Watching films has long been a form of entertainment. Though primarily storytelling mediums, they have also proven to be an important way of learning. Movies are one of the most important cultural forms. As early production of films emerged in the urban areas, since its inception, films have shown life in the city. The cityscape and the screenscape have long been interconnected. Films have developed into an archive of sorts of the changes the urban landscape has undergone. The transformation of cities throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century can be traced by studying the different tropes and narrative conventions that shape films about urban settings. Even films set in the near or distant future, mostly science fiction, comment on the existing urban structure by imagining future layout of urban living.
By direct portrayal or a fictional one, movies have an indisputable role in shaping cities. Cities and more specifically streets, have been an exemplary cinematic space. The impact of cinemas on city development has been so prominent, that it led to the development of the concept of Cinematic Urbanism, the presentation of urban history of modernity and postmodernity through the cinematic lens, bringing together film makers and urban planners. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two. Not only has the city been shaped by the cinematic form, cinemas owe much of its character to the historical development of the urban space.
Planning as a process is highly interdisciplinary, that cannot be done in isolation. Same is the case for cities, the dynamic spaces which cannot be represented by a singular lens. Cities are convoluted spaces, constantly separating and synthesizing – and films need to do justice to this dynamism. Different stories, narratives, and genres, bring out different aspects of the city. The plurality of cinematic cities have played a crucial role as the arbitrator between the reality of the city and its fanciful footing in mental life. The city of Mumbai is a prime example of how cinemas produce the city, both in real and reel life. Of how the moving image culture contributes to changing the identity of a city, by promoting the city as a location.
As cinemas are also tools of soft power, representation in it is of vital importance. The recent swell in South Korea’s popularity is a testament to how investing in a city’s representation in art can prove beneficial, economically and culturally. These representations shape the opinion of people for a space. The role books like Maximum City and Grand Delusions have had on the image of Bombay and Calcutta, has been replicated by movies too. They have played an important role in shaping popular discourse. In the present times when videos have become the prime format of content consumption, films have had a stimulating impact on how cities are viewed in popular imagination.
Indian cinemas are one of the largest annual producers of films in the world. In its over 100 years life, the variety of themes and genres produced have been far and wide. Over different eras, these films have provided commentary on different aspects of nation-building, social exploitation, globalisation and liberalisation, portrayed class and caste prejudice and increased national awareness. The medium of film exhibited themes of urban social issues and generated discussion about them in a manner that was both accessible and clear to people belonging to different age groups, backgrounds, educational levels, religions, languages or level of economic development.
Arundhati Roy in a talk opined that the shift in the focus of India movies, specifically Hindi language movies, occurred due to the change in the target audience. Pre-liberalisation, movie theaters were communal spaces which a large number of people frequented. They charged a minimal fare and were thus very inclusive. As the majority audience were low income people, the film protagonists belonged to this segment as well. But post liberalisation, when movie theatres became an active source of income, they transformed into multiplexes, with fancy decor and high ticket prices, thus excluding a huge chunk of people from visiting them, shifting the entire movie-going population from low-income people to the upper middle and the upper class.
With the rise of commercial films, whose objective was to both enlighten and entertain, they provided a somewhat ideal channel to expand the understanding of the convoluted, but universal nature of urban issues and the variety of solutions available. But movies seem to have missed out on exploiting this opportunity. While the Golden Era (1940s – 60s) films focused on the common man and his struggles, the next phase (1960s – 80s) saw movies more inclined towards action, family and romance. The following phase (1980s – 2000s) saw use of advanced technology and foreign locations in its shoots. While no singular theme dominated, the perspective gradually moved to out-of-India locations. Finally the post-2000 films witnessed drastic changes, with changing audience preferences. With NRI population to commercial films, this phase has witnessed the widest variety of films produced. With the introduction and popularisation of the OTT space, movie viewing has once again been democratised to some extent, by including a much wider audience and content range.
Thus city representation shifted drastically as well. When the film protagonists belonged to low income groups, their interaction with city spaces were higher. Thus shots in public spaces like streets, tea stalls, hand pumps were more, that brought forth the issues plaguing cities. But as the class of the protagonists changed, their involvement with the city and its parts reduced too, with most scenes being shot in their palatial homes, expensive cars or pubs and restaurants. Cities were no longer a central character in the story, rather something in the background with little to no input and rather stereotypical in their portrayal, doing more harm than good. Taking away the soul of the very city the movies tried to portray.
The responsibility of portraying cities in films fell onto the shoulders of independent or documentary filmmakers. Debates around how authentic city representation in films should be have been around for a long time. Filmmaking is a creative field. Thus creative imagination of spaces is inevitable. While movies are primarily tools of entertainment, due to their impact they are also something much bigger than that. They have the power to shape people’s opinions. They possess a special role in advancing the understanding of and fixes for existing urban ills. A thorough audit of city representation in films can provide superb understanding. Whilst most early period films like Mother India (1957), Sadgati (1981) revolved around social issues, with the villages as focus areas, movies like Kahaani (2012), Wake Up Sid (2009), Delhi 6 (2009) Masaan (2015) among others have given a realistic idea of cities of Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Varanasi, making them a character in itself rather just a backdrop. Not only do they give a sense of the life in these cities, but also of the existing issues, both infrastructural and social.
Movies, movie-makers and movie-goers have all been evolving. This evolution has been both glacial and drastic. As algorithm driven streaming preferences have taken over the cinema space, predicting the next iteration of the evolution has become crucial. As the pandemic brought with it drastic changes in consumer behavior, speculating the shifts in public opinion, choices, usage and demand with respect to what they want to see in their films and how they want to see it, is more relevant than ever.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.