The Intermedial ‘Cine-Theatre’ of Assam

                                                        Article by Trishanku Bhuyan

In the 1970s when theatre companies in Assam started using projections on stage, they called it ‘cine-theatre’. I borrow this term from the industrial usage and expand upon it through the course of this paper.  The Bhramyaman theatre of Assam has very close associations with cinema be it the narrative structure, use of song and dance sequences akin to film, the way it is exhibited and the entire experience of witnessing the theatre. Through this paper I would like to argue that the bhramyaman theatre is an intermedial form, a ‘cine-theatre’.

The concept of intermediality has become a part of the critical discourse on the arts and media. Intermedial relations have been recognised for a long time but it has become more relevant with the coming of electronic and digital media. According to Rajewsky “the concept of intermediality is more widely applicable than previously used concepts, opening up possibilities for relating the most varied of disciplines and for developing general, transmedially relevant theories of intermediality.” (Rajewsky, 2005)

She proposed three sub-categories of intermediality. First, intermediality in the sense of medial transposition. In this, the media product which comes into being transforms into a newly formed media product from the given media product (film, play, etc). Second, intermediality in the sense of media combination. This implies that the combination of different medial forms like the film and the theatre might lead to the “formation of a new, independent art or media genres.” Thirdly, by intermediality she means the intermedial references, where the media object uses its own media-specific means to refer to something from other media. For example, references to a painting in a film. (Rajewsky, 2005)

So, I am looking at the bhramyaman theatre as a ‘cine-theatre’ based on these ideas of media combination, medial transposition, and intermedial references. I believe all of these works together in the creation of the bhramyaman theatre. Therefore, instead of looking them in isolation I am looking at them in their entirety as an idea of intermediality for the formation of a new hybridised medium which I like to term as the ‘cine-theatre’.

A bhramyaman theatre pandal. The pandal in the picture is of Chiranjeeb Theatre

When I say intermediality it’s not just the medium of the moving images but things that have been seen as cinematic in the tradition of films specially the popular cinema of Bollywood or the hindi film industry. Here by intermediality I mean the concept put forth by Rajewsky regarding media combination. It is through the combination of the mediums of film and theatre that this new media of bhramyaman seems to exist. There are also references to cinema within the narrative of these plays. In one of the plays by Kohinoor Theatre[1] this season there was a character of a police officer. Ever time the character appeared on stage the background music of the character of Robinhood Pandey from the popular film Dabangg is used. The character also fixes is belt referencing the way Salman Khan did in the film. But other than this the entire narrative structure of the plays is similar to any popular film from the hindi film industry. It also uses certain effects that are derived from cinema. It tries to give the viewers a very “cinema-like” experience. There is always a prologue in all of the performances followed by an opening credit after the main character is revealed or some significant action sequence. There is also an interval just before the climax of the play where advertisements for the next day’s play is projected on the screen. Through this media combination and intermedial references it gives rise to a new media which I like to believe is a medial transposition, i.e. the adaptations of popular films are done in this media through a process of media combination.

To further elucidate this, I would like to refer to the song and dance sequences that are seen in films. The song and dance come from a different media altogether. Dance is a different medium then films but since cinema is an intermedial medium it can project dance on screen. This is mostly seen in Bollywood and other film traditions in India. Now dance is separate but over the years the way the Indian film industry has employed the use of song and dance in a particular way in their narrative films makes it specific to the medium or tradition of Indian cinema. Therefore, it can be said to be a popular cinematic trope in Indian cinema. If so then this similar trope is also seen in the bhramyaman theatre. The form or the nature of showcasing dance changed when it became incorporated with the popular cinema. It has its own distinctive way that makes it go with the cinematic image. What the bhramyaman theatre then does is used this cinematic trope in exactly the same way that is done in films, but this is done in a different medium altogether i.e. the cinema. So therefore, by using certain cinematic tropes the bhramyaman theatre is trying to simulate cinema in certain ways. These cinematic tropes then in their way are making the form of theatre intermedial.

Poster of Chiranjeeb Theatres with their various plays outside the theatre auditorium for the year 2018-19. In the poster Jupitora Bhuyan (the popular Assamese film actress) can be seen taking the central space, also most of the poster is filled with her image since it’s one of the primary attractions. 

 Poster of Chiranjeeb Theatres with their various plays outside the theatre auditorium for the year 2018-19. In the poster Jupitora Bhuyan (the popular Assamese film actress) can be seen taking the central space, also most of the poster is filled with her image since it’s one of the primary attractions.     

