ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The Multiplex: Crowd, Audience and the Genre Film

The rise of the multiplex reflects the consumer aspirations of a new urban middle class. It is also increasingly shaping itself as a forum that encourages and promotes an entirely new genre of film-making and watching.

The Multiplex: Crowd,Audience and the Genre Film

The rise of the multiplex reflects the consumer aspirations of a new urban middle class. It is also increasingly shaping itself as a forum that encourages and promotes an entirely new genre of film-making and watching.


ince the 1990s, India has seen rapid developments in the entertainment industry due to state policies that facilitated media deregulation as part of the larger policy of privatisation. The phenomenal growth of the Indian middle class combined with rising levels of disposable incomes has resulted in increased demand for new forms of leisure activities. One such is the multiplex cinema generally housed in large, brightly lit and colourfully decorated malls. While studies on the rise of multiplex cinemas concentrate mostly on the dynamics of the changed exhibition scenario, little study has been done on the content of multiplex theatres, viz, the film. What happens to film as a cultural product when it makes a shift from being exhibited in a single screen theatre to a multiplex theatre? This article seeks to pose this question and further addresses the question of who are the viewers of this new multiplex film. Has the market segmentation in the post-liberalisation milieu constructed a new spectator? This article will interrogate the relationship between the multiplex cinema, the audience that it seems to attract and what appears on its screens.

The New Spectator

With no history to the multiplex phenomenon in India, we are indeed grappling with a contemporary artefact. However, what we can historicise is the film viewing practices prevalent in India. We may detect some continuities and discontinuities between older ways of going to the cinema and newer ways of going to the multiplex. After the advent of television and the video cassette recorder in the 1980s, most middle class families completely gave up going to the movies leading to a slump in the theatre business. Many were converted to shopping complexes while several continued to operate at lower prices, and subsequently in increasing states of dilapidation. Then in 1994, Sooraj Barjatya created a revolution of sorts by refusing video rights to his “clean, family film” Hum aap ke hain kaun (‘Who am I to you’?). That was when the middle classes re-entered theatres by the droves. The film ran for a record 52 weeks in theatres across the country. From then on, going to the movies once again became a prominent leisure activity for India’s middle classes which were thus introduced to the pleasures of choice, excess and an amoral stance towards spending.

By 1997, India had its first multiplex in Saket in New Delhi with several more following on its heels in quick succession. Multiplexes foster the creation of exclusive spaces for India’s burgeoning middle classes that seem to revel in the sheer availability of “clean and safe” spaces to spend their money in. Whilst the Indian middle class itself is broad and diverse in composition, the absence of the lower class multitude is apparent within multiplexes. When visiting multiplex sites in Bangalore, we found that the audience was overwhelmingly middle class. The typical multiplex audience comprises young people in the age group of 18-35 with a fair mix of both sexes adding up to 55 per cent of the ticket buying public. Most are college students and employees of sunrise industries such as the IT and BPO sectors. There is a greater prevalence of family groups during the evening and weekend shows and during school/college vacations.

In a focus group discussion with students from colleges in Bangalore who regularly visited the multiplexes, a vast majority claimed they went to multiplexes for their cleanliness, comfortable stadium seats, great sound quality (Dolby) and “decent” crowd. Quite clearly, then, the corporeality of the film viewing experience is emphasised here. Of all the reasons to vote for the multiplex, the hygienic environment they provided featured as the top-most.1 The notion of the right to clean public spaces is strong among the middle classes. Since the state and local

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007 administrative bodies have failed in providing this, the private sector is feted and patronised for filling this gap. Interestingly, most girls find multiplexes as safe public spaces where they do not have to contend with indecency such as groping, etc; the on-site security and decent crowd meant that their parents too were approving of daughters going to multiplexes as against single screen theatres – which they never visited. Visibility in a multiplex, some felt, also contributed to increased self-esteem as these structures are the new status symbols. Besides functioning as a powerful form of pleasure and entertainment, cinema is also a crucial space for socialisation [Mayne 1993:31]. Multiplexes are a source of pride for residents of the city.2 They are markers of modernity, of the phenomenon of catching up with the rest of the world. This desire is evident in public discourses when politicians and city planners say they will transform Bangalore into a Singapore and Mumbai into a Shanghai.

Young people, comprising students and employees mainly of the IT industry visit multiplexes at least twice a month spending on average of Rs 150 on ticket plus transport. Most students opt for the morning show with discounted rates of admission. They rarely do other things while in the mall such as shopping and gaming. Even visiting the food courts is rare and the popcorn to accompany the movie at around Rs 60 a bag is unaffordable for most students. The IT employees, on the other hand, are huge spenders relishing the sheer availability of choice in the food courts and brands in the shops. The change in spending patterns has occurred due to increasing levels of disposable incomes. This is supported by the Nasscom-McKinsey study of 2005 which states that “leisure spending in India will be stimulated largely by the IT-enabled industry (which will generate over two million jobs) and a parallel support/services industry (creating employment for another two million)” [Bose 2006: 16].

