What do the things we do in movie theatres tell us about the kind of society we are? To answer this question, I looked at videos of audiences in cinema halls. Some of them were made and circulated by viewers with limited media production skills while others were posted by reporters and influencers. I focussed on the audiences of three commercially successful films which do not seem to have much in common: The Kashmir Files, RRR, and Pathaan. All three films inspired the production of a flood of videos which draw our attention to how we inhabit the public domain at a time when we are surrounded by multiple screens.
Among other things, these videos indicate that practices hitherto associated with south Indian film star fandom—such as dancing before the screen during song sequences—are now travelling to the rest of India and to other parts of the world along with Indian films.
In fact, one of the reasons people go to the theatres these days is to either participate in or witness the off-screen action unfolding there. Off-screen action is not a disturbance but the real thing for fans of south Indian film stars. They spend a good amount of money on film screenings, during which the best parts of the film can neither be seen nor heard because of the stuff that fans do.
The Kashmir Files, much like The Kerala Story which came in its wake, engendered a set of atypical audience reactions. On March 9, 2022, three days before the theatrical release of The Kashmir Files, Lehren TV, a YouTube entertainment channel, reported on a special screening of the film held in Jammu. The video is modelled on the “First Day First Show” concept, a staple of entertainment websites and television programmes alike, which typically includes sound bites of viewers exiting a theatre. The highlight of the video are the shots of the audience in tears. It is appropriately titled “Audience In Tears After Watching The Kashmir Files In Theatre” (sic). Lehren TV flags the negative emotions that are the film’s main attraction. Many more “audience in tears” videos surfaced after the film’s release.
Emotions ran high indeed. “Jai Shri Ram” and other slogans associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates were raised at the screenings in Delhi, Bengaluru, and elsewhere. Videos shot in cinema halls captured viewers’ sloganeering and speeches. Some of these activities were obviously organised: we can see groups of men and women wearing saffron tops or headbands gathered around leaders who raised slogans. But there are other videos showing individuals competing to address the film’s audience as the end credits roll in the background. Groups and individuals were using cinema halls as spaces for political expression and mobilisation.
Public sphere as a demonstrative space
Protests against films, actors, and directors are not new to India (and the rest of South Asia). Neither are attacks on cinema halls, distribution and production offices, and individuals associated with films. Activists and organisations across the political spectrum, and fan clubs of south Indian stars with no formal political affiliation, have been involved in these actions. Also common is the staging of these protests—like others—for the media/cameras. Like other protests, these too can be public performances.
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Modern political action has performative elements that we tend to brush aside as drama that is superficial to the real thing. The Kashmir Files videos draw attention to the melodrama—appeals to emotions—that is now at the heart of mass mobilisation. In these videos we see members of the audience jostling each other to make passionate speeches to promote the film and warn the public against ”anti-national” forces. Responses to The Kerala Story were similar. How many of these displays and speeches would have been made if there had been no mobile phones or social media platforms is an irrelevant question. Our lives are mediatised—filtered, processed, and re-presented by media—through and through.
Analysing a different context, the media scholar Liesbet van Zoonen and her collaborators argued that in the Internet age the public sphere is not always a deliberative space where we debate things calmly. It can also be a demonstrative space: we express our opinions in public, on the media platforms we frequent, regardless of whether anyone is listening, and move on. The Kashmir Files director Vivek Agnihotri’s tweet containing his “recipe to build a bulletproof personality” included the following bit of advice: “use SM (social media) to express yourself but seldom read responses.” Agnihotri describes himself as a social media influencer on his official website.
“Reaction videos”, the social media genre to which these videos belong, took an explicitly political turn with The Kashmir Files. Not surprising, considering the extent to which the film was promoted by the ruling party and its elected representatives. Who can deny that watching a film endorsed by the country’s Prime Minister is an act of good citizenship?
Cinema halls screening The Kashmir Files and social media discussions of the film became sites for individuals and groups to declare and perform their citizenship. This involved a two-step process. First, they watched a film recommended by the country’s leaders; second, they “became the story” when they made and shared speeches about the film.
The act of consumption, therefore, generates activities in and around the cinema hall, both before and after the screening. One of the products of such an ecosystem is the cinema hall selfie that we create and post for others to consume. Such a circuit of consumption and production is called presumption, and the mode of productive consumption is a standard feature of fandom. However, The Kashmir Files videos we saw were not fandom as we know it. With the RRR videos, the divergences and similarities with fandom became clear.
RRR,released two weeks after The Kashmir Files,was assembled in a film culture in which whistling, screaming, dancing, fisticuffs, and even rioting were likely during the opening weeks of a major star’s vehicle. “Jai Shri Ram” slogans were raised in some theatres screening RRR but, for the most part, responses to RRR were predictable. Not even Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao (Jr) fans trolling each other on the sidelines was a surprise.
Some of us are old enough to recall the excitement of reporters from English television news channels covering the release of Rajinikanth’s Enthiran/Robot in 2010. The “National” media had woken up to Rajinikanth’s stardom after the success of the Hindi version of his film Sivaji earlier that year.In Tamil Nadu, in the two Telugu-speaking States, and in parts of Karnataka, scenes of fan celebrations made it to prime-time news.
