The Tyranny of the Terabyte

On a rain swept evening, sitting inside your living room with a glass filled with Old Monk, recuperating from a hard day’s work, you decide to watch yet another film. Will it be Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out or Clint Eastwood’s 1971 Play Misty for Me this time? Or should it be a Korean film that vies with an obscure Portuguese film for your attention? You look up the net to check its credentials; it seems promising; but before you make up your mind, your focus has already shifted to the latest from Costa Gavras. Jeesuz, the man is still alive and making films! No, let’s watch the French Entre Les Murs instead, the 2008 winner of Palm d’Or in Cannes. But wouldn’t the 1967 Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman be a better bet? What about Bunuel’s The Mexican Bus Ride, a film that I have never seen before? That can wait, let’s check out Amadeus again; it has been a long time since I had seen and loved that film. But hang on, it’s more than three hours long; not today. What about a Zhang Yimou? A friend was telling me that Cronica De Una Fuga is an interesting Argentinean thriller. But wait, Killing Me Softly is by Chen Kaige? The same guy who made Farewell My Concubine? But this seems to be an English film starring Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes. You look up the net again and it says that it’s an erotic thriller. Hmm… shall I give it a try? I am not sure. When in doubt, a Truffaut re-visit is the best bet. But let’s have another last scan before I hit on Day For Night. Bunuel’s Tristana lost out to the Italian Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion for the best Foreign Film in the Oscars in 1971. And Frygtelig Lykkelig is a 2008 Danish thriller about a disturbed big city cop who is assigned to a small town where he enters into a relationship with a cranky housewife that leads to complications with the townspeople. Now this looks promising too. And it’s only 90 minutes long…

Before I realize, it’s almost an hour gone past and I still have not been able to make up my mind. And this has been a regular story almost every day when I sit down to watch a film. But before you get envious of my DVD collection, which you think I have built over the years, let me tell you, I had stopped buying those cute circular discs encased in sleek colourful attractive boxes more than two years back after I discovered the terabyte and its immense potential. All the above mentioned films are not even a minuscule part of the huge collection that I have acquired in the last two years from different sources, mostly downloaded through Torrent by enterprising kids. Like a scavenger I have sourced these films, sometimes indiscriminately, and arranged and re-arranged them into folders and sub-folders according to countries, genres, periods and directors. The collection keeps multiplying every week and I end up buying yet another external hard drive six months later to accommodate the ever increasing titles. Just as it has increased my film viewing habits since now I have a wide collection to choose from, it has also increased my confusion and I am yet to figure out a way out of this madness. My friend Ram (Ramchandra PN) who shares my collection and passion was also faced with a similar dilemma during the initial days of his heady romance with the terabyte, but since then he has hit upon a novel idea: every time he decides to watch a film, he closes his eyes and randomly clicks on a folder and whichever opens, he watches it. It’s not a bad idea, I have tried it and it works. But still the confusion prevails.

It has been a long journey that started with the black and white days of Doordarshan. Every weekend the entire neighbourhood turned silent as it sat glued in front of television sets, the children on the floor and the grown-ups on the sofas, to watch a Uttam Kumar – Suchitra Sen starrer or gaze at a semi clad Sharmila Tagore wooed by a heavily mannered Rajesh Khanna around a fire in Aradhana. Those were heady days full of innocence, coupled with the pains and confusions of growing up that were accentuated by the jhatkas of a curvaceous Mumtaz or the coquetry of a dolled up Rekha.

Then came the Video! That was years later of course, when Indian television had already moved on to its colored avatar. Resembling a small hardbound book, it was supposed to contain a whole bloody film, and that too a magnum opus like Sholay! It played on a machine called Video Cassette Player (VCP), which only few households could afford during those days, but it soon became accessible to the great Indian middle-class. Video rental libraries sprouted all over and now you could rent whatever you liked, including your favourite English films like They Call Me Trinity and Django! Wow!