Some of the student audiences (mostly male) also visit single screen theatres. They find it more enjoyable to watch regional language movies here where the clientele is more representative of the Indian demographics than in the multiplexes. They claimed that watching the reaction of the


stalls spectators from the balcony was part of their own enjoyment of the film experience. The space of the single screen theatre is more familiar, less intimidating and more tolerant of spontaneous behaviour. The viewing experience is more participatory, boisterous and intense. The appearance on screen of their favourite stars like Raj Kumar, Chiranjeevi or Upendra would be cause notmerely for hooting, whistling, etc, but at times extreme adulatory forms of fan behaviour such as throwing coins on the screen or performing an ‘aarti’ when the hero appears. As against this, the appearance of a Brad Pitt on a multiplex screen is received in a passive, suave and sophisticated manner. Young male audiences seem to make unproblematic shifts in identities while visiting single screen theatres and multiplexes. Their romantic construction of the older cinemas did not detract from their enthusiasm for the multiplex, however – they kept these two worlds apart. In one space, neither the unhygienic conditions in single screens nor the rats scurrying along the floors obstruct the pleasure of the viewing experience. In another, the more regulated

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

style of dress, visible security and restrained behaviour required at the multiplex environment did not impede their enjoyment of the luxury class ethos. Many of these students also work part time in the BPO sector where it is not uncommon for the employees to work under nick names such as Jackson, Janet, Peter, etc, and trained to speak with a recognisably western accent. To be sure, this is a generation whose identities are no longer stable and cohesive but rest on shifting grounds dictated by the power of the market. Thus audience behaviour is dictated by a combination of social, economic and psychic factors.

As is apparent, the varied audiences comprising students, young employees from the IT and BPO sectors, and families, are not homogeneous as imagined in sociological and mass communication models. Through an ethnographic study of audiences, we learn that they are not passive receptors of dominant ideologies but are resistant to them through careful manipulation of viewing and buying choices. We need to guard against an easy conflation of cinema and consumerism as this mystifies the dichotomy between spectator as imagined by the industry and the flesh-andblood viewer whose actual responses may be quite resistant to imagined constructions.

New Leisure Spaces

The multiplex is not a radically new design concept in the Indian exhibition scene. A number of Indian cities have had two-three theatres on a single site (Galaxy, Gossip, Gemini in Bandra, Mumbai, Nartaki and Sapna in Bangalore) where the consumer had a choice of movies as well as the convenience of hopping from one theatre to another for tickets. These theatres were usually centrally located in the midst of eating places and shopping areas. As a result, people who came to watch a film would more often than not take the opportunity of having a snack and coffee at one of the restaurants and combine it, though not always, with picking up some essential items for the house. Thus movie watching became cause for what in India is popularly known as an “outing”; a fascinating coinage that makes a gerund from a preposition.

Where the modern multiplex differs is in bringing together all of the above on the same site. Multiplexes are housed in a single multi-use structure such as a mall which has restaurants in the form of food courts offering a choice of cuisine, shops, usually big brands, both national (Westside, Shoppers’ Stop, Landmark) and international (Swarowski, Marks and Spencers, Cookie Man) and video gaming courts. Unlike the shops that surround single screen theatres which are usually small, dingy, crowded, with goods stacked or dumped without regard for tasteful display, shops in malls are spacious, with enough room for ambling around without chances of bodily contact with co-shoppers, pleasantly sensuous with air conditioning and soft music, spic and span with clean rest rooms and convenient due to the structured stacking of objects. This design innovation that has created aspirational and exclusivist spaces is ideologically grounded. It encourages buying of goods, through the valorisation of particular kinds of lifestyles and commodity fetishism. It promotes consumerism which is the mainstay of capitalism by fostering a certain kind of consumer behaviour deemed as normative. Here are some economic indicators of rising consumerism:

  • India ranks second in the world in sale of two-wheelers.
  • Car sales are over a million per annum.
  • India is the sixth largest market for mobile handsets (16 million units per annum).
  • India is the fifth largest market for colour television sets.
  • Seventy-seven per cent of television purchasers were from the rural areas during 2001-04. (Derek Bose, Brand Bollywood, 2006, p 155).
  • So, alongside consuming the film, the movie audience is forced into consuming the mall space. The easy slippage between film going and consumption is bolstered by the 1990s practice of tie-ins between commercial products and films.3 Such an embodied experience of film viewing is integral to the construction of the new multiplex spectator as “spectatorship involves the acts of looking and hearing inasmuch as the patterns of everyday life are dramatised, foregrounded, displaced or otherwise inflected by the cinema” [Mayne 1993:31].

