Monday, February 20, 2012

Audience and Spectator in South India: A short Study

Sajit M. Mathews

With regard to South Indian cinema, the terms ‘audience’ and ‘spectator’ gain much importance as they determined and continue to determine the fate of the art and the course it should take in the future. From the times when cinema was silent, it was the role of the audience (in some cases, spectator) that remained stable and unchanging. Trends came and disappeared. Stars appeared and vanished. But audience remained. The interesting phenomenon of the audience in the South, which shares meanings with spectator, fan, citizen, admirer, rowdy, supporter and even protector is worth detailed study.
The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2003 Edition) defines ‘Audience’ as: ‘the group of people gathered in one place to watch or listen to a play, film, someone speaking, etc., or the (number of) people watching or listening to a particular television or radio programme, or reading a particular book’ and ‘Spectator’ as: ‘a person who watches an activity, especially a sports event, without taking part’.[1] Wikipedia’s definition of Audience is more elaborate and throws more light into our kind of study.[2] It says ‘An audience is a group of people who participate in a show or encounter a work of art, literature, theatre, music or academics in any medium. Audience participate in different ways in different kinds of art; some events invite overt audience participation and others allowing only modest clapping and criticism and reception. Media audiences are studied by academics in media audience studies. ‘Audience theory’ also offers scholarly insight into audiences in general. These insights shape our knowledge of just how audiences affect and are affected by different forms of art. A spectator is just an observer of an event or person who looks on or watches. Thus these terms differ in terms of involvement and participation.

Spectatorship and Audience

                Spectatorship within the film theory is a theoretical concept used to consider how film viewers are constituted and positioned by the textual and representational aspects of films. It is a fact that the theoretical construct of the spectator has always been different from the actual spectator in the social, empirical and historical understanding. Though films are able to dictate how spectator should view the film, it’s not the case always. Spectator is only a theoretical category idealized and homogenized as a logical subject produced by the film itself.[3] If such a reduction takes place, the question of emergence and engagement of audience becomes an impossible consideration.
In India, audience has always been outside this theoretical framework of spectator. From the time of silent cinema, spectator had been divided into strata. Elite crowd, the aspiring-to-be-elite crowd and the low class crowd always existed. Especially in South India, where politics and mass entertainment were always connected, there has been strong undercurrents which lead (or misled) cinema. Those who could afford to vocalize their admiration for cinema and the star were named rowdy. Those who dare not do that stayed elite or close to elite crowd, ‘untarnished’ by these uncouth spectators.

Citizen and audience

                Citizen is defined as member of the general public, possessing inalienable rights. Theoretically every citizen is entitled to be beneficiaries of these rights and privileges. But actually, only a minority enjoys these rights. That means there is a denial of rights to the majority. This majority is the so called ‘low class’ people of the periphery. These people who live on the fringes of the society are also human beings who long for fulfillment and power. One such kind of satisfaction is offered by films. The subaltern hero of the film who commands upper class men and challenges evil social systems and takes a beautiful upper class woman as his bride certainly lives up to the aspirations of the ‘low class.’ They long to destabilize the system that demoralizes and impoverishes them. And in these films, they find their wishes come true in the words and actions of a star. They admire this representative of theirs. Citizen figure (hero) in the film represents these people. The star thus is a means of addressing the anxiety and anger of being outside the domain of rights.
            An interesting point to be noted here is that the citizen in the film is not like the people who watch him. The hero begins like an ordinary subaltern ‘low class.’ Later, he rises to the capability of a citizen. But all through the transformation, the audience is kept reminded of the fact that hero is a star. This gives him the necessary power to stand up against power of the upper class.[4] This gives him the authority to fall in love with an upper class woman. This also keeps the audience reminded that they are ‘subaltern’ and the star is not and that such things happen only in films. The status of star automatically raises the hero above the handicap imposed by community and class identities and gains ‘citizen’ status for him.
            Thus though the star fulfills the desire of the audience to be citizens, the audience continues to be alien to their rights, affirmed by the filmic narration.

Who is a ‘fan’ then?

