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Exhibition and the aesthetic challenge

Influence of overall changes in the film industry landscape on aesthetics: The new organised distributor-exhibitors argue for greater diversity of content than that being currently put out by the producers. They have presented strong arguments for the same – segmentation of audience tastes at two broad levels (rural vs urban) with further divisions within those levels. With increasing urbanisation and consequent shift in lifestyles, the market has witnessed a shift away from long-running films (ensuring audiences each day of the week) towards the weekend audience (Manmohan Shetty during FICCI-Frames 2002).

The current segmentation of the exhibition market cannot afford films produced in the unviable format of the earlier era when filmmakers used a predictable formula revolving around stars to ensure repeat audience. The pressure from exhibition is reportedly forcing producers to cut costs, streamline, and plan production, which in turn requires jettisoning of the earlier system of stars in favour of better scripts and a new aesthetic. Shetty also argues that introduction of specialised exhibition technologies, such as IMAX, will create demand for content suited to the medium, such as documentaries.

The case for new aesthetic
Filmmakers, who have aligned with the organised sector, appear to be in agreement with the optimisation outlook of the distributors-exhibitors. An analysis of the FICCI-Frames panel discussions reveals that their discourse is primarily oriented at production optimisation rather. The FICCI-Frames forums have not been used to radically rethink cinema in the context of changes in social epistemology brought about by urbanisation and spread of communications technologies. Subhash Ghai has a nuanced understanding of the audience, highlighting the need to identify the novel forms of visual and multi-media culture being produced by new communication and information technology. There is a divide amongst the filmmakers, with the majority not seeing any reason to tamper with the dominant aesthetic. Clearly, those against change do not see a reason to upset the conditions that have assured them high returns, especially among the diaspora market.

I would like to highlight two aspects to the logic of these filmmakers, which is hidden beneath their rhetoric – cultural politics of the diaspora and the economic viability of the dominant aesthetic owing primarily to the current low value of the rupee against the currencies of the countries the audiences reside in. They disguise this fact in the crude logic of the cultural needs of the diaspora and the filmmaker as the upholder/provider of those values. This logic has been attacked by a section of newer filmmakers in the recently concluded diaspora conference organised by the Indian government:

“I think we as Indian filmmakers have almost never respected those in the diaspora as having varied tastes. I think this is an insult (to them). I think they deserve to have a choice A film, if it has appeal, will be viewed by anyone. We should be giving you stuff that you want to see, not just stuff with the right ideal (as seen by Indian filmmakers).” (Rahul Bose)

Any prospects for change in content and style can be located the younger filmmakers who are ready to take artistic risks with the medium, while being assured of a market for the same. They view the large English-speaking population, both in India and abroad, as tired of the extravagance of the popular cinema and view the smaller exhibition outlets as a viable means to cater to this audience. Thus, filmmakers such as Bose, Kaizad Gustad, Aparna Sen, Shimit Amin, Ram Gopal Varma, Nagesh Kukunoor target a local audience that seeks “meaningful” cinema. Within the dominant film form, there is serious challenge from the regional cinemas that are credited with raising “cinematic values” that challenge the audience’s “intelligence”, while increasing political activism of various social groups and their use of audio-visual media is undermining the industry’s monopoly over the construction and circulation of social realities. For example, in a deeply conservative India, lesbian groups from around the world gathered in Mumbai for a gay/lesbian film festival in 2003. The festival showcased five Indian films. ‘Bring your own film festival’ is an annual indie event held in Puri, India, which provides a platform for individuals to showcase works in any conceivable format, while almost every major city is attempting to institute a film festival. It appears that the mainstream filmmakers either lack an understanding of these changes, or deliberately side step them.

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