The Assamese film star also plays a very pivotal role in the success of the bhramyaman theatre. The film star is one of the major attractions of the Assamese mobile theatre. Most of the theatre companies try to sign the most popular actors. The actors also earn a good amount of money and it works since they get more than what they get working for Assamese films. The experience of seeing a star live on the stage makes the viewers go for the theatres. According to Biplab Borkakoti (NSD researcher in mobile theatre), in Assam the mobile theatre is an efficient medium of entertainment both in terms of reach as well as financially. I would like to put an excerpt from an article the newspaper ‘The Hindu’ published on 6th feb, 2016 to point out how popular the medium is:

Three weeks back, in Sarthebari, Bora went on stage as Jaladayshya, the ‘good’ pirate, who rescues people from the ravaging floods of Majuli. Around 9 pm, the tickets were sold out, and the enraged crowd proceeded to break the counters. In Tezpur’s Kumargaon, I ask a nine-year-old to choose between a Shah Rukh Khan film in a cinema hall and a Jatin Bora naatok (play) in Joymoti Pothaar. “Definitely Jatin da,” she answers. (Agarwala, 2016)

Now I would like to refer to the viewer’s experience in this theatre form. The Bhramyaman theatre tries to simulate the entire movie going experience starting from the way it is exhibited along with all the paraphernalia that gives the viewers an almost moving-going experience i.e. the simulation of cinema hall to the narrative structure of the play itself. There are presence of popcorn vendors and other vendors inside the makeshift auditorium. These vendors are actually part of the theatre companies. During the day they work on the sets and travel with the theatre company across the state. Every kind of technique is used to give the viewer’s a very cinema like experience in the form of a theatre. It makes the viewer an active participant and tries to bring out the cinematic element by creating a visual spectacle for the audience. This is how the cine-theatre works. (Bhattacharya, 2018)

Audience at a bhramyaman theatre auditorium

 A point of similarity that I find with the industrial structure of this theatre form is to the studio form in some sense. Just like certain stars used to sign a contract with a particular studio and were supposed to work for that particular studio only for a certain period of time, same is in the case of the bhramyaman theatre. The stars sign contracts for a fixed duration with certain theatre companies and they can only work for that theatre company for that fixed duration of time.

Another point of similarity which I find with the film industry specially in the context of India is its connection with the music industry. Just as film music exists outside the cinema and is available separately in forms of music CDs, cassettes or in digital form which creates a market for the music industry as well same is in the case of the bhramyaman theatre. In the bhramyaman theatre in case of some of the theatre companies they make albums of the soundtracks used in the films and are sold separately either by the hawkers that are available in the auditorium or one can even find them online or in local music stores.

One of the important aspects which makes it distinct from other theatre forms is its continuity structure. According to Prithiviraj Rabha[2] the continuity is also of utmost important so as the audience doesn’t get bored or there isn’t any break from the immersive theatre experience. Rabha having written a few scripts as well as having directed a bunch of plays in the bhramyaman theatre says that while writing the script time also has to be kept in mind. The script is written in such a way that the first scene holds the adequate amount of time so that the set for the second scene can be adequately prepared and the stage is ready for action as soon as the first scene ends. Suppose the first scene is a setting of my house, the next is that of his house, then there is a scene that takes places in the streets, next a setting of a railway station, then a jail, then back to my house. The script is written in such a meticulous way that suppose if the first scene of my house takes 7 minutes then the set for his house in the second stage should be ready within 7 minutes without a single second of delay since the action has to remain continuous without any breaks. The entire scene by scene breakdown is down in such a way that time is maintained up to the single second so that the sets for the succeeding scenes are ready by the time the curtain on scene one goes down. The crew members are so professionally strict that everything always gets done on time. There can never be the question of any kind of delay once the performance starts since a break in between might defeat the experience of watching the play. The timing is strictly maintained so as to give people a cinematic experience i.e. continuous action without break of action. (Rabha, 2018)

As quoted by Mr Rabha, “If not entirely cinema, one of the main aims of this theatre is to give the viewers a ‘flavour of the cinema’ with music, light, dancers, settings, crew, sound equipment and special effects. Every year it is tried by the various companies to enhance this experience as much as possible.”

But why and how does this hybridised form of theatre work with cinema?