The arrival of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) was a huge leap. It enabled us to copy films but at a cost, we got a print that was one generation down. But who bothered about such drawbacks? It was an achievement enough to own a copy of your favourite film, Emmanuelle being one of the most prized possessions.

The quarter inch VHS tapes held sway for more than a decade and our cupboards gradually filled up with the choicest films that became a happy breeding ground for fungus. Sometimes the tapes got chewed up by the machine or the pictures faded but copies were always available. But it was always a cumbersome task to arrange another player to make copies unless the films were so brilliant that we wanted to possess them forever.

The arrival of the slim pocket-sized VCDs in the mid-90s revolutionized film viewing and collection. Since personal computers had also arrived by then, we could make copies without any ‘gen loss’ and share amongst friends. The VCD occupied less space also and gradually ate up the shelves once occupied by the video cassettes. It suddenly democratized ownership and broke down the monopoly mindset. The DVDs followed soon, with superior image qualities and the section on special features to boot, but the prices were prohibitive. But the ever-imaginative and enterprising underground market that immediately sprang up and ranged from China, through Bangladesh, via Thailand to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia offered us pirated versions of whatever films we coveted; we just had to mention the title and there it was. Thanks to the cheap prices, bulk purchases became the order of the day. Vendors came to your office or hotel room when you were on a shoot, carrying huge bags filled with titles and you had a hard time making your pick and ended up buying more than your budget that pricked your conscience, but the next time you again gave into temptations. The practice is still rampant; you just have to call up your ever friendly vendor and there he is at your doorstep. It is reported from reliable sources that top-notch Indian directors who spoke out against piracy during the day bought pirated DVDs on the sly at night; they still do.

The arrival of the Blu Ray has not yet eased out the DVDs from the market, one major reason being the expensive price tag of the new format. The DVDs are still going to be around for some time, but the portable hard disc is increasingly making its presence felt. Cineastes and film-makers have in recent years gradually woken up to the vast potential of storage house that the external hard drive represents. The total space that a two-terabyte hard disk occupies is the same as the ancient video cassette and can hold up to more than two thousand films; and it costs less then five thousand rupees! Today we can have the complete works of any film-maker we want and a society of like minded people has evolved – almost like a secret order, who keep each other informed of the latest acquisition and promptly transfer and share not only films, but music and e-books too whenever they meet. It is just that with the multitude of choices that we have, the selection process has become more and more difficult until and unless we follow my friend Ram’s strategy of randomly clicking on a folder and watching its contents.

By the way, have you ever wondered where did those VHS tapes disappear?


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  1. What fun it was reading this, Ranjan. At least you watch the films, and not just copy, download, store. 🙂 I don’t miss VHS-es at all, they were so clunky, and the fungus, uggh! What a journey!

    And in the middle of all that, nothing to beat the MT.

  2. Actually, I have some very fond memories of the VHS era inspite of several experiences with bad prints, having to track them, tapes being jammed and crushed in the VCR. Much of my interest in filmmaking and my decision to join this line was born from watching films on VHS tapes. I must have seen High Noon 30 times alone with my dad as he kept watching it repeatedly being totally inspired by it. I still see it repeatedly now on DVD with my students!

    But yeah Batul, nothing to beat the MT at FTII. To see all all the Fellinis, Truffauts, Antonionis, Bergmans, Satyajit Rays, Ghataks, Guru Dutts, Raj Kapoors, Bimal Roys, etc etc etc on the big screen was just something else. If there ever is a heaven on earth, MT is it! And… I even saw High Noon on the big screen at FTII in CRT! 🙂

  3. Many years ago a very good friend’s father was the engineer for a company that made the first laser disk, it was basically the size of a vinyl album but the player worked like a laser disk. I recall being so excited by not only the technology but the color and the magnificence of the qualify of the movie most of which were classics such as sound of music etc…we have certainly come a long way since then and that company has since folded, I believe it was RCA…though I do recall being so thrilled by it…then I started thinking about 3D and the fact that I have not even see a 3D movie yet let alone 4D…cheers

