The Online Experience

BY DRISHTI RAKHRA

My first time in a cinema hall post-pandemic saw many many emotions, but most of all I felt an immense amount of nostalgia. INOX always seemed much bigger to my childish eyes, with the bodies of much taller, older people bumping up against me. I would return to the cinema hall every time holding a feeling of wonder. There was a sense that something bigger than me was at play, that my life was expanding a little bit. Hundreds of people come together only to sit and watch a film, brought together by one simple agenda of being entertained.

I’ve never been one for films, but the film-going experience has always fascinated me. My return to the cinema hall recently was reminiscent of this childhood memory, of feeling like I was finally a part of something bigger than myself. The first film I watched post-pandemic was Pa Ranjith’s ‘Writer’. The hall was largely empty, with only a handful of people in each row. I sat with a friend, marvelling at the luxury of having so much space to yourself. But the cinema hall is not always available to us.

The luxury disappeared soon enough, as the third wave of the virus hit. So, whenever I venture back to the likes of INOX or PVR, I am always tentative, never taking the experience for granted. There is another option, slightly more lukewarm, of watching films on our laptops. The experiences held together by the many, many OTT platforms available are intriguing.

One free morning at work, a friend and I found the time to watch Deepika Padukone’s Gehraiyaan. We had to pause many times to accommodate all the interruptions, and I’m certain that the sound quality in INOX would’ve been much better, but the cinema hall feeling was nevertheless mimicked. In our bubble of watching, the film seemed perfect to us. It had everything a good film would need — love, passion, murder. Later, when we read the endless reviews of the film on various social media, my friend and I both shared a shock at the hatred the film was getting. I also found out that my mother, a Hindi film aficionado, refused to watch the film for all the *adult* scenes it was filled with. The online response seemed to echo this feeling. Watching the film online gives the film-watching experience a sense of isolation. Your opinion is the only one that matters.

I remain intrigued by the freedom the internet gives us. By displaying a film on a big screen, with all the approvals and licences it needs, the world of the film is forced to shrink a little bit. It must accommodate the prejudices we cultivate as individuals so that the story, its plot and its characters are easy to digest. In a film like Gehraiyaan, with a mainstream actor like Deepika Padukone, an OTT platform gives it the space to remain in the grey area it is. Gehraiyaan is a film about adultery; about the generational trauma we inherit from our parents without ever meaning to. Unlike most other Bollywood films, there is no space for a male hero, since Deepika Padukone occupies so much space on the screen. For as much hatred as the film received, I am deeply stubborn in how much I enjoyed watching it, for it tells us of a larger story – the direction that Hindi cinema seems to be taking.

More than the adultery that has captured everyone’s attention, I was taken by the world of the film. Alisha, Padukone’s character, lives in Modern-day Mumbai with her long-time partner and childhood sweetheart. The man she eventually falls in love with, played by Siddharth Chaturvedi, is very well-off. His entry into the film propels our characters off into a world that most of the country does not have access to — unimaginable wealth and luxury. I am reminded of a pre-pandemic world, where much of the country was headed in this direction when we were all full of hope that our futures were as bright as we wanted them to be. Gehraiyaan is born from the memory of this hope; its plot is only secondary to the world it promises to offer us.

This film is not the only one that speaks of brighter futures. Much of the work Bollywood is producing at the moment comes from similarly white-washed, hopeful worlds. Fame Game is one example of this. The Madhuri Dixit starrer has received much acclaim for its intricate plot and unusual portrayal of Bollywood stars and their lives. The deep dive into this world is a breath of fresh air, it reminds us of the utopia we were all heavily invested in, the moment before the pandemic took it away from us.

Many critics would want to pull apart the perfect lives that Bollywood gives us, but I find that I want to keep the illusion in place, for this is exactly what the Hindi film industry has gotten very good at doing — telling stories of worlds that we all hope to live in one day, even if these stories sometimes end in gruesome murders.

Drishti Rakhra is a reader, teacher, and writer, in that order. In 2019, she completed her Master’s in English from Ambedkar University Delhi, and is currently an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.