‘Plexes, Perceptrons and Aamir

A link to begin with. An actor-producer who has become consistently more interesting as the years pass, in the words of a critic with a more idiosyncratic voice than most others in the business:

The Creative Art of Compromise | Blogical Conclusion

One interesting point that Baradwaj Rangan makes about Aamir Khan concerns how he has milked the multiplex revolution for all it’s worth. He doesn’t really elaborate, but the basic idea seems to be that multiplex audiences are willing to fork out money for a different kind of experience than single screen audiences.

Now, I am not entirely sure about this: the box office receipts for movies like Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par and Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na are high enough that they seem to indicate a wider acceptance than just the PVR crowd. My guess is, what Aamir has milked is not so much the multiplex cow but the Bollywood-focused-TV-channel cow. His ability to come out of the woodwork and publicize his movies extensively and well has been a huge factor in the box office fate of his productions.

However, let us consider for a moment, the point Rangan makes about multiplexes promoting the growth of slightly more offbeat cinema. I’m not talking about completely arty stuff here. Just good commercial cinema that wouldn’t even have gotten made, had there not been a way to reach its audience. Namely, multiplexes. The movies I talk about are far more likely to be screened in multiplexes than in single screen theatres.

Now, why is that? I figure the reasons for this are:

  1. Single screen theatres have less of a risk appetite. Multiplexes can manage to squeeze in a show or two per day of a relatively offbeat movie, and make enough from the other shows even if this one doesn’t work.
  2. The possibility of impulse purchase. You wanna see the latest Akshay Kumar starrer but can’t get tickets, so you decide to go watch this Rahul Bose movie instead of going home.
  3. The multiplex revolution, as they call it, is still in its infancy. Most ‘plexes are in urban areas and cater to the middle class and above. For whatever reason, this seems to be widely considered as the most likely audience for these movies. I haven’t yet figured out exactly why that is so.
  4. There’s also a feedback loop at work here. As a result of movies like Hyderabad Blues succeeding at the box office, there is a rise in the number of small independent filmmakers. Maybe because there’s a basic level of economic prosperity for these guys to fall back on, a majority of them seem to come from urban areas. Their early ventures are born out of their own experience, and usually inhabit the world they come from. That stuff is most easily digested by the multiplex crowd.

So far so good. However, what interests me more is how this situation might evolve. If you read reviews by people like Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli, you see them often lamenting the fact that multiplexes don’t support independent cinema in the US. This may be an exaggeration, but the point seems to be that the ‘plexes (especially in the smaller towns) mostly just play stuff that are safe bets. Is that where we are headed as well?

This is what I think will happen over the next decade or so:

‘Plexes come up because people can afford the ticket prices. This is currently most true of the larger cities but is becoming increasingly true in the smaller ones as well. When this happens, there will be more avenues for playing slightly offbeat stuff in these places. Supply will influence demand, and that sort of cinema will become more popular. As a result of the feedback loop I spoke of earlier, this cinema will also become more inclusive, in a sense. It is not that the staple food will suddenly disappear from the landscape. It will just become a little bit easier for offbeat stuff to get funding. We will still produce the same amount of crap overall, but the manure is more likely to be spread around.

However, as this happens, our definition of the word “offbeat” will change. The line between commercial and “art” films won’t disappear — it will just get redrawn. When you think about it, this has always been the case. Every time some movie on the “other” side of the line succeeds at the BO, the line moves a tiny bit towards it. (For those familiar with artificial neural networks, this might be reminiscent of the perceptron learning rule. For the rest, this might just seem like common sense.)

Ten years down the line, it is likely that someone will lament the fact that the ‘plexes don’t support independent cinema in India. It is equally likely that I will be the one doing the lamenting. Until then, keep watching the good stuff wherever you may find it!


3 thoughts on “‘Plexes, Perceptrons and Aamir

  1. The point that u make about small town plexes is spot-on actually.I live in Ranchi presently and Movies like Aamir and Via-Darjeeling didnt make an appearence here despite there being two multiplexes.Dont even ask me about The Dark Knight.The most we got was a hindi version of Hancock.
    However I dont associate Aamir Khan with a huge publicity machinery.It was only Jaane Tu…which was publicised in a grand fashion.Lagaan and Tzp were released almost quietly..

  2. Hi, Ramsu: Thanks for sharing the piece on Aamir. I just fiercely disagree with several bits. Like you, I would have liked to have seen more elaboration as validation.

    I’d argue no matter who the audience, creative compromise is inherent in filmmaking. Unless, of course, the makers are so caught up in their own bubble they fail to appreciate those who will be watching. Similar to academics and books, and vertical alignment there. I am not free of bias (or maybe I have a greater than normal liking for what is more applicable to life, my counterparts in the IT/marketing space attest), so please tell me if you disagree.

    Aamir was immensely popular well before the multiplex revolution (perhaps it’d be fair to mention Ghulam, Sarfarosh, and Rangeela alongside Mela), and he’s taken his profession (and I think, the industry) to another level with his commitment to providing quality cinema through a remarkable understanding of the audience and some very hard work. Lagaan might well have been the turning point in his career, but more for those who seldom gave him much credit before it.

    Agree with Pranay about the marketing efforts of Taare Zameen Par. And that from a media-friendly Aamir Khan too. I associate the media and marketing machine *much* more with Akshay Kumar (and to some extent Shah Rukh, but the latter has some better films to his credit, relatively speaking, which is still not saying much).

    Great post, and agree with your thoughts on where things are headed. Loved your allusion to the perceptron learning rule (assuming I get it). Although I seriously doubt I’ll outlive finite time in this case 🙂


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