Toward a History of Consumption and Circulation of Media Content – Part Two
This is the fourth and final research note from Rashmi M, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.
This post is the second part of the exercise I undertook to trace the history of consumption and circulation of media content in Bangalore and surrounding towns. In the first part of this exercise, I attempted to broadly sketch the history of consumption and circulation of recorded sound in Bangalore and the nearby areas. In this post, I map out major practices of consumption and circulation of video to arrive at the contemporary moment of its consumption and circulation via mobile phones, flash drives, SD cards, etc. among the users of limited technological access and economic means. My objective in mapping this history is to show how socio economic dynamics of access changed with the arrival of each media technology and form, and how the techno-social practices associated with the reception of each media form fed into and fused with the emergent practices to constantly change the social profile of media consuming public.
To trace the history of video in Bangalore and surrounding towns in Karnataka, one has to begin from 1980s. Television began appearing in Bangalore in the 80s and only very few households had television sets. Though established in 1959, it was only in the year 1982 that Doordarshan became a national broadcaster, and it was the only channel available for television audience in India until 1991. As a video transmitting medium, television gained huge popularity with shows such as Ramayana and Mahabharat. The few households which owned television sets regularly attracted various people in the neighbourhoods during these show timings. Television viewing in India in the early years of its introduction was not a private family experience, people gathered around the television sets to view those few programmes telecast on Doordarshan. What I could figure out from my interactions with a few people about their experiences of television during this time is that only Ramayana and Mahabharata attracted people to TV as no regional and local language content was telecast then. The homes which owned television sets ritually watched news telecast, otherwise TV in these early years meant a few popular programmes such as Ramayana and Mahabharata to the larger populace (not just those who owned TV sets). The video form as experienced through television did not include the local language and regional content throughout the decade of 80s, though regional language services used to telecast local language content for two or three hours every day. The regional language satellite channel DD-9 telecasting Kannada programmes was launched in 1991. However, it became a 24-hour channel called DD Chandana only in 2000. The access to video through television was limited to a few programmes in Hindi language, and the entertainment universe offered by video in other forms was more versatile and richer. Video cassettes as a media technology filled this void catering to the local language audience throughout the decade of 80s until cable and satellite television took over this space in 90s.
It was in early 80s that video cassette players appeared on the scene for the first time. Video theatres, parlours and libraries emerged all around the country threatening cinema theatre business, and the city of Bangalore was no exception to this . While recorded sound was mostly about music in India , the content of video was largely cinema during the decade of 80s . Other than cinema only pornographic content formed the part of video cassette universe. Videophiles who consumed cinema in this format told me that video cassette players (VCPs) were kept in major restaurants and bars, carom and gambling centres and video parlours. VCPs were very expensive when they were first seen in Bangalore. Thus public recreational spaces became the first centres for this sort of video consumption. Cinema theatres continued to run parallel to this emergent mode of consumption during that period. But the cinematic experience of video in restaurants and other gambling centres was very different from the one that was experienced in cinema theatres. Video just merged with other activities that happened in such places. In contrast, video parlours and small theatres had a different ambience altogether. In small towns video theatres and parlours attracted a few people who could not visit cinema theatres. These parlours more or less functioned as cinema theatres with scheduled timings for screenings. While cinema theatres played only the latest movies, video parlours were much more versatile in their screenings. Besides screening the latest local language and Bollywood cinema, they would also screen other Bollywood and regional language movies which had exhausted their time at theatres. One of the videophiles I spoke to told me how the regular conversations at these parlours were about how many times one watched a particular favourite movie. Once taken out of cinema theatres, favourite cinemas became available in these video parlours for consumption, and some small theatres even screened particular movies at customers’ request off business hours. The video parlours became major recreational spaces for many people, especially the youth. The screening of pornographic videos gendered this space in a way that they became forbidden and dangerous for women to be around. A few of these gambling centres, bars and video parlours attracted police attention and raids frequently happened to check other suspected illegal activities happening at such places. Sundaram speaking about the cassette assemblage and the pirate universe within which this was embedded, comments on the ‘turbulence unleashed by video’ and the serious challenge it posed to state regulatory mechanisms . Video as it was available in these spaces more or less escaped the state control.
