Would virtual reality be the future of films? Sooner or later, yes
Anand Gandhi believes the ultimate VR breakthrough can only happen when you can fully realise its immense potential in spectacle and long-form story-telling, and that will require venture capitalists to genuinely take on long-term risks.
Aaram Nagar is a maze. The last time I spent a while inside the dusty sub-HQ of Bollywood, off Yari Road, was a few years ago at filmmaker Anand Gandhi's office-one of the many randomly numbered bungalows in the Andheri cinema cantonment.
I distinctly remember that hot afternoon. Having taken a self-imposed smoke-break, watching Gandhi's debut film, Ship of Theseus (SoT), the view outside in Aaram Nagar appeared to me as if it had totally slowed down by several frames per second. I was minutely gazing at the dog stretching itself, slowly. The cabbie sleeping with his legs up on his open car-window seemed like a frozen photograph. Such was the effect Gandhi's SoT had had on me-possibly the most original Indian film I've seen, hovering at the intersection of science, philosophy and narrative fiction.
The last time I was in Aaram Nagar, again at Gandhi's office (although a different bungalow), I found myself almost falling off a swivel chair, sitting with a head-gear, watching a film that had me feel like I was dangerously perched on top of a railway bridge, overlooking the tracks, and trains below. It was scary. It's not that I suffer from vertigo. But unused to the eyes moving along a 360 degree axis in a film-on the devastation caused by the Kusmunda coal mine-gave me a sense in the first couple of seconds, that I was right there, in Korba, Chhattisgarh. And hey, I must watch out!
Have I seen anything like this before? Yes, in a sci-fi movie, Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), when I was a li'l kid, just about learning about the birds and the bees. The image of a futuristic headset, through which people, scared of contracting germs, would have virtual sex with each other had kinda scarred my brain for a while (along with the shot of a woman with three breasts). If you didn't know this yet, it's hard to tell the present-continuous from the distant sci-fi future anymore.
Over the past year and half, Gandhi has been running Memesys Culture Lab-which at the time he started it, was one of only three film companies in the world-wholly specialising in creating content, inventing solutions in the virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) space. The film I had been watching was an 8-minute journalistic documentary, directed by Faiza Ahmed Khan (best known for her lovely doc feature, Supermen of Malegaon). No piece of journalism was ever going to engage you in a manner as strongly as one that gets you right into the heart of action, or darkness. That's what VR does.
Likewise, I caught the making of Aamir Khan's Dangal, which seemed like a more felt-experience than the actual film. Which, anyway, is no more film. By virtue of it being shot and viewed in digital (a lot like TV on the big screen), cinema has begun to lose out to competing, more easily accessible devices like the laptop, or the cell-phone already. Every other week Hollywood attempts to stem the tide, upping the scale of its cinema-in terms of sheer splendour, special effects, 3D, or IMAX-to get masses to collectively hit theatres still. Bahubali was India's first major move in that direction.
Would VR replace movies eventually though? It's too early to say. Firstly the headset used to view VR is too heavy and clunky at the moment for you to catch anything longer than a short film. And while the experience is astoundingly immersive, the bandwidth required to catch it in the originally captured format-36K resolution, 8-10 GB, for an 8-10 min film-is unaffordable. We're still at 4K res, consuming over 1 GB bandwidth for a short flick on our phone. But these are tech issues, with immediate solutions.
Are Indians willing to spend on overcoming those hurdles? Oh no. As always we'll wait for the Americans to do that, so we can then create its copy for cheap, Gandhi says. He has a tech team that creates a series of rigs to mount multiple cameras on. But the ultimate VR breakthrough, Gandhi believes, can only happen when you can fully realize its immense potential in spectacle and long-form story-telling. That'll require venture capitalists to genuinely take on long-term risks, which at least in the US, they're usually open to. There's basically little scope for Elon Musk in Andheri West.
Speaking of Musk, by the way, music composer AR Rahman has just made his directorial debut with a VR film called Le Musk, set in Rome, obsessed with the idea of smell. With help from Danny Boyle's daughter's company, he's employed technology that'll allow you to smell the movie as you view it in 360 degrees. That's magic.
As is what Gandhi's associate Zain Memon gets me to do in his office. He asks me to pull out a 100 rupee note, and point my phone to it. Mahatma Gandhi emerges from the note. It's an AR (augmented reality) project the company is working on, wherein the actual Mahatma (enacted by Neeraj Kabi, voiced by Manoj Shah) would come alive to tell various stories from his life every time you point your phone to a currency note.
This is as much the future of films as books, television, advertising, gaming, or classroom education-learning, and story-telling, as it were. And I watched it in Aaram Nagar. It's amaze.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to email@example.com
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