ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Cinemas on Fire: field notes on mythologies of audience in the early 1980s Bombay film industry


Thomas Rosie - University of Westminster, CREAM, London, United Kingdom


49 – Public Knowledge: Audiences in South Asian Media and Screen Studies


 ‘They’ll burn down the cinemas if we show….’ was a recurring refrain among filmmakers in the Bombay industry of the early 1980s. Their well-developed working assumptions about their audience became one focus of my fieldwork: over my 18 months in Bombay, I gained access to the lives and conversations of many mainstream filmmakers of the day, including the team behind Roti and its song ‘Yeh Public Hai’. At a time when the theorisation of audience studies was barely developed, I concluded that ‘the audience’ could only be viably understood as a construct of film industry practitioners. But was this correct? In this paper I look back at my archive – my 1980s fieldnotes – and reassess my own working assumptions of the day. Drawing on notes from sessions with filmmakers, including Roti’s director Manmohan Desai, as well as distributors, financiers and journalists on the industry trade papers, I examine how these people constructed their internalised image of what audiences ‘want’, how this impacted their working practices, and how, in an era long before focus groups and audience evaluation tools, they assessed their beliefs in relation to their real-life encounters with their audience, if any. Might this historical material give us the ‘glimpse out of the corner of our eye’ of the 1980s audience that Hughes (2021) suggests may be the most we can hope for?