How multiplexes systematically killed the democratic movie-going experience

Topics theatres | cinemas | Coronavirus

Movie halls are shut, and frankly, I am not missing them. I am not a fan of what cinema halls have become today: swish, glitzy places with their criminally expensive popcorn (including that abomination known as caramelised popcorn); their red carpeted halls; their suave ushers who come to your seat while the film is playing to ask if you would like a snack; and their 3D, 4D, 5D, 6D and other fancy immersive experiences.

How boringly similar these places are even in the variety of experiences they promise. How divorced from the experience of the single-screen theatres we would go to in a time long forgotten.

It has taken a lockdown and the exodus of a population from our cities for me to become cognisant of this. Thoughts about daily life and about those who invest theirs in building the cities they are never truly accepted into have led to some unpleasant realisations. I am struck by the drastic change in something as simple as a day at the movies. In a short span of time, an entire class of people has been wiped out of our movie-going experience. And rendered invisible, quickly and seamlessly.

Those who grew up in a different time will remember cinema halls with a lower stall, an upper stall and balcony seats. These categories were divided not just by the price of the ticket but also by class. You moved up the class ladder as you moved up from the lower stall to the balcony. Your whole experience of the film could change depending on which stall, and thereby which class bracket, you were seated in.

So even with its class divisions, the cinema hall seated everyone. A different ecosystem altogether, it was far more organic. Rickshaw-pullers, street vendors, small-time businessmen, their families, privileged classes, all were offered a break from reality, an entry into a make-believe world. For those three hours of a movie, the experience was for everyone, rich and poor.

Somewhere along the way that changed. A shared experience was replaced by an exercise in exclusion. The experience was reserved only for certain classes. The upper and lower stalls vanished and only the balcony remained with new superlatives. The gold, silver and platinum (or some such) grading that the multiplexes divide their movie theatres into still baffles me. To me, it’s all balcony. The crowd, too, is homogenous. So the experience surrounding the movie is usually bland.


Back in the day the excitement of watching a movie in the hall was something else. Even getting your hands on the tickets to a popular film was an adventure. It wasn’t as easy as sitting at your computer and booking it online, with the luxury of choosing your seat. You had to be in the queue well in time, praying the tickets wouldn’t run out before you made it to the counter. If the balcony got sold out, you sometimes grudgingly shifted to the queue for the upper stall. And if that sold out too, you would attempt a lower stall. If you wanted to watch the film badly enough. And then sitting there, six feet away from the giant screen, you would crane your neck to stiffness. 

The reactions of your fellow movie goers and their hilarious attempts at participating in the proceedings on the screen sometimes made the experiences unforgettable. Movie-watching was a social exercise, and came with the possibility of stumbling upon curious characters. Once, a chap in the audience, who had already seen the film, decided to narrate every upcoming scene. We were a group of friends seated in the upper stall. The fellow drove us mad but left us with something to laugh about for years. Another time, one gentleman kept ticking off the protagonist’s onscreen father.

Such experiences are neither found, nor imaginable, in the “classy” world of multiplexes. Our attempts to polish places of entertainment and recreation have systematically killed the democratic movie-going experience and airbrushed entire sections of the population out of the big picture.

So even when the cinema halls do open, they will remain closed spaces.

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