    The Multiplex Film

    This section of the paper seeks to explore the possibilities for experimentation open to the film-maker due to a new exhibition platform like the multiplex. Multiplexes in their constant endeavour for optimum capacity utilisation provide ample opportunities to new and upcoming filmmakers to exhibit their work. The greater range of films on offer at the multiplex must nevertheless be qualified, since it necessarily excludes the B and C grade popular films that target the lower social classes.

    In order to suggest that the “multiplex film” is perhaps a new genre, the paper will stay with a generic understanding of cinema even as it acknowledges its limitations. Unlike Hollywood, Hindi films do not adhere to generic norms. Indeed, Hindi cinema has consistently challenged the notion of genres. A genre constitutes films that have recognisable character types and predictable story lines, some of which may be culture specific. According to Tom Ryall, “genres may be defined as pattern/forms/ styles/structures which transcend individual films, and which supervise both their construction by the filmmaker and their reading by an audience” [in Neale 2000:12]. Hindi cinema, on the contrary, anticipates a postmodernist eclecticism wherein the serious, the comic, the spectacle, action – all overlap to form a sumptuous filmic text. However, if we examine films from the 1990s onwards, we can see that there is an attempt to circumscribe the effusiveness of Hindi cinema within generic boundaries. Here, the cinematic menu on offer becomes crucial for situating the multiplex within the shifting mythic terrain of the Indian cinema. The compulsion to produce a complete entertainment package with action, comedy and romance as in the films of the 1960s and 1970s has steadily given way to the pursuit of various themes and styles targeting specific social groups – a logic formally enshrined by the rise of the multiplex. Whether we attribute this development to satellite television, increased access to international cinema or the growth of multiplex cinema houses or not, the fact is there are films that adhere to generic norms like the gangster films of Ram Gopal Verma, the war films of J P Dutta or the romantic family melodramas of Karan Johar. Broadly, a multiplex film may be described as “usually a medium-budget, non-formulaic film that works best at the 250-odd multiplexes that have opened in Indian metropolitan areas since 1997”, while the single theatre movie is “a more pedestrian film with broader appeal, likely to work best at the old-style single theaters, where ticket prices are much cheaper” (http://kamlabhatt. wordpress. com/2006/10/29/, site visited on March 16, 2007).

    Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007


    Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

    Most multiplex films interpellate audiences that are familiar with global television channels and Hollywood films. Thus, we have Kabul Express that would have resonances of National Geographic and Pyar ke Side Effects that would seem like an Indian version of Friends. Most low-budget films that are screened in multiplexes do not have huge star casts relying on relatively new talent and keep the focus on story and technical finesse. The multiplex movie, acknowledges Kanika Verma, director of Dansh “is a big boon for filmmakers with limited budgets and smaller canvases. It’s very encouraging, as we don’t have to keep thinking of filling up 1,000 seats every show” (http://www. story_5185154.asp, site visited on March 12, 2007).

    This article proposes that the altered economics of film-making due to the multiplex theatre has facilitated the production of low-budget, at times, issuebased films without resort to big stars. Introducing films like Kabul Express, Traffic Signal, Pyar ke Side Effects, Khosla ka Ghosla and Black Friday, this article suggests that the multiplex has made new space for films on critical issues facing India today, whilst paradoxically ensuring that their appearance remains economically and numerically marginal to the workings of the cinema.

    Most multiplex film-makers have a fairly clear target audience in mind. The English titles are a major indication. To facilitate easy identification, many plots revolve around middle and upper middle class characters, their lives and concerns barring a few exceptions like Traffic Signal and Parzania for instance. There exists a productive tension between the way in which the multiplex reinforces, and legitimates, the dominance of the consumable middle class family film, whilst at the same time offering, through its excess capacity, a toehold to film-makers producing small offbeat films.

