The age of digital cinema – The Hindu

Despite being derided as a lowbrow art form by most intellectuals, the cinematic form has surfed incredibly well on the international waves of popular culture. Cinema has collapsed political borders, challenged traditional vestiges of morality, and drawn new boundaries on many issues. But the business of cinema is being seriously eroded by digital technology and the Internet. More than 75% of films produced in the U.S. and India are struggling to recover their investments. Despite Netflix and Amazon Prime setting off the fire alarms in giant Hollywood studios by offering almost unlimited access to movies at throwaway prices, corporate moguls still waltz on the red carpets hoping that Swarovski and L’Oreal will be there to pick up the tabs for all the champagne and hors d’ouevres.

Popular cinema and democracy

The time has come to take a cold look at issues behind the impending doom. First, if democracy was the mother of cinema, then consumerism was surely the midwife of this singing/dancing/gun-swinging baby. It has now been proven that the best popular films emerge only from democracies. While film jury-chairing intellectuals doubt the ‘progressive’ nature of popular films, they have also slowly come to realise the ‘faked’ aesthetic nature of many a film emerging from fatwa-issuing dictatorial nations. Democratic forces have proved that the practice of cinematic art means very little without the dynamic participation of ‘consuming’ spectators (eg: Baahubali).

Second, the film form was inscribed within the sacrosanct tenets of a fixed format and a finite duration. However, when it started, films lasted from a few minutes to a couple of hours in various compositional formats. Today the monopolistic digital exhibition sector has got all filmmakers to conform to the HD aspect ratio of 16:9 and 140 minutes performance-cum-intermission time. And with the mindless introduction of 5.1 sound and surround systems, the location of a single-source projecting visuals onscreen in front now stands fully compromised.

While digital media technology is striding forward in the world of virtual, augmented, and immersive realities, the blinkered film industry would like to hold that its well-oiled mechanism will serve forever. Cinema is waiting to tear out of these confines of a fixed space and rigid duration. Spectators are waiting to interact with all the entertainment provided. Young filmmakers across the world crowd-fund their films and put it on cyberspace for viewing, virtually forever. Cinema is poised to function more like an installation where film narrators can help navigate their spectators through a multiplicity of film feeds and recreate their entertainment in highly individualised ways. Yet, the same cinema can also be accessed by viewers from multiple perspectives to create a new ‘collective’ participation. Quite like the way that Wikipedia helps Web surfers access ‘unlimited’ knowledge through hyperlinks, tomorrow’s ‘Wikicinema’ will allow discrete visuals to work like hyperlinks and help transport spectators across narratives and in the process strengthen the roots of democracy. After all, was that not the purpose of cinema in the first place?

K. Hariharan is Professor of Film Studies, Ashoka University


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