Going to the DVD library for me was always a complex ritual –– it began with giving the library employee a list of the films I wanted to watch, then anxiously waiting while he checked the system for their availability. He took them out from the mountains of DVDs that surrounded us and then left me to pick the one I wanted. It didn’t end there. I would spend another half an hour, sometimes more, scrutinising the summary of each film on the DVD cover, then considering the recommendations of the store manager and at times if I was still unsatisfied with my selection I would browse the store for more movies that were then added to my never ending list of ‘films-to-watch’. It wasn’t just about picking out a film. It was as much about the time that I spent with myself in quiet retrospection about the world of cinema as an art form; a new discovery for my former sixteen-year old self. The works of film directors like Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock and other Gods of celluloid, on whom volumes of cinema theory is dedicated to, were with the DVD library, so easily accessible.
After a few years in which the cinephile in me took a backseat, the fetish for viewing films on DVDs arose again. There was just one glitch. I could no longer find those DVD libraries in the city that had satiated my every need. My friends called me ‘old school’, even a technological dud at times for refusing to stream films but my world was already beginning to frighteningly mirror the dystopia of Orwell’s 1984. Why couldn’t I find a way to view the art I wanted, in the quality and medium that I wanted. So is the DVD dead? With the closing of down of almost all DVD libraries and stores in the city including veteran libraries like Shemaroo and Teenage Library as well as the iconic DVD store Rhythm House; the DVD does seem like a relic of the past. But I wasn’t ready to deal with this as part of cosmic truth. So like a persistent lover; sentimental and committed, against all odds I decided to find the DVD. To my utter relief, it’s still breathing, if faintly, in South Bombay’s Casablanca and Bandra’s Sarvodaya. Perhaps the last DVD libraries that the city will see.
The Suburban Refuge
If you walk into Pali Hill’s Sarvodaya you’ll be surrounded by countless sliding shelves, that apart from contemporary Hollywood and Bollywood films also display almost every English T.V series that is being binge-watched today. They house over 12,000 titles if you decided to count. Though when I first inquired about this particular figure, Manish Chandaria, the owner of this 35-year old library said, “You name the title and we will have the DVD. Even if a DVD has the probability of being rented only once, I buy it. That’s the principle of the business.” To prove his point, he shows me a copy of Netflix’s crime drama Narcos on one hand and then pulls out a collection of Guru Dutt’s films; some of which are next to impossible to find today. While Casablanca is a bit more discreet in its selection of new buys, they make sure to stock up on films that are not available on Netflix; whether popular or not. One might ask though, what is the point of collecting these DVDs? It’s not only cumbersome to go through the process of borrowing them but equally difficult to view them today. Most laptops now come without a CD drive and if you haven’t discarded your DVD player yet, it’s probably rusting in an untouched corner of your house.
It’s Not Always About The Money
But a more pertinent question before answering the one before is-how exactly did we get to the demise of the DVD? The owners of Casablanca and Sarvodaya both testify that while piracy and torrents did take away some of the DVD’s customers the more than often poor quality of these mediums did not seriously affect the sales of DVDs. It’s been the recently launched movie portals like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India accompanied by easily accessible and affordable internet data plans supporting 4G speeds; especially the ones offered by Reliance’s Jio that have made streaming films the most pragmatic option for people and consequently doomed the DVD. Kalpesh Kerawala owner of Casablanca identifies another obstacle for the DVD; “When you are hooked onto a T.V show, or countless shows at the same time, there is no time to watch a film, let alone browse and borrow one from a library,” he says matter-of-factly. But none of these coming-of-age technological trends deterred Sarvodaya and Casablanca to shut down like the odd 500-600 DVD libraries that existed in the city during the early 2000s. In fact, Chandaria even goes ahead and buys the DVDs of companies that are closing down and stocks up on DVD players of brands like Sony and Philips, whom after running in losses, have stopped producing these devices. “Our job is to encourage people to still use the DVD. It’s not always about the money,” he says.