    Recent multiplex films may be clubbed into two groups. One, films like My Brother Nikhil, Traffic Signal, Parzania and Black Friday and the second group comprising films such as Pyar ke Side Effects, Khosla ka Ghosla, Honeymoon Travels Private Limited and Just Married. The first group consists of films that take up politically sensitive issues (usually sidelined by mainstream cinema) and build their narratives around marginalised characters. Films like Black Friday, Traffic Signal and Parzania articulate themes that are peripheral to mainstream cinema, thus forcing the captive theatre audience to engage with the darker aspects of Indian reality. Black Friday is a film that purports to be the true story of the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993 with scenes that resemble Ardh Satya, a film by Govind Nihalani, usually associated with the parallel cinema movement in India. Traffic Signal by Madhur Bhandarkar dramatises the lives of children and adults who make a living on the streets of Mumbai by selling flowers, newspapers or begging at the traffic signals. By portraying the economic and social dynamics of the urban underbelly, the film brings into the elite spaces of the malls, those social classes excluded from the narratives of developmental economics. Parzania is a searing real life tale of a family whose young son goes missing during the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat. The films work at the unconscious levels of multiplex visitors by delineating alternative visions of society that destabilise their established views which would have perhaps remained entrenched in the normal course of their lives thus underlining the political nature of cinema.

    The second group portrays mainly middle and upper middle class characters and concerns, much like those that multiplex audiences could identify with. To cite one instance, a scene in Pyar ke Side Effects is shot inside a mall where Sid (Rahul Bose) and Trisha (Mallika Sherawat) meet after their break up. They discuss the therapeutic value of shopping and Sid makes a wry comment on how people in Mumbai go to the malls to take a walk. The film thus contains an internal critique of the proliferation of malls while all along showcasing them and the people who frequent them. The stories in these films are akin to the time tested lore of Bollywood cinema like love, marriage and family. They have a point of crisis midway through the film around the time of the intermission and the resolution coming at the end of the film. In these they are no different from big budget blockbusters such as Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Kal Ho Na Ho, Parineeta and the like. Nonetheless, they remain niche films as they do not have stars to fall back upon for success at the box office. In addition, with limited budgets, most multiplex films do not get the kind of publicity that high budget films do leaving these films at the mercy of multiplex owners who need to double up as publicity agents.

    They rely mainly on word-of-mouth publicity and therefore, the story and an attractive format become strong imperatives for their success. Says 89 Cinemas general manager Prashant Srivastava: “I know people who mistook My Wife’s Murder as an English movie and never bothered to check out the film. A good opening is alien to these small multiplex movies and they only bank on strong word-of-mouth publicity. So, usually, the second week collections are better than the first”. All the same, multiplexes have widened the horizons of filmmaking and have provided a viable space for exhibition of niche films some of which that go beyond the formulaic and present what are known as meaningful or reality-based themes.


    The arrival of multiplexes mainly within the mall space in the Indian exhibition scenario has created new leisure infrastructure chiefly for the middle and upper middle classes. The film viewing experience is enhanced by the tantalising opportunities for eating out and shopping, thus endorsing a state sponsored consumerist culture. On the other hand, the multiplex theatres are like monsters that need to be fed constantly, thus providing ample scope for film-makers to exhibit their work. By targeting specific audiences, these films are designed to cater to the needs of a segmented market. In the process, we may discern the creation of a new kind of spectator, well versed in English, well travelled and exposed to global satellite television channels and Hollywood cinema. At the same time, those excluded from this description make their presence felt, by default, as characters in some of the films exhibited in multiplex theatres. The “multiplex film” may therefore stake a claim for a generic status on the basis of its mode of address rather than on any set of intrinsic narrative or cinematic features that distinguish it from other film genres.




    [This is a slightly modified version of a paper presented at the annual British Asian Studies Association Conference held at St Catherine’s College, University of Cambridge, UK from March 28-30, 2007. I am deeply indebted to Adrian Mabbott Athique for reading, editing and offering his comments on earlier drafts of this

    Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

    paper. I am also thankful to Rekha Nigam for discussions on the paper.]

    1 Adrian Mabbott Athique and I conducted interviews and focus group meetings while researching for this paper which is part of a larger project of the former. We selected Bangalore to represent India’s metropolitan cities and Baroda to represent India’s second tier cities.

    2 In Baroda, malls and multiplexes have now found a place of pride on the “to-do” list of visitors to the town. Baroda, as other Gujarat towns as well, gets a large number of nonresident Indians mostly from US and UK visiting their relatives back home. The NRIs are ritualistically brought to these new malls to be shown around and made to acknowledge that their native home is catching up with their adopted ones!

    3 Mahesh Manjrekar’s Viruddh had a scene in which John Abraham emerges from a Western Union Money Transfer kiosk and then calls his father (played by Amitabh Bachchan) to tell him that he could withdraw the money immediately as he had used the Western Union Money Transfer facility.


    Bose, Derek (2006): Brand Bollywood: A New Global Entertainment Order, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

    Neale, Steve (2000): Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London and New York.

    Mayne, Judith (1993): Cinema and Spectatorship, Routledge, London and New York.

    Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top