Apart from being dangerous zones of sinful pleasure, the video parlours and small theatres were also the places which satisfied the hunger and desire for cinematic experience of other lands and unseen places. In cities like Bangalore, small video theatres were visited by cinema buffs desirous of the experience of foreign and international cinema . Middle class English educated youth and cinephiles were regular visitors to specific parlours, which they confess access to the rarest of rare cinema which was not available in the mainstream entertainment spaces. A few of these video parlour owners were avid collectors and cinephiles themselves who procured foreign cinema from various sources. Some specialized in specific cinematic genres such as horror films. They got cassettes from tourists visiting India or from relatives living outside and built their own personal libraries. What started as hobby for many such collectors later became a source of income. Their personal and special networks of cinephiles regularly contributed to their collection and made sure that they never went short of new films. A community of cine buffs and enthusiasts often formed around these collections and friendships developed between video library/parlour/theatre owners and the cinephiles. These parlours became regular hangout spaces for people interested in experiencing various kinds of cinema.
Though these video parlours catered to different tastes and different linguistic audience, people visiting video parlours in Bangalore during this time mentioned that these places hardly ever screened Kannada cinema. Tamil and Telugu cinemas were included in regular screenings but not Kannada cinema. One possible reason for this might be that these parlour owners did not want to suffer the wrath of Kannada film industry by unauthorized distribution of Kannada cinema; and it may also be possible that video cassettes of Kannada films were simply unavailable in the market to procure and screen them. Some Kannada film enthusiasts I spoke to who were regular visitors to such parlours told me that there were not many Kannada film video cassettes available in the market. There were hardly any media industries in the 80s which showed interest in acquiring the distribution rights of Kannada films and producing video cassettes for domestic market. Shemaroo regional, T-Series regional and other region specific video production industries such as Ganesh Video entered the market only in the 90s. Although video cassette recorders (VCRs) were available during this time, there was only an option to record from the TV. Home video cassettes were records of TV programmes. Recorders with camera input option which allowed people to record real life events were a much later entry into the market and such high end gadgets were seen only with professional videographers. Video production was not possible on these devices on a full-fledged scale, though they did have playback and minimal recording options. Production of home video cassettes of films required big entertainment industries such as Shemaroo, and it was not as easy as the production of an audio cassette. Thus, throughout the 80s, video as it was seen around parlours and theatres did not include Kannada films.
The decade of 90s saw the coming of cable and satellite television and private television channels which significantly increased the public access to video. By the late 80s television was already becoming a household device within the reach of middle classes. The content diversity offered by private channels was many times more than that of Doordarshan. Women who could not access video form through parlours and theatres accessed it through TV. The decade of 90s saw some interesting developments which made video consumption a widespread phenomenon. Besides accessing video via TV, many families rented VCPs and VCRs during special occasions and festive seasons from video rental shops and indulged in movie marathons. VCP and VCR rental shops rented out both players and cassettes during such periods. Such practices brought video in the cassette form into the domestic sphere and included households which did not own television or VCP. A few households owned VCPs and VCRs and rented only cassettes from such shops. But video cassettes as objects were not so much bought and owned as they were rented and circulated. Video libraries and rental shops played a significant role in facilitating such practices of consumption. These video rental shops exist even today and the associated practices of consumption are still prevalent. Such shops or libraries offer memberships to viewers to borrow CDs and DVDs. During the same period, local cable TV operators launched their own channels and used to telecast movies for which they did not have distribution rights. Often late nights they used to telecast soft pornographic videos through these channels. Some of the video rental shop owners also took to cable TV business during this time. It is a very well known story that cable TV operators were constant targets of police surveillance and the haphazard mushrooming of cable TV in India posed a serious regulatory challenge. Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995 was passed to regulate the chaotic disorder brought about by sheer proliferation cable TV in India.
