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Flipping through the empty pages of an old diary, surrounded by Hindu gods and Odiya film stars frozen in various poses, three spiders perched on a sagging cobweb high over his head, M Santosh Kumar is waiting for Akshay Kumar to save him. “I had hoped for Salman Khan, but we didn’t get Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Now I am waiting for Akshay Kumar’s Brothers on Independence Day,” says Kumar.
Until then, the 35-year-old who runs Sri Laxmi Talkies, the “only cinema theatre in Nabarangpur district”, will have to manage with Super Michua (super liar), starring Babusan and Jhilki. It’s a tense wait. For, it’s 1 pm on August 3, an hour to go for Sri Laxmi Talkies to come alive again after shutting down on June 19 due to “maintenance problems”. And Kumar is desperately hoping that Super Michua, the Odiya entertainer, will set the stage for the future.
“I will not lose this battle. I know more people are watching movies on DVDs at home or at cineplexes. But my audience, the Rs 30-per-ticket wallah, will remain with me. This is a district of the poor, and most of the people who come here are from the tribal areas. For them, a visit to my talkies is a way of relaxing after a busy day in the market,” says Kumar, brightening up finally inside his makeshift office, a small room with high walls painted in pale green.
Kumar’s confidence, however, is not reflected in his leased property, located on a narrow alley behind a busy market at the centre of the district headquarters. Sri Laxmi Talkies, 15 years old and 440 seats big, is in terminal decline — except for the red plastic seats in the Rs 30 deluxe class on the ground floor and the satellite receiver in a corner of the projection room.
The original projector is a mangled metal mess in one corner, the iron grills on the gate are coming apart, the giant fans are rusting, the cement walls are crumbling, and the 40 seats on the small slip of a balcony — Rs 40 per ticket — are hard and uncomfortable. “But we are up to date with technology,” says Kumar, pointing to the receiver which downloads the movie from the satellite feed provider — a company called ‘UFO’, in the case of Super Michua.
With about 45 minutes to go for the 2 pm show to start, the first group of Kumar’s audience ambles in — all men, a Mohawk cut, a CSK T-shirt, a Bajaj bike, a whispered wisecrack and a nervous giggle.
“We’ve been waiting for the theatre to open,” says Partap Sindhu, a Bhatra tribal and a 15-year-old student at the government school nearby. “Where else do we go after skipping classes?” he adds, laughing. “It’s the only time I can forget everything,” says Surjan Lal, 52, a civil contractor whose story could easily have been a part of the “countless movies” he has watched here. Lal is a former BSF jawan from Jodhpur who claims he quit in a fit of rage after “an officer, about 25 years old, young enough to be my son” called him over, snapping his fingers at him and referring to him as “beta”.
“Today, I am a wandering soul, doing odd jobs so that I can send money to my family,” he says, his voice trailing off.
With 15 minutes left for the show, the audience has crossed 50. There’s even a tussle at the ticket counter where Kumar’s cousin, 30-year-old Tejeshwar Rao, sits tearing out tickets under a solitary bulb. “This is good,” says Kumar. “I have to pay Rs 20,000 per month to the owner of this land. My salary bill for the eight people I have employed is about Rs 20,000 per month. Where is the money going to come from?” adds Kumar, a “local” from Andhra, who has two schoolgoing children.
Pointing towards a small “canteen” on the side, he says, “That’s there only because every theatre needs one, right? It gets me Rs 50 every day, not even enough to pay the electricity bill for that room.” Kumar is cut short by a loud buzz as the doors open. It is 2.15 pm, the lights dim, the cinema is about to begin. The first image on the screen is a logo of the satellite feed provider ‘UFO’. It’s greeted by a single, piercing whistle.