In this month’s Consume This!, Lakshmi Srinivas pushes film studies with some of the best insights from cultural sociology with an ethnography of films’ reception in Bangalore, India. Sometimes colorful, sometimes raucous, and never singular, how audiences interact with films tells us much about how cinema taps into any given social milieux. Read, enjoy, share and comment.
– Ashley Mears
Consume This! ‘House Full’. Film as Social and Cultural Practice
By Lakshmi Srinivas
Outside cinema halls in India, prominently displayed ‘House Full’ signs proudly announce sold out shows. They also serve as publicity for the film and the theater, and mark an auspicious start to a film’s run at the exhibition setting. ‘House Full’ is code for the excitement of crowds conjuring images of an auditorium jam-packed with enthusiasts, people spilling out onto the aisles, the deafening ovations that greet the arrival of the star on-screen, the frenzy of ticket purchasing, and the excesses of fans, in short, the effervescent spectacle that constitutes film ‘reception’ and its experience.
My book, House Full. Indian Cinema and the Active Audience (University of Chicago Press, 2016), draws on ethnographic research spanning a dozen years and more in the south Indian city of Bangalore, now known as India’s I.T. city. I take film studies ‘off the couch’ and into the crowded streets and cinema halls, the dingy production offices of filmmakers, film sets and ‘film shoots’ in the city, the myriad spaces where film exists, is crafted and remade. Even so, House Full is not a book about Indian cinema. As a case study it offers an unprecedented and uniquely sociological look at cinema at the reception-exhibition interface, questioning many of the assumptions that have shaped existing understandings of cinema-film, while altering the way we think about so-called film ‘reception’, even of film itself.
Literary and post-structuralist film studies have been dominated by theory-driven analyses where solitary scholars interrogate the film text and assume the response of hypothetical spectators to individual films. Actual audiences and their lived experiences of cinema are invisible in such armchair studies that infer the responses of disembodied spectator-subjects. In gaze theory for example, the spectator is reduced to a giant disembodied set of eyes. Even in studies that address audiences, preoccupation with the film and its meaning has narrowly conceptualized film reception as how audiences engage with a specific text, how they read, make sense of and respond to it.
In House Full, in contrast, I place actual audiences and their filmgoing practices at the center of the inquiry to fully engage the messiness and liveness of cinema, its fluidity and its indeterminacy. The book’s ‘field-view’ shifts the conversation away from the text to an understanding of film as part of an expressive culture and social world. Vivid accounts of boisterous “active” audiences interacting with one another and with the screen, whistling, cheering, even singing and dancing in the theater, walking in and out of the auditorium as they selectively watch scenes and drawing on rituals of religious worship to propitiate the stars document a distinctive lived culture of cinema. Film spectacle is brought outside the theater in many ways: through processions, an indigenous rendering of “film festivals” which celebrate the opening of a film, in the 70-feet tall cutouts outside theaters and decorated theater awnings.
For the study I watched over 300 films, attended 143 film screenings mostly at Bangalore’s cinema halls, conducted 137 conversational interviews, ninety-eight of which were with moviegoers. Fieldwork was polymorphous: besides going to the movies with audiences I describe as ‘habituees’, talking with them and with filmmakers, stars, exhibitors, distributors and film journalists, I read film magazines, film reviews and news reports on cinema and listened to film music. Observations extended to other sites where cinema is consumed and engaged with, including stores which sell film music and dvds, film societies in the city, online fan forums, and television programs, to name a few. I additionally interviewed audiences and went to film screenings in the United States.
House Full offers a new model for the study of cinema-film, one that calls for understanding film holistically through its institutional realities and social and cultural context. This includes taking into consideration all aspects of film’s negotiated character including the making and delivering of films to audiences, and film’s social existence at the reception interface. This ethnographic approach takes so-called reception analysis beyond linear formulations of text-viewer engagement to address the innumerable processes, the nexus of place and audience aesthetics that contribute to film experience. Rather than alienated ‘consumers’ ‘receiving’ a film or being subject to its ‘effects,’ audiences are seen to actively shape their individual and collective experience of it. Film is seen to be variously appropriated and transformed, its creation continuing long after it leaves the hands of filmmakers, a finding that poses a challenge to auteur theory even as it fundamentally alters the way we think about film and its making.
House Full is an examination of a strategic ethnographic site in other senses.
When I mentioned to colleagues in the United States that I was observing how audiences watch films at movie theaters, I was often asked ‘what is there to see?’ The dominant aesthetic of silent viewing in mainstream settings of exhibition in the west where audiences are quiet have made such settings methodologically opaque.
While exceptions exist in studies of audiences of children or fans or other sub-cultures and groups, in situ observations of real audiences and their practices have not informed expert deliberations on a film’s meaning and import. In cinema halls in India, one can see first-hand how overtly participatory and interactive audiences engage with film and negotiate its experience, allowing a look into what has thus far been a ‘black box’ of film reception, a ground-breaking finding given the aforementioned invisibility of actual audiences in film studies and film theory.
The broader significance of the book is that it draws attention to variations in filmgoing and film viewing, typically thought of as uniform, fixed and unchanging. These differences exist across time and place and the book identifies a vast terrain of variation that has been overlooked . Further, introducing such variation and diversity to understandings of film suggests the need to question the dominance of western European and North American film studies and film theory along with the attendant assumption of the universality of film experience, referenced repeatedly in descriptions of films even at the recent Oscars ceremony. This together with related assumptions of the normalization and generalization of western European and North American film and its reception, have thus far formed the model for thinking about cinema everywhere. House Full calls for a fundamental rethinking of cinema through comparative studies of cinema-film that are grounded in real-world settings and that address socio-cultural difference.
Lakshmi Srinivas is associate professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is author of House Full. Indian Cinema and the Active Audience with the University of Chicago Press, 2016.