Sat 4 April, 2020

Consuming Culture at the Digital Margins: A Filmi Conversation with an Autowallah

Autos are the lifeblood of the urban transportation landscape in India. They are three wheeled, nimble and whisk their way through the clogged arteries of cities, spaces where their cabbie peers can only dream to squeeze their way out off. The tribe of transporters known as the ‘autowallah’ or the auto driver are some of the most erudite social commentators on the ground with their ears on the ground and eyes on the road. 

I can vouch for that as have been documenting this community of practitioners since 2011, as I have been blogging a series on ‘Conversations With Autowallah and Cabbies’ across Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Singapore, Muscat and Dubai over the years and have led to some insightful conversations on a wide spectrum of issues topical to the day and the zeitgeist of the times.  They are more culturally aware than the learned film critic on Friday, as they have a pulse on the cultural flows of the day. 

With the low-cost smart phone with the world’s cheapest data package, turbocharging content consumption; the smart phone is the portable theatre which the autowallah watches his entertainment on in between rides while picking up rides through Uber, the motif of the global gig economy. Unfortunately, it is still a He, as it is staunchly a male oriented bastion. 

My friend Sagar, is a short, wire framed man in his thirties in Pune where he lives with his wife and two school going kids. He is a college educated former warehouse supervisor who turned to driving an auto, when he lost his day job as the warehouse moved to Delhi. He invested about 3 lakh rupees in a professional auto licence and an auto to enter the gig economy. He lives in his ancestral home in an urban village on the outskirts of Pune, and earns about 1500 rupees per day, and takes a day off every week to regroup his energy and spend time at home. 

I have had numerous conversations with him over the past two months as I have been getting around town with him, tapping in his encyclopaedic cultural insider knowledge of the city, knowing where to get the best cutting chai and vada pav at 20 rupees in Pune. He zips around his auto in a Schumacher-esque vain, with a disdain for his slower colleagues on the road. 

This chatty guy is a film buff with a keen bias towards Hollywood fare. He said to me while discussing his favourite films from Hollywood, he adored Avengers, Black Panther and the Matrix. He does not speak English at all, however, understands it well enough. His wife often chides him for watching Hollywood fare, often enquiring sarcastically ‘What do you really understand in these movies? As the recent Oscar triumph of Parasite has shown, cinema should not be limited by a two-inch barrier at the bottom of the screen as the director Bong Joon Ho quipped at the BAFTA’s this year.

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I asked him during one of our conversations from Seasons Mall to my apartment on the outer fringes of Pune City, a 45-minute ride which I take often with Sagar, that why do you like Hollywood Films?

He said in a very matter of fact manner: "They make me think"

He said Bollywood films are a bore, as they revolve around stale totems of romance, still stuck in the 1990’s cliché mindset of “boy meets girl-falls in love-gets beaten up by her family- 1 sad song later-everybody kisses and makes us-all is well.” Hollywood films are about new ideas, creating a novel universe. I sensed that he sought an escape into an alternative reality, the mundane existence of everyday life. He wanted to rise above his socioeconomic habitus, the daily soaps which his wife watches on the telly every evening until 10pm as he drives along to make a livelihood. 

He is a fan of Neo from the Matrix and Tony Stark from The Avengers, also his idea of an ideal heroine is none other than the butt-kicking Black Widow, played effortlessly on screen by none other than Scarlett Johansson. He finds Neo and Tony very Hero-like and wishes that Neo too joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe soon enough. Fans have their own imaginations of their favourite films, and the creative spark often ekes out from the most unlikely of places. I asked him, where does he watch his cinema most often? He said on the desktop at home, and on the phone as the TV is monopolised by the better half. 

I am a fan of Sairat and Fandry, the cult Marathi films directed by Nagraj Manjule. Sagar is a quintessential Maratha, so I enquired if he has watched them, as well as other Marathi films. He said he loved both and grew up on a diet of Marathi films, but he does not watch them anymore as he finds meaning in Hollywood fare. 

His opinion of southern fare was no different to Hindi Cinema, as both follow routine templates of Love, Revenge, Betrayal and Redemption. Sagar watched Arjun Reddy and did not think much about it. I am glad he did not, given his eclectic choices in movie watching. 

Sagar meets an array of characters who take his auto rides every day from the ones who obsess about themselves in the mirror to ones who want to chat during the auto ride. This varied range of consumers inspire him to look at like through a diverse gaze, and cinema assists in this effort in processing these experiences. The best of cinema should invite us to act, at the minimum to think about the world in a different direction to our routine reality. Cinema is an education, in this populist era where identity politics rages on in India. 

The mobile and laptop first consumption pattern of cultural production, commonly infantilised in popular media discourse as content is the insight which production houses must consider, and the modes which people consume entertainment. The brief nature of TikTok videos is tailor made for the mobile first age. Sagar watches a lot of it and encouraged me to watch them too. 

Attention spans have shrunk and thus has massive implications about the optimum length of media art in the algorithmic age. Spotify calculates three minutes and forty seconds as the optimum length of a track. Technology and Popular Culture are joined at the hip, however understanding the fan, and their expectations should be at the heart of the cultural discussion. Technology enables the fan to rise above their material reality to watch the best of cinema. This alone is a game-changer. 

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd