What makes a movie, a quintessentially Bollywood movie? What are the unique qualities that differentiate our films from those of other global film industries? Apart from the aspect of language, what really makes our cinema different? There a number of answers that immediately jump to mind, be it our love of music, our prevailing focus on escapist cinema, or our heavy reliance on the same handful of stars, to name but a few. However aside from these, another distinguishing factor of a typical Hindi film is the interval break format, resulting in all our movies having two distinct acts. The interval is such an integral part of the Hindi film experience, to the extent that most film reviews will provide a separate verdict to each half of the film. Even the audience’ views and opinions on a film are split up into which half they enjoyed more. This facet of our movies is so ingrained in us that we almost think of a given Bollywood film as two distinct halves rather than one whole narrative.
This interval break that the audience has become so accustomed to is something that still exists only in Hindi cinema and was phased away in the West, in Hollywood a long time ago. So why then does it still persist in our neck of the woods? This intermission has a number of curious reasons behind it, and implications on our films and the overall cinematic experience.
Why do we still do it?
So why do we have an interval in our films? What purpose does it serve, apart from just an opportunity for the audience to stretch their legs and refuel themselves with their beloved popcorn and Coke? Answering this requires a quick history lesson. Intermissions were traditionally used in cinema theatres in the early 1900’s because the film reel needed to be physically changed on the projector, which is the same reason it was done here in India. Over time this became associated with a respite for the audience. The only difference being that it was phased out in Hollywood many years ago as the technology advanced, whereas we still use it as a key part of our format today. So if the technology is sophisticated enough to no longer warrant this break, why then does this interval persist in India?
For starters our films have traditionally been heavy in length at 2 to 3 hours, so that respite was welcomed by audiences! The other big reason is unsurprisingly enough, the commercial value attached to it by multiplexes and single screens nationwide. Multiplexes can make up to 40% of their revenue from audiences rushing to gorge on snacks and refreshments.
As a result, our audiences have now become so familiar with this as their expectation of ‘going to the movies’, which should be a 3 hour experience of entertainment, food, and their comfort break. It is just become the standard of how Indian audiences now consume cinema at the big screen. To the extent that even Hollywood movies shown in Indian cinema screens are inflicted with an interval break. The only difference being that this isn’t intentionally built into the film by the makers of Hollywood films, so the cinema screens themselves will decide where to insert the cut, which can often result in a cut mid scene or even mid-sentence! However this isn’t just restricted to movies shown in India. The interval break has become so synonymous with the typical Bollywood movie that cinemas in the UK that show Bollywood films actually incorporate an interval break just for these films. Suffice to say the interval break has become an integral of the Hindi movie experience.
Impact on the movie
However beyond issues of comfort, commercial value and refreshments, how does this break impact the movie itself? What is essentially being done is the audiences are being taken away from the mental zone of the film, by breaking the narrative in two. It takes you out of the film for that short period of time and then it’s for the film to then get you reinvested and reengaged in the story in the second half.
In terms of the views of our filmmakers on this enforced break, there are broadly two schools of thought. There are filmmakers who very much embrace this Bollywood format and formula, so have no issue, and happily adapt the two act format into their movies. This typically involves having some sort of cliff-hanger, revelation or twist just before the end of the first half. Such movies thrive on giving the audience this break and giving them time to reflect, speculate and otherwise just think about the film, and what the second half could have in store.
On the other side, there are those filmmakers who make movies as a single free flowing story rather than two distinct parts, who are not at all fans of this format and feel their films, and the audience experience, are negatively impacted by imposing a break half way through. Audiences are essentially being taken away from the mind space of the film and filmmakers have to adapt the story to include a break, or find a way to incorporate some form of cliff hanger half way through.
Directors like Anurag Kashyap have openly shown their dissatisfaction towards this intermission and the impact it has. Filmmaker Vikramaditya Motwane, the mind behind films like Lootera and Udaan has previously stated:
“In the US, movies are shown without an interval and that’s how it should be. Instead of asking ‘why’, people should ask ‘why not’ and adopt this practice. In Bollywood, movies are increasingly becoming crisper and it makes absolute sense not to break the flow of the story. Any movie under two hours shouldn’t have an interval. People end up creating four acts in a movie’s story just to accommodate an interval, which is, without any logic, an integral part of Indian cinema viewing.”
The reality is here is that there is no one size fits all rule here, as each film is different. There are films which are made to be two act features, and those intended as single, continuous narratives. Aamir Khan’s 2011 production Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries),directed by Kiran Rao, famously requested all multiplexes and cinema screens to not include an interval break for this film as it would hamper the story.
In this writer’s personal experience I can talk of the recently raved about Neerja and the impact of an interval on that film. A key part of the cinematic experience and appeal of Neerja is that of the emotional mind state the film puts you in, where you are constantly tense, uncertain and in some scenes, just afraid. It is a film which absorbs you completely. Those who saw the film at a cinema theatre would have been lost in the story and then suddenly find themselves back in reality, and would then need to re-establish that connection and re-immerse. It is my honest opinion that an interval would damage the viewing experience of a film like Neerja.
Yet similarly there are other films where the interval really helped the overall experience as the makers knew how to use it to their advantage. In 3 Idiots or Tamasha you find yourself completely speculating and theorising as to the possible reasons behind what’s happening, at the interval cliff hanger. Films in the more commercial space like Dhoom 3 use the interval to give you a big, revealing twist that you didn’t see coming aimed at leaving you buzzing for the second half.
So in the end it is my submission that you can’t have a one size fits all rule with movies as some films work well with this format, others suffer from it. In an ideal world, films should have a choice to ask theatres as to whether to include a break or not, such as Aamir Khan did.
Over time the run times of our films are decreasing with many clocking in at less than 2 hours. To the point of the loss in commercial value to multiplexes, many have already found ways around this using seat side service, where orders are taken and food is delivered to the audience members at their seats.
The issue here is no film should have to suffer as a result of being inflicted with a format within which it just doesn’t fit, or which hampers its story in any way. We see this with music as there are increasing numbers of films with very few or no songs, and others with countless. There are filmmakers are getting freedom to decide what works best for their movies, so why then still impose this on them?
As to whether the audiences would be accepting of films without intervals, recent times have shown us that our audiences are anything but rejecting of new genres, formats and content. Even for me, a through and through cinephile, it is difficult to imagine a world without an interval in movie. However it is my humble belief that it will be largely accepted by audiences if it heightens their experience of watching a movie and means they have a better time at the movies. And ultimately, isn’t that all people really want?