South Indian movie stars and their fan universes
As south Indian movie star fans gained access to social media in the early 2000s, visuals of fan activities began to appear on Facebook. Most photographs and videos from this period featured fans outside auditoriums. Theatre managements were wary of piracy and did not permit cameras during screenings. Early YouTube fan videos of screenings (2007) were made surreptitiously and focussed on the screen, as if to offer proof of the videographer-fan’s presence at the opening day/week of the film. Today, videos feature whistling and dancing fans and they are professionally made by news channels and media influencers, not just by fans. Rohini Silver Screens and Vettri Theatre in Chennai, Sri Balakrishna Talkies in Tuticorin, and Sandhya and Sudarshan in Hyderabad are among the movie theatres that are known to facilitate fan celebrations. Tamil film buffs were quick to point out that Vettri’s brief appearance in the Kamal Haasan starrer Vikram is a tribute to its importance in the fan universe.
Theatre reaction and a camera-aware public
By the time RRR was released, “theatre reaction” videos had become an extension of the fan selfie inside the hall. When the film was re-released in North America after its success on Netflix, RRR’s social media campaign was driven by user-generated content that included videos of Anglo-Saxon youth dancing to Naatu Naatu during screenings in Los Angeles. RRR was the among the films—if not the first—that inspired North American social media users to post videos of viewers cheering and dancing in theatres. The post-RRR Telugu cinema world has officially adopted the theatre reaction video for publicity: the producers of S.S. Rajamouli’s Eega uploaded a video of viewers cheering the film in Los Angeles on their YouTube channel.
- “Reaction videos”, the social media genre to which these videos belong, took an explicitly political turn with The Kashmir Files.
- The Kashmir Files videos draw attention to the melodrama—appeals to emotions—that is now at the heart of mass mobilisation.
- Cinema halls screening The Kashmir Files and social media discussions of the film became sites for individuals and groups to declare and perform their citizenship.
Pathaan, too, benefited from what researchers call fan labour. Itsurvived a well-orchestrated boycott call and had audiences dancing during screenings of its “controversial” dance numbers. The parallels with RRR, and a scaling up of it, were clear.
Pathaan is among the few Hindi films for which audience activity of the south Indian superstar kind has been documented. Interestingly, Hindi cinema’s distance from this variant of fandom, and the stardom that powers it, was repeatedly flagged in films featuring Shah Rukh Khan himself. Recall the parodic references to Rajinikanth in Om Shanti Om, the cameo of the star himself in RA.One, and the reaction of the fan-heroine (played by Kareena Kapoor),and the tribute to ”Thalaivar” in the “Lungi Dance” song(Chennai Express). Whereas a south Indian star’s opening week hungama is almost entirely a male affair, reaction videos for Pathaan included a sizeable number of screaming, dancing women, including videshi girls as the YouTube user Nikamme put it. Female fans also vocally promoted the film and defended Khan on social media. It is safe to say that with Pathaan the theatre reaction video—and the activities it features—properly arrived in Hindi cinema.
Pathaan is not just about videos of dancing fans. For some commentators—and a section of Khan’s fans—watching Pathaan and promoting it was a political act. The star was a symbol of great political value and the film itself is “shot through with a nostalgia for the Bollywood of the past…. For the Bollywood that revelled in mixture rather than aspiring to purity, religious or factual or otherwise.” Another commentator stated that the film “pushes back against the Modi regime’s hate agenda”.
The film’s dancing-screaming viewers are, by this logic, a microcosm of a nation that is yearning for a better time. Notice the parallels between claims made about Pathaan and The Kashmir Files: the very act of viewing a film is proof of one’s commitment to good politics. That seems to go too far. Moreover, as always, a film is interpreted in more than one way. One reviewer who appreciated the film notes that it was “not a win for the forces of progressivism or secularism.”
These reaction videos alert us to two distinct tendencies that have one thing in common. First, dancing and noisy celebrations in cinema halls have become ”a thing” among film viewers beyond (southern) India. Second, cinema halls are sites for political sloganeering and speech-making. That is, cinema, like boycott calls preceding a film’s release and the steady trickle of political biopics and other propaganda films in the past decade, is a resource for political mobilisation at the national level, not just in a few States. What both kinds of activities have in common is the fact that people are going to the movies as much to see the film as to see and be seen by others.
So, what do the things we do in movie theatres today tell us about the kind of society we are? The larger context in which the dancing and speech-making fan is captured on videos is one in which the public is being constituted around spectacular media events. These events invite and incite individuals to become a part of a collective, and to script themselves into newsworthy stories and worthy causes. Recall the taali-thali campaign whose aim was “to bring the entire nation together in a fight against the coronavirus pandemic” (to quote a news portal). We were witnesses and participants in this event. We also made videos of ourselves and circulated them.
Within and outside cinema halls, we have evolved into a camera-aware public that is all too willing to demonstrate its love, anger, or enjoyment. We perform and broadcast our citizenship.
The author teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. His research focusses on the linkages between popular cinema and politics. The content and opinions expressed here are that of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by or reflect the views of Azim Premji University.