English films in Cantonment, giant cutouts at Urvashi: Bengaluru’s film-viewing culture

Titled ‘Silver Screen Stories’, the talk on Bengaluru’s iconic single screen theatres was hosted by the Museum of Art & Photography along with Heritage Beku with a two-speaker panel.
Sameer Raichur, Professor Srinivas SV and ASL sign interpreter
Sameer Raichur, Professor Srinivas SV and ASL sign interpreter

“Bengaluru was divided into Cantonment and civilian areas earlier, these were linguistically divided as well. The audiences that wanted to watch English or Hindi films would have to go to Cantonment while Urvashi Theatre was the main hub to watch Kannada films. The film-watching culture in theatres like Urvashi differed from that in the cinema halls of Cantonment,” said Sameer Raichur, as he set the premise for a talk on Bengaluru’s iconic single screen theatres. Titled ‘Silver Screen Stories’, the talk, held on Saturday, September 11, was hosted by the Museum of Art & Photography along with Heritage Beku.

Sameer, a photographer by profession, pointed out that at theatres like Urvashi, people could spot giant cutouts of actors that were painted by hand and recalled how celebratory practices at the theatres on KG Road were a common affair. While he focused on the city’s film-viewing culture and how audiences engaged with the films—especially the regional ones – Professor Srinivas SV of the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society pointed out that single screens were important in Indian cinema viewing in that they became a space for social mixing. Indian theatres had a range of ticket prices, which meant that people from a broad section were accommodated, he said.

While speaking about the film culture of Bengaluru, one cannot miss highlighting the relationship between Sandalwood, as the Kannada film industry is popularly known, and the capital city. Quoting a famous film critic from south India, Sameer observed that Sandalwood viewed the city with an unconcealed loathing leading to the popular trope of a migrant youth standing up to the city where he is subjected to atrocities.

“The trope of a youth coming from a small town to a big city is still used in Kannada films, because people find resonance in the trope,” he says. “The films are successful because they tap into an existing sentiment providing escapism and momentary relief,” he added, observing that the viewers live their fantasies through these movie characters because the masses cannot either afford other means of entertainment or are excluded from certain forms of entertainment.

Meanwhile, Prof Srinivas explaining the tropes said that it was a way of catering to the masses. “Filmmakers in India saw the theatres as a microcosm of the country; they viewed it as a space where people from different social strata came together,” he observed. He explained how ethnographic studies on how people of diverse classes enjoyed films differently shaped the cinematic tropes. “Segments like cabaret performed by seasoned artistes like Helen were placed in the film to entertain the youths, while songs by celebrated poets were for the educated masses,” he noted.

Prof Srinivas also elaborated that sometimes factory owners or panchayats held film screenings for workers or village residents.

When the viewers gained purchasing power to buy tickets, they felt a “modern” sense of entitlement. This also led them to believe that they could demand how films should be made. The filmmakers thus continued to cater to their demands.

Watch the full talk here.

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