One reason behind why this is so popular can be attributed to the failure of the Assamese film industry. Even though theatre is not a modern medium but with the advancement of technology it has actually led to the rise of this intermedial cine-theatre. The absence of a popular film industry or a popular entertainment medium seem to have worked in the favour of this medium becoming popular. The viewers are able to witness the simulation of a popular film with all its spectacle in a live form i.e. in a theatre form. Since popular perceptions are very much influenced by films which cannot be denied. The success of the hindi film industry and its spread across the country has created a certain expectation from the viewers to the kind of content that they will enjoy watching. This perception has in turn has helped in the success of this intermedial theatrical medium. The thing that has been common with most of these plays have been its constant reference to various popular hindi films specially films from the late 90s or early 2000s. The impact of the popular entertainers is much evident in the plays. Even the entire way the sets have been designed along with the entry and exit of the stars on stage is a visual spectacle almost like the way a star in a popular entertainer makes his entry. But this simulation is tried to be brought on stage with the use of lights and sounds since there will be some limitation as to why the exact cinematic image can’t be replicated since at its core it is theatre. It tries to bring many cinematic aspects on stage but yet doesn’t try to be completely cinema as there is an absence of the virtual image. But at the same time, it cannot be seen only as a theatre. The intermediality aspect of both the mediums creates this kind of hybridised medium. Both cinema and theatre has almost equal influence. This leads to the creation of an alternate media that is very much based on certain cinematic objects but isn’t cinema.

In my view, this medium works according to certain models of intermediality through certain filmic associations as discussed above which I call as “cinema effect” through the medial combination of cinema and theatre. These cinema effects have in turn shaped this “cine-theatre” to its current form where it is heavily influenced by films.

The Bhramyaman Theatre is a unique form. Through its use of the cinema it has turned into one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Assam. With its use of the cinematic objects and the effects of cinema it has transformed its form. It cannot be simply called theatre since it’s so closely associated with the filmic medium. It is a hybridised art form which can be called as the ‘cine-theatre’. 

The filmic image has become a huge part of people’s imagination. The general populace has become so accustomed to the film image since it is omnipresent. It is on our phone screens, on our televisions, on hoardings and banners outside, restaurants, public transport, saloons, etc. It is present everywhere due to which people want to see that popular image since they are familiar with. The influence of the popular film medium is so influential in India that it can be seen manifested in other mediums as well. The bhramyaman theatre or the mobile theatre of Assam is one such medium. There is a constant reference to the filmic medium in this theatrical form. It has become more closely associated with the cinema with the advancement of technology and modernity. One of the reasons for its popularity can be seen as the absence of a proper popular film industry in Assam. In the absence of a popular film industry as such this theatre industry of Assam caters to the popular entertain appetite of the masses. This theatre form tries to create a simulation of the entire ‘cinematic experience’. Here by ‘cinematic experience I mean the experience of watching a film in a theatre. It’s not only the film for a general viewer when he/she goes to watch a film, it’s the entire experience that the movie hall creates of sitting in the dark with hundreds of strangers experiencing something together. The bhramyaman theatre tries to create a similar kind of experience. The plays are stylistically designed like a film. The experience of going and watching one of these plays is in no short of a cinematic experience. There is the film star, the popular song and dance sequences, action sequences, stunts, an interval, the popcorn vendor, division of seats, the advertisement and promos, the stylised opening credits; in short, a simulation of the film experience.

Intermediality is inevitable specially in the present context. Various different kinds of medium are bound to work together. The present is a world of inter-connectedness, everything is interconnected, from the Netflix series to the popular cinema, to the theatre, the painting, the photograph, the novel. There is always going to be some kind of reference or associations between these various medium and in the modern context it is bound to give rise to certain hybridised form of art or media. In the digital world there is bound to more avenues of having these medial combinations and transmedial structures which might lead to formation of newer hybridised media forms.

The effects of cinema might have led to the propagation of certain mass culture practices that might lie outside the cinematic medium giving rise to certain hybridised medium (the Assamese cine-theatre for example) due to the very intermedial nature of the mediums themselves. The fact of media combinations and intermedial references are bound to happen which might lead to such medial transpositions i.e. the creation of a hybridised medium like the bhramyaman theatre. The questions and concepts of intermediality should be looked at more closely with the ever-changing present day digital and highly mediatised world.

The following are some of the images from the performances:

References


[1] One of the oldest and most popular bhramyaman theatre companies of Assam

[2] A popular theatre actor and a playwright from Assam

About the Author

Trishanku Bhuyan a budding cinephile and an aspiring filmmaker having more than 2 years of experience in film research and has also worked as a research associate for a private film archive. His main research interest lies on the execution of bhramyaman theatres in Assam. A postgraduate in film studies from Ambedhkar University, Delhi, Trishanku has done some extensive research on bhramyaman theatres of Assam.

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