            How do we define a fan? The whole argument about fan and the way of looking at fan depends on how we define a fan. It is no wonder that we see a fan as a non-educated lower middle class male admirer of a film star. But we should not forget the fact that fan associations were creations of the film industry itself as logical extensions of star systems. It was motivated by profit. The idea was to make use of fans to provide free publicity to actors and their projects. Actually, fan played a major role in the financial success of films. Every ardent fan would be present at the opening show of a film and they would continue to watch the film repeatedly, so that their star’s film is a success. The fan participation also showed whether the film was good or bad.
            Though fans were created by the industry, they have come a long way from being unpaid servants of the industry.[5] Fans at times have gone away from the stars and declared their independence. Most of the fans associations do not stop with mere slogan shouting and poster publicity. Fans associations had major role in Tamil and Telugu Politics and Kannada Linguistic Nationalism. They also undertake charitable work and social work. They have networks sometimes countrywide and sometimes even international. Thus, the old definitions no more fit today’s fan.


Audience, Star and Fan: Behind and Beyond the Silver Screen

            What then is the relationship between the audience and star? As history tells us, stars as well as fans were created by the industry. But audience is not the creation of anyone. Here I would like to create a distinction between audience and fan. Fan is also part of the audience. But those other than the fan do not want them to be with counted as audience. Fan thus is pushed a step down the rung. Audience thus creates another class called fans. Thus, more than fan, Audience needs attention in this discussion. Audience is the middle class crowd that names fans ‘fans.’ Audience looks down upon fan for their over-reaction: Excess. According to audience, fans are thugs, goons and an unruly group. This audience doesn’t want to get in touch with fans for fear of appropriation. They criticize them from a distance.
            Audience is not under compulsion. They are not bothered about whether the film succeeds in the box office or not. They don’t bother about the image of the star. All they look for is entertainment (generally). As long as they get it, they are satisfied. They criticize when the film fails to satisfy their taste and expectation. When the audience is mostly admirers or fans, they see the star more than the character. When there is an expectation about the actor, the actor is bound to act according to the expectations of the crowd. Unless the actor rises up to these aspirations, he will be put down. Therefore the star, within his constraints, portrays a character which neither thwarts the demands of the fan, nor irritates the ‘audience’. In short, it is the fan who decides what kind of role the actor plays on screen.
             Where does the audience- other than the fan- stand in relation with the star? Films have often diffused through the fabric of the society and created a social image of stars. Consumption of star is not limited to films. We are able to see stars all around us: in advertisements, news reports, politics, social gatherings, etc. Cinema magazines are read not only by fans, but also by the general public, providing space for an ‘off-screen’ life of the star. The image of star, even in the imagination of the general public is a constructed one. Star has a social image. Everyone wants to connect to this image. This image is against the divinized image of the star somewhere far away. Here star is the next door man or woman. In some cases, audience tries more than identification or escaping into the stars world, by bringing the star home. In this way, the audience keeps themselves away from fans and near to the star.
The difference between fan and audience is subtle. Fan expressions are always in the excess form (as observed by the audience) - unnecessarily extravagant and hyperbolic whereas audience’s expressions are in a muted and sober fashion. They show rationality with purpose. That which the middle class ‘audience’ doesn’t want to be identified as, is termed fan. Fan thus is a mental projection of the fears and anxieties of the ‘audience’ of being incorporated into the ‘low class’ crowd who yells and howls in the cinema hall. This low class audience is also termed as ‘rowdy’ and is kept at a distance. Since audience cannot follow the star as fans do the demarcation helps.


            Cinema exists as a sign of creative and innovative spirit of human beings. Within the space of this creative space, we find side roads where strands of human weaknesses. Here, some powerful people make use of the unprivileged, for their gains. This kind of manipulation occurs in cinema on and off the screen. In short, the drama goes on behind and beyond the screen. Audience is the component, perpetrator and victim of all these complex mechanisms. As times progress and human spirit thrives towards the ultimate spirit as Hegel puts it, we can expect pure engagements with society and its creative expressions like cinema. Audience has a major role in leading film industry into intellectual arenas unexplored and to bring entertainment and education into cinema halls.

[1] Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2003, Version 1.0
[3] Hughes, Stephen. P. Unsettling Cinema: a symposium on the place of cinema in India, Pride of Place, # 525, May 2003.
[4] Srinivas, S.V. Citizens and Subjects of Telugu Cinema, Deep Focus: A Film Quarterly, March 2002. P. 63-67.
[5] Srinivas, S. V. Devotion and Defiance in Fan Activity. Making Meaning In Indian Cinema. Oxford University Press,  USA, 2001.