming platforms.

But also, I don’t think watching films is on the top of people’s minds – so many lives and livelihoods have been drastically affected by the pandemic. Cinemas have recently reopened but I don’t think people feel it’s safe or a priority to flock to them. This is scary, because I don’t know how cinemas will be able to sustain themselves. Cinema is not regarded as something that needs institutional support, because it’s been so damn popular in the last hundred years in India. Meanwhile landlords are not going to subsidise the rents. Their logic is: “When you were making profit on all those blockbusters you didn’t share the profits with us, so why should we partake in your losses?” But if the cinema halls struggle to survive, the film festivals will by default be jeopardised.

I don’t see a future where no cinemas will exist. At worst, cinema will become a more niche, rarefied art form like theatre or opera. There are reports that some of the streaming platforms in India are buying theatres, and there could be a future where the theatre-going experience becomes part of your subscription. It would be great if that happens.

Above: three pictures from a masterclass with Darren Aronofsky and from the opening night of the 2018 Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival
A masterclass with Darren Aronofsky at the 2018 Jio MAMA Mumbai Film Festival
Jio MAM Mumbai Film Festival

Cinema is an oneiric medium and the cinema hall transposes you into a dreamlike state. For this illusion to work you need darkness, a giant screen and no distractions. It’s something that Alejandro González Iñárritu said recently in an interview: when you’re at home you’re watching a film, in a cinema hall you’re experiencing a film.

The question is whether the public cares about this distinction.

  • Chaitanya Tamhane was talking to Isabel Stevens.

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