Consuming Utopia

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ShivajiSara Dickey, in her writings on film watching in Tamil Nadu entitled ‘Consuming Utopia’, talks of the unique film viewing experience that the mass indulges in, and the various connotations that it may have. Cinema in Tamil Nadu has an overpowering effect on the audience with more movies being produced and watched per capita in South India than almost anywhere else in the world. She talks of how movies are a pervasive visual and aural presence outside of the theatre with dazzling posters lining the main street, smaller posters slapped onto spare wall space, movie songs blaring at every street corner and every social occasion, trading of movie star cards, copying of their fashion and hairstyles, etc.

The text chronicles the relationship between cinema and its audience in Tamil Nadu.

Cinema is a public spectacle and most of its consumers belong to the urban poor. Dickey claims that in Tamil Nadu, film-viewing is generally seen to be largely a lower-class preoccupation, while film making is a terrain that belongs exclusively to people from the middle and the upper classes. Cinema is one of the main vehicles by which the urban poor, limited by a lack of economic resources, are drawn into the growing public culture of India.

The relation between Tamil film, their producers and the audience is a very intrinsic one. The audience demand is catered to religiously as this is the ensuring factor of a success at the box office. The creation of a successful film doesn’t require fulfillment of all the audience desires. However, what should be kept in mind is that the ideas presented in the film not clash with any of these desires.

The form and content of Tamil film is highly melodramatic. Tamil filmmakers employ opposed tactics of portraying crisis as a difficulty as faced in the viewer’s own life. Due to the conflict of the ‘what is’ in the viewer’s existence and the ‘what could be’ outcomes in the movies, the melodrama incorporated into Tamil movies is both a reality and a fantasy, and thus, internally contradictory. The basic reason why viewers accept these honey-coated projections is to escape the drudgery of their own lives.

We must keep in mind that neither realistic representation nor pure fantasy alone dominates this melodrama’s appeal. It is based on the resolution of the two. Much of this setting is taken from their daily life. More often than not, these films project certain elements which are more luxurious or modern than most viewers have or will ever experience in their own lives.

Viewers’ comments demonstrate active engagement with and response to cinema. The attitudes that viewers express in private conversations differ from critics’ opinion and also the general public opinion. The majority of statements that are made by poor urban viewers about movies’ morals and the connection with their own lives have to do more with their personal relationships than a critical analysis. A sizable portion of respondents may also comment on the portrayal of class differences. Most people view cinema as having a variable influence dependant on their innate propensity. Viewers also believe that watching movies and seeing situations that speak of their own circumstances can have effects on their behavior.

Tamil cinema provides viewers with a sense of Utopia in two basic ways:

1. Through a portrayal of luxury that far exceeds the circumstances of most Tamil lives.

2. Through resolution of many viewers’ most persistent and deep seated anxieties.

Movies are not just a three hour relief from poverty, but something much more complex than that. They feed hopes that a spectacularly easier life is available. They show how various concerns of societies are solved simply. Whatever problems the society may face, movies assure their audience that they can be resolved. Viewers themselves reject films that have tragic endings and do not like to watch movies in which problems are shown realistically. Dickey notes that the viewers feel that films provide relief from their immediate and long term worries in several ways. The communication that takes place between audiences and creators of spectacle is in no sense un-directional.

Dickey completes her analysis with the split between image and reality. She says that this is repeated in other aspects of cinema and indeed is extremely frequent. The question then arises whether such a split or contradiction is central to the pleasure that Tamil or perhaps other cinema offer.

Shayoni Sarkar

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