Dr. Adrian Athique, the current Chair of the School of Arts, University of Waikato, New Zealand visited Centre for Culture, Media & Governance to deliver a lecture on ” From Cinema Hall to Multiplex: A Public History“.
Let us go back now to the conundrum in postcolonial India around cinema and communication policy, which deals with the play-offs between state populism and political populism. The state will decide what it will invest in and what will be done and how, it will make plans for where everybody will live. At the same time, the state will have to win elections and therefore find various ways to alleviate [popular concerns] or give away things in an ad hoc sort of way. The issue of national integration leads to the setting up of big state media institutions, but what is not regulated at that level, particularly cinema, becomes more and more regionalized and aligned with regional cultures. The same is happening to television too since liberalisation reflect very much the same concerns about urban development and law and order which we had in colonial times. The government is concerned about slum development, urban crowds and public safety, and cinema gets co-opted into all of those concerns. There is still the same discourse about morality, decadence and public licence in the films of the 1970s as is found in those of the ’50s and ’30s and, no doubt, the present.
“The government is concerned about slum development, urban crowds and public safety, and cinema gets co-opted into all of those concerns. There is still the same discourse about morality, decadence and public licence in the films of the 1970s as is found in those of the ’50s and ’30s and, no doubt, the present.”
Here we are in the liberalisation era, summed up in this picture [refers to slide] which I think is not of a cinema hall but a central mall in Bangalore somewhere. This is the period from 1991 onwards. It is marked by a discourse about getting rid of state institutions and excessive regulation, freeing up the energy of the business sector in India to create a consumer society and a world-class commercial culture, and simultaneously transforming two dozen or more Indian cities into Singapore in ten years – a really ambitious set of programmes. In the wider economic picture where the multiplex is to appear is a policy shift towards the services economy, a move away from industry to IT, BPOs, software – all kinds of things which foster a late consumption-based model of development.
So while there were various taxes and tariffs to stop people from consuming in the 1970s, suddenly the emphasis is to try and encourage them to consume as much as possible. This is a big change of a global kind, and it leads to the reorganization of the metros. With their new lifestyles, people are going to consume massively, and they need a place to do this. A great deal of infrastructure is needed. Suburbanization is embraced, and many, especially the middle class, move out from the inner cities. The development around the fringes of the city which you see so much in the National Capital Region (NCR), and the property development boom in those areas, is unleashed by a new system under which states are encouraged to repeal the land ceiling act in return for investment from the Centre. Once they repeal it, people can start acquiring land, and land banks start emerging.
This again has nothing to do with cinema. At the same time, of course, we see a growing number of televising licences and private television operators. We see the liberalisation of regulations on foreign investment. So, for the first time since the colonial period, foreign investment comes into newspapers, television stations, and the like, and there is an enormous explosion of private media from the 1990s onwards. And all this prepares the ground for what I call a leisure economy. This is certainly not about suitcases in the dark restaurants of Bombay: it is a leisure economy driven by corporate finance and recognizable share-listed companies with international investment. Investment all across the country is producing a new infrastructure of steel and glass that is very much of the top end – in fact, the end of the top end of the market. Due to the liberalisation process, [it turns out that] increasingly, a lot of Indian money is going to Mauritius and coming back as foreign direct investment.
“Due to the liberalisation process, [it turns out that] increasingly, a lot of Indian money is going to Mauritius and coming back as foreign direct investment.”
There is also another story here involving the official recognition of entertainment from 2000 onwards, and suddenly access to legitimate finance and the share capital market becomes possible. Following the success of the software industry and Reliance, access to share capital means you need to be much more visible and transparent in business, and that is the push that produces an initial corporate model. A lot of new companies are based very much on a corporate model with a corporate image, and might have a different mode of operation.
All of these developments add value to structural integration. So, if you are going to have large-scale integration in a corporation you are going to do that not just for one cinema hall; you need to acquire twenty, thirty or forty under a big operation. The circumstances do not favour small family businesses the way they did in a previous era. The policies that drive this change are reflected in the early years of liberalisation, when everyone becomes a consumer of durable goods. Suddenly, everybody in India is rushing out to buy fridges and cars, and companies all around the world are very excited. Infrastructural constraints mean business is not easy, but media and retail are fairly easy to provide. For instance, providing cell phones is easier than providing fixed-line phones, and so suddenly everybody in India is eager to get one, while earlier they would have had to wait ten years before eventually getting connected. So people begin to spend a lot of their incomes on entertainment and communication.
