It’s been the strangest of years. A year that has made us so aware of our aloneness, and also a year that has reminded us that we are, at the end of it all, social beings. I guess making and watching films brought their own experiences of solitariness and the reminder that filmmaking is at its core a collective effort, and film viewing is different without the collective.
I have always lived alone, but my life is full of friends, family and colleagues and many collective experiences. I used to write amidst the frenzy and busy-ness in cafes, on flights and in airports. Now isolated from the world, I found that all the time and all the silence did not lend itself to any writing at all.
I was editing and doing post-production on a series. This entire work was done remotely. It has been an isolating feeling — just me and my many screens. That joy, that thrill of live interaction with your crew in studios spilling into conversations over chais, and coffees — it’s been missing. With my editor and me, it was also many days of hanging out on video over editing apps. Some days we would put on the app, stare at each other and just drink our coffee. But we helped each other through many days when we felt low and pessimistic, by discussing the doom and finding sweet joy in discovering new home chefs — and, neither of us is the baking banana bread-type.
That a darkness that falls on humanity will take away the small joy of watching films in the darkened space of a theatre is something nobody could have imagined. Earlier, even when the world has been at war, the cinema was a source of comfort. The physical, public space for watching films as a community would transport one into another world as a collective.
I believe humanity cannot survive without culture — without books, music, songs, plays, art, cinema. This pandemic, even though it deprived us of the physical cinema theatre, may have brought us closer to our need and love for stories. Just that we were watching on our private screens.
And the big screen, my God, I missed it. To be honest, all of last year, I don’t think I watched more than eight to 10 films in the theatre. But that option always existed. To watch privately now is like reading a book. It’s a more solitary, individual experience.
I felt the loss of the big screens most acutely when my new feature film had to skip a theatrical release. It broke my heart in many ways to not celebrate its release with my cast and crew, to not have screenings for friends and contemporaries, to not see it in the darkened space, the images larger than life. Yet, there was something novel about seeing it release simultaneously across the world on private screens.
In the dark shadow of COVID, the private screen seems to have found a new shine, a dynamic dazzle. It is this private watching that has saved many a film economically in these times, and many a viewer emotionally.
Many a restless, anxiety-driven day we have been comforted and reassured and entertained watching films and series available on screening platforms. In that sense, it is still stories that have been seeing us through this dark, shadowy time.
In a perverse way, it is this need for stories that drove a majority of Indians to lap up ghastly witch hunt-type “news” stories — the consumption and production of which proved beyond doubt that we are a country perhaps undeserving of real stories. The lack of humanity and deep-seated hatred that was revealed in the hearts of Indians was shocking, and sickening. I felt the pulsating frustration and depravity of Indian society in their screams to label a young woman a witch and burn her at the stake. Watching that ugliness made me ashamed and destroyed something inside me. That heartbreak too was suffered in isolation.
From the debris some hope still finds its way into the sky. 2020 is ending. Have we as storytellers learnt anything? Have we, as the watchers of stories, grown and changed?
There are so many stories to be told. Somehow the sadness and wretchedness of the last few months have opened up chasms inside of us that we didn’t know existed. I think our life experiences have grown. Maybe, just maybe, that means there will be more depth to our storytelling.
As filmmakers, we will have to work harder to keep the attention of people watching on private screens, and also to draw people back into theatres to watch films. I hope and pray both digital and theatrical spaces are accessible for all kinds of stories and all kinds of films. I don’t want the theatrical space to only be a space for spectacle and event films. I want all kinds of stories to find both public and private screens. We can’t have only “private viewing” for a certain kind of film, and public viewing of others.
As people who watch films and series, I think our tastes have expanded. I think we may become more open as an audience to different kinds of stories, told differently, from alternative points of view. I hope finally there will be larger audiences for stories that are not just about privileged, upper-caste, heterosexual alpha male heroes. I hope there are more people drawn to a different kind of cinematic universe, and stories that talk about people on the periphery. Where to be human is enough to warrant a story of one’s own.
Maybe at the end of the tunnel, there is light.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 29, 2020, under the title “A Screen of our Own”. Shrivastava is a screenwriter and film director