Video compact discs (VCDs) started appearing only in the late 90s. Like any other technology, it was not affordable by all and sundry when they entered the market. But by early 2000s VCDs, along with the DVDs became banal objects to be seen everywhere in urban areas. This period is remarkable in terms of access to the diversity of media content. With CDs and DVDs the content of video was not just restricted to cinema but was expanded to include TV series, album songs, movie clips, local theatre, music concerts and finally, not to forget the videos shot at weddings. The shops which rented out video cassettes transitioned into renting out CDs and DVDs and charged twenty to thirty rupees per CD as borrowing fees. In Bangalore, besides big media outlets which sold authorized CDs and DVDs, places such as National Market became the central hub for pirate CDs and DVDs of all kinds of content from English soaps to video albums to international parallel cinema. Video content was sourced from the networks of South East Asian markets of Singapore and Malaysia and copies were mass produced and sold in such markets . National Market became a pilgrimage centre for many cine enthusiasts and collectors. Like in the video parlour and rental business, close associations developed between the traders of cinema in the market with regular customers who were collectors. In fact a few of those collectors used to share the content that that was not available with the traders. Digital technology made both recording and copying easier than ever before. Latest releases of Bollywood and other south Indian language films were pirated and sold in the market. Even amidst such proliferation of video goods, Kannada cinema in DVD or CD format could hardly be seen in places such as National Market. Video production industries such as T-Series, Shemaroo or Ganesh Video released videos CDs of Kannada films into the market only after the films were out of theatres. Kannada film industry secured its market by closely working with the police. Frequent raids ensured that latest Kannada films would not be sold in pirate markets. But the rules were relaxed for old Kannada movies and movies which were past their time at theatres. They were commonly available in the pirate market. CD and DVD business spread so widely in Bangalore that they became pedestrian objects which were sold by small peddlers in busy streets close to bus and railway stations. This mode of business exists even to this day, and along with unauthorized DVDs of popular films of Kannada, Hindi, English one can also see pornographic videos and blue films being sold on pavements, subways, and skywalks close to bus and railway stations in Bangalore. Though National Market has completely closed its CD and DVD business, DVDs are still available for sale in these places.
Traders in the National Market have shifted to mobile phone business and a few have moved into S.P. Road selling computer peripherals and others have completely stopped their business and rented their shops to other traders. National Market in Bangalore is no more a centre for DVDs and other kinds of media content. In fact there is no centre anymore in the city which sells the stuff that used to be sold in the National Market. From 2011 onwards, National Market has accommodated mobile phone accessories and services business. One trader who used to sell pirated DVDs of international parallel cinema told me how he was forced to shift his business three years ago. After torrents came, and broadband became affordable to middle class users, the steady customer base he had had since early 2000s began to diminish and finally petered out. He said people do not want DVDs anymore because they can download them directly from the Internet for free. The niche market that existed for foreign cinema has shifted completely to the Internet. And with the coming of channels for world cinema such as UTV World Movies and World Movies, the generation which could not take to torrents also stopped visiting the market. The business became unsustainable and they had to shift in order to survive. These traders who survived worst raids and seizures of their commodities in the heyday of pirated DVDs business found it hard to sustain their business on the arrival of unlimited broadband and torrent technology. And with Moser Baer and other companies bringing out good prints of regional language and Bollywood cinema and releasing them in the regular market, people have access to them everywhere. Access is not the problem anymore for the middle class user base. For those who do not want to download or cannot download from the Internet, DVDs of movies are available in big outlets at malls, DVD rental shops and street side hawkers. And all video production companies which have distributing rights over films have YouTube channels where they release video HD songs, film clips, movies out of copyright etc. All major video production industries (T-Series, Shemaroo regional, Ganesh Video and recently Total Kannada) have YouTube channels and discussion lists. Users who are part of these forums place direct requests for video songs on the discussion lists. Those who are not aware of this do a simple search and download whatever they can from the Internet.
Thus video circulation and sale in its many forms in the informal markets is pitched today at users who have not achieved the technological access that an average middle class user has. It is not the organized trading network that is catering to the needs of this segment of population . Though they have access to the Internet and know how to download from YouTube and other sources, they cannot afford to get much from the limited data packs they subscribe to. Going to a small shop and paying the same money could buy them more content. It can be said that small mobile phone services and accessories shops are making business out of selling songs, movie clips and other videos only because this huge segment of population has not yet achieved uninterrupted and unlimited access to the Internet, and do not have time and necessary skills to get out of the Internet what an average middle class computer and Internet literate user can.
 Sundaram, Ravi. 2010. Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism. New York: Routledge.
 Parthasarathi, Vibodh. 2009. Articulating His Masters Voice: Reflections on the Ecology of Early Recorded Sound. In Y. Singh (Ed.), Communication, Anthropology and Sociology. New Delhi: PHIP.
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 For most of these insights and details I am thankful to Lawrence Liang of Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore.
 Sundaram documents elaborately the nature of these networks, the products they produced, their connections, etc .
 I have spoken about the nature of this business in my second research note. See http://sarai.net/on-that-small-mobile-phone-shop-in-your-street-corner/.