With DVD rentals having dropped from 150-200 per day to a quarter of that figure in the last couple of years, earning a living out of the DVD business would be considered fool hardy. At one level films viewed outside the theatres can earn up to one crore for its satellite rights, whereas with the DVD; till each copy is not sold there remains no assurance that even the cost of production will be covered. “I can no longer recover the cost of renting the library space,” says Mr.Kalpesh Kerawala, whose library is re-locating to Forjett Street, Tardeo, after having operated, since its inception in 1995, from Altamount Road, the area with probably the most expensive real estate property in the city. Whereas Chandaria reveals a dark truth about the financial value of DVDs. “If I even want to sell my DVDs, only scrap dealers will buy them. It will be priced by its weight value, not art value.”
While Sarvodaya sustains itself financially from running an electronic shop from the library and providing assistance to senior customers with technological know-how and Casablanca is on the lookout for a ‘side business’, it would be safe to say that both these libraries are doing an unnoticed cultural service; the preservation of the DVD. So that whichever films do exist in the DVD format can be protected from the unregulated morphing potential of the internet.
The Value Of Sentiment
“I went to England to personally to get these DVDs. I would be in when the stores opened and out only when they closed. I spent 10 days doing this; at the end of the trip I had brought 1000 titles back with me,” said Chandaria as I eyed the vast World Cinema collection Sarvodaya has tucked away on its upper floor. I catch sight of a copy of Cléo de 5 à 7; a lesser known film of the French New Wave that was recommended to me by a fellow cinephile just a few hours ago. While I am at the billing counter to have the film rented, I realise it hasn’t been borrowed in the past 10 years. I find it unfortunate that more people don’t take advantage of one of the biggest contributions of DVD libraries like Sarvodaya to society; making a wide range of World Cinema available to the public.
Unlike Sarvodaya, Casablanca has limited foreign language movies, though its collection of Hollywood classics and cult films is exceptional. “The rapport I share with my old clients is quite strong. I know their taste in cinema and my recommendations always satisfy them,” says Kerawala when I asked him who were the people that still visited his library. I wonder if it’s a matter of difference in generation or just changing sensibilities that fails to see the value of carefully curated collection of films in these libraries as a better investment of time and money, as compared to the unverified vortex of recommendations the web has to offer. While Sarvodaya says that its doors will be open at least for the next “4-5 years”, Kerawala is quite clear on the future of Casablanca; “I will be the last person standing in the DVD business, even if it has to come to that.” So is it just a lifetime of investment, sentimentality or the lack of an alternative that keeps the love for the DVD alive?
For 33-year-old Uday Bhatia who has a growing collection of 250 DVDs, it’s the best of both worlds. “My DVD buying today is mostly limited to titles released by art house labels like Criterion and Masters of Cinema. I stream movies as well, but I prefer the physical presence of DVDs and the idea of a collection built over time.”
For 55-year-old Bubla Basu who has a vast DVD collection of her own and usually borrows European and Hollywood classics from Sarvodaya, DVDs are also a matter of pragmatism. “I prefer to watch DVDs because streaming and downloading involve too many technicalities, none of which I am interested to learn. The whole thing seems far more complicated than simply inserting a DVD into a player.”
Whereas 48-year old Sajid Sayed who has a strong association with the medium says, “DVDs give a sense of permanence and possession that online streaming portals can’t. The physicality of the DVD cannot be replaced, just like the experience of reading the hard copy of a book as opposed to a soft copy online.
As for me, the experience of movie watching through the DVD will never reconcile with online streaming for a number of reasons. With the DVD, I am rest-assured that I am not belittling the art form by indulging into piracy, insights into the making of the film that excites the cinephile in me can be immediately accessed through the ‘bonus features’ on a DVD as opposed to surfing through YouTube and getting distracted by all the other content that is bound to pop up. Most importantly when I bring a DVD home, the physicality and rental cost of it compels a stronger sense of commitment to watch the film. This I consider a rare and prized feeling in the age of content overload hitting you from every social media platform that you are part of. So even though the DVD culture is definitely an endangered one, I am in no hurry to say farewell to it. I only hope that I’m not compelled to, anytime soon, either.
If you know of any other DVD libraries in Mumbai with a commendable collection, you can let us know by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
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