  4. @Anirudhha Khoshla and Indranil, yes, I know the dangers of crash Hard disc crash is like an earthquake which you are not prepared for, but if one has friends who share your collection, one need not really worry.
    @Batul @ Karan, of course there is nothing to beat the community experience of watching films in MT! (For the uninitiated, MT is the Main Theater in FTII where we watched all the world classics). And as far as VHS is concerned I still have fond memories of them, though I don’t really miss them.
    @Ram, the secret is out: You have all along been a pirate.
    @Naznin, that was a good piece of memoir you shared with us! 🙂

  5. Ronni, you are making me as infamous as you are…!!!
    Jokes apart.. nice piece that reflects not only of our changing film watching habits, but also the inevitability of technology.
    BTW, the piece should have been named ‘Love Thy Terabyte’ or ‘Ronni Film and Terabyte Archives of India’.

  6. Much as I love viewing, I have never been lured by the collecting bug. I mostly borrow / download what I want to watch and 90% of the time, its an immediate watch. I have found that borrowing ensures watching since you have to return. And I don’t want to possess,,, there was something about possessing the only available copy of Nostalghia once, but to collect what is available doesn’t appeal to me. Just plain lazy I guess…

  7. @Irene, that’s a take that makes sense surely. If you end up collecting, the confusion prevails; it’s like buying 10 books from a sale that you never read for the next five years. But I guess, each to his own. First of all, I never knew of so many films that were made by some of my favourite directors; so when I scavenge through the collection I suddenly come across “Angels With Dirty Faces” by Michael Curtiz, a film that I would never have bothered to watch otherwise, because I never knew of its existence. Or a beautiful film called “An Education”, a 2009 British coming of age story. That was a random click. Another random click was “He loves me… He loves me not” a French film that turned out to be a brilliant thriller with the most ingenuous script. I was almost giving it a miss. Well, I guess I am like Imelda Marcos who had the luxury to choose from her 3 thousand pairs of shoes. I guess it is the glutton in me. Sanghamitra calls it insecurity.

  8. @Irene, a corrigendum please. What I meant was ingenuity and not ingenuous. I am talking about the screenplay of “He loves me… he loves me not.” Have a look at the film.

  9. Hi Ranjan,
    Enjoyed your effusive tribute to the terabytes.Great way of storing films surely, unless of course one of them crashes, or the data gets corrupt mysteriously .Happened to a guy I know who lost his prized ‘world cinema’ collection at one go.I now try to back-up the data in duplicate hard disc, hard work but.
    By the way, VHS I think had a three-quarter inch gauge, and not quarter inch …small technical detail.

  10. Hey, Ronnie, I am in the zombie phase. I have stopped reading books and almost stopped watching movies. Even cable TV connection has been pulled out in favor of the We-game at home. At best I watch you tube videos, and even that sometimes I just hear while I time pass on facebook. Would you send me to jail or do you know of a possible cure?

  11. Ha! Ha! Ronnie! Great Blog!!! But this is one tyranny I’m willing to submit with all my masochism 🙂 Yeah the journey from VHS to digital files has been amazing! I still have a fungus covered VHS of the first professional film I’d made after passing out of FTII. That;s my only remaining connection to that Jurassic age!
    @Ram: Your hit and miss policy is a strategy of great wisdom!
    @Banno, Third Man et.al: Yeah! nothing can beat the community /tribal experience of watching classics at the hallowed precincts of MT at FTII! Still remember fondly the Woodstock like atmosphere off-screen every time the film was screened!!!!

  12. Yeah Manju, sounds like bliss. Ronnie I think I stopped with books itself. I realized I was buying and not reading and now that I buy / borrow one (or max two) at a time, I read. I know I miss a lot of films, but I am just shunning acquisitiveness… and I guess I can’t watch them all anyway. I am too lazy too but I still love watching the old and the new – even watched Sant Tukaram recently 🙂 Actually click and discover sounds fun!

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