The entry of big business
At this point global advisers like McKinsey & Company start telling investors that this is the area to get into. With communications and media growing at a pace far ahead that of the rest of the economy, those with big money are advised to invest in these sectors. All this has nothing to do with cinema, and it leads to things like the Metropolitan Mall – and there must be 20 other malls down the road from this particular place. Which, of course, is a new cinema space of a particular kind.
This is taking us to the research I did on multiplexes; let’s go to it very briefly. At the time I did my initial research in 2006-07, some traditional places in the film industry were reinventing themselves in order to attract inward investment. Shringar was one of them, and Adlabs another. Adlabs had been a film processing company and was aware that the days of film as opposed to digital were numbered, and so it made a shift into exhibition. Everybody knew that India was under-screened, and that if land was now released it might available for development. Now was the time for exhibition if you could get the investors behind you. Theirs was the first multiplex in Bombay.
Shringar had been in distribution, and it performed a wonderful manoeuvre when it set up an exhibition company, and then built a multiplex which the exhibition company bought after getting a lot of money from external investors, after which the exhibition company bought off the distribution company, which then became a subsidiary. In a sense, they established their own company which bought their own company after raising a lot of money, and then sold it. This is classic, smart Bombay stuff. They have now recently been acquired by Inox, which is another purchase you may not be aware of.
“When I spoke to them, they said: ‘We invested in cinema only because McKinsey told us to, that’s it. We don’t like to go to the cinema, and we don’t want film people. We have hotel managers to run these places, you know, and we are completely not like those film people’.”
And PVR , which came out in Delhi, is one of the most interesting companies and actually started from a cinema hall. It is probably the only player in the industry now which was really into film exhibition. Inox , for example, is actually a Gujarati fluorochemical company. When I spoke to them, they said: We invested in cinema only because McKinsey told us to, that’s it. We don’t like to go to the cinema, and we don’t want film people. We have hotel managers to run these places, you know, and we are completely not like those film people. It has been very successful since Inox sees cinemas as a kind of luxury hotel.
But now that the equations have consolidated, Reliance has bought Adlabs – which took place while I was doing my research – and is now known as BIG Cinemas. Shringar is now going to Inox, unless they are in a kind of shutdown.
The context of urbanisation
Now, if we look at the geography of these developments, it reflects in a very particular sense where the wealth is, where the middle class is growing and where there are friendly state governments. So a particular kind of geography emerges at the national level, which I won’t go on about: I promise not to talk about geography too much. The business planning comes out in the 1990s model of the NCR, which shows the growth of the middle class, predicting that the class will grow and produce customers. There was thus a rush to build the infrastructure for the customers of tomorrow. The customers aren’t there yet but we are going to build for them.
“The business planning comes out in the 1990s model of the NCR, which shows the growth of the middle class, predicting that the class will grow and produce customers. There was thus a rush to build the infrastructure for the customers of tomorrow. The customers aren’t there yet but we are going to build for them.”
I always say that I am less worried that these figures are true; the category on the left hand side reflects a new way of thinking about the population of India. This is a claim about new social groups, and is a push factor. The other push factor is that the release of state funding for urban renewal depends on building certain kinds of structures, including software parks and similar instances of hi-tech development, but it also includes multiplexes and malls. If you build these structures in your city, the federal government will release more money for infrastructure such as metros and the like. So there is an encouragement to do that. And of course, all these states are seeking this kind of investment. They have started taking off the entertainment tax, and depending on how serious they are, they decide to give such luxury development a complete exemption from paying it. The multiplexes get five-year tax-free windows which are subsequently extended. This provides us an answer to the question as to why all multiplexes in Delhi were actually built in Ghaziabad, Faridabad or around the edges. It is because those states give tax windows and benefit from the infrastructure built just over the border from Delhi, while their consumer market is within Delhi.
All of this is intended to modernise and sanitise urban spaces to create a global city. It is part of the competitive federalism in state funding, the principle being that the more infrastructure you develop, the more money you get. It favours the [advanced] city and aims to make it more advanced. It has centralised the development of the new economy’s software parks and entertainment complexes. It also seems that the reason for encouraging multiplexes is that they want to tempt the engineers back from Silicon Valley, and so they want to build a kind of infrastructure that ensures a certain lifestyle for everybody, regardless of whether it is going to work. For this reason, they encourage the repeal of the urban land ceiling legislation. That, however, has not been taken up in every state. In Calcutta, for example, it is difficult to appeal for legislation, and consequently they have missed out on all the money and investment, and have had to move to Salt Lake outside the city. In other places, however, cities are polluted, and building infrastructure inside the city is difficult. This means that the government, with its new purchasing power, can go in and acquire land cheaply over the fringes wherever available.
That is what gives rise to this particular kind of mad development around the NCR. If you look at most of the supposed multiplexes inside Delhi proper, they are actually old cinemas which have been re-fixed. They are not new developments, because getting permission to build was difficult. It was always cheap, free and easy out on the frontier, and so everyone moved there. That, of course, linked into Ring Road residential development and all kinds of other things. You see this elsewhere as well.
Micromanagement and deregulation
A lot can be said on this, but in simple terms, rather than trying to keep earnings off the books, suddenly we see the micromanagement of input and output for exhibitions. This is sure to attract foreign investment, as [exhibitors] have to publish their shareholdings and computerise their accounts. The use of digital management systems allows them to register every ticket sold across the country instantly. One could even buy a ticket from, say, New Zealand over the computer. This transforms the relationship between exhibition and production. Producers now know they know that they are going to get their fair share back, and suddenly there are high box office figures.
“The use of digital management systems allows them to register every ticket sold across the country instantly….. This transforms the relationship between exhibition and production. Producers now know they know that they are going to get their fair share back, and suddenly there are high box office figures.”
Further, suddenly everybody wants to make films for the middle class, even though multiplexes make up only 5 percent of the screens in the country and this is a tiny proportion of the audience. So, for the first time, they start recording what people are spending on before going to the cinema. They discover that food and beverages are going to be important, so selling and advertising them inside cinemas becomes significant. In Delhi, a large chunk of the income comes from advertisers. Malls, which have been trying to raise the number of customers, realise that what they earn from ticket sales is small compared to what advertisements offer. They come to believe that despite the high ticket prices, most people in India can be asked to buy one to get two. They are not going to advertise BMWs across every single cinema screen in the UK because they cannot persuade most people there to buy BMWs. But they manage to sell the idea that everybody in a Delhi multiplex can buy a BMW.
What we see is an era of deregulation, marked by tax breaks for commercial development, the repeal of urban land ceiling rules and the abolition of [fixed] ticket prices. With entertainment tax windows, technological change (which I will not talk about too much), digital cinema, digital distribution, foreign direct investment and corporatisation, cinema appears to be winning an industrial status. Overall, this leads to the segregation of the film audience at different price levels. When I stopped writing about this a couple of years ago, the market was already saturated in the big metros. They then decided to shift the focus of the whole model to the scantier cities, which again was part of a wider policy move. The geography of opportunity led them to draw up an interesting list of 52 cities in India, which seems to be the next big thing. Some of the finest corporate brands are looking out for rising incomes, and for where IT is going.
“They are not going to advertise BMWs across every single cinema screen in the UK because they cannot persuade most people there to buy BMWs. But they manage to sell the idea that everybody in a Delhi multiplex can buy a BMW.”
Convergence is another area where Reliance is coming in. Once we [have clarity on] cross-media ownership restrictions on big companies, Reliance may emerge as something of a transnational corporation. This is quite different from the situation twenty years ago when India had people specifically in film distribution. Everything was specialized, but now we have these great corporate monsters emerging, which are investing in lots of big things. BIG Cinemas is buying up cinemas in Malaysia, the United States and all around the world.
An unfinished argument?
There is also a question here of development: I was arguing with my colleague from Development Studies about whether building cinemas is actually important development or if it redirects resources away from where they are really needed. I’m ruining the water table, they argue, among other things. This is an unfinished argument. There is a larger scheme of things, I suppose, which includes trying to lift investment levels in particular parts of the country, given the uneven development. But there are also people for whom all this is accessible and desirable. There is a contradiction between India’s multiplexes and schools. The Indian multiplexes I have been to are probably among the best in the world in terms of the amount of space and excessive comfort, and they have really done well. Multiplexes in America are more proletarian: their seats have gotten smaller, while in India it is all about luxury.
“Multiplexes in America are more proletarian: their seats have gotten smaller, while in India it is all about luxury.”
Adrian Athique is also a fellow of the New Zealand India Research Institute. Previously, he was director of the Media, Culture and Society programme at the University of Essex and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Queensland.
Athique has written extensively on media studies and sociology with an international focus. His research interests include media audiences, urban spaces, digital environments and the Indian film industries. His books include The Multiplex in India: A Cultural Economy of Urban Leisure (2010, Routledge, with Douglas Hill), Indian Media: Global Approaches (2012, Polity) and Digital Media and Society (2013, Polity). Athique has also published widely in international journals including Media, Culture and Society, Continuum, South Asia, South Asian Popular Culture and Contemporary South Asia.