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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Theatres shut down, mounting losses: How Bengali film industry lost the battle during pandemic

The Bengali film industry is reeling from the pandemic. While streaming services emerged as saviours elsewhere, even that revolution seems to have largely passed by Tollywood.

Written by Satarupa Basu | Kolkata |
September 10, 2021 10:05:56 am
Lokkhi Chhele and Belashuru How Bengali film industry lost the battle to Covid-19Shiboprosad Mukherjee’s ‘Lokkhi Chhele’ and ‘Belashuru’ have been stuck for release since last year.

Entertainment industry has been among the worst affected sectors by the pandemic in India. Losses mounting up to thousands of crores, jobs cut down and theatres that downed their shutters forever – it seems the total cost is still being counted. In the regional Bengali industry, or Tollywood as it is popularly known, the scene is no different.

Producer and director Shiboprosad Mukherjee says for directors the biggest setback has been the restriction on the thought process. “During normal times, there is a cycle – you are doing a film, it gets released, then you embark on to the next film. But during these times, once a film gets stuck, the entire thought process is stunted. Your vision is halted. Added to this, one’s peak time doesn’t last forever. With every passing year, the creative process is slowed down. You are faced with uncertainty as the film you are working on currently, loses its significance a year later,’ he says.

The financial loss has been terrible. Arindam Sil, director of ‘Mahananda’ that is in post-production, admits that things have come to a standstill since the past one and a half years. “The losses amounted to thousands of crores. Not only actors – technicians, vendors, equipment suppliers – all have been affected. In a year, we hardly make 40 to 50 films. If an average cost of a film is two crores, then the loss comes to 100 crores. Add to this the loss of added costs of vendors, suppliers, who have been left jobless. The loss has been extended to people who are directly or indirectly associated with cinema,” he says.

Baba Baby O A still from Bengali film Baba Baby O.

The closing down of cinema halls has added to the woes. “Every creation is like a discovery. Once you don’t have the film in the market, you never know whether it is working or not. As a producer I think unless one has a theatrical release one doesn’t know how the film will fare. You then get restricted to a whole lot of things – to experiment, to work with new actors. So how will the industry grow? There will be no surprise hits. One has to forgo making cinema for cinema’s sake, as it will no longer yield results,” says Shiboprosad.

Arindam says among 750 cinema halls, only 250 are in a working condition. “Post the pandemic, even if 100 halls open, it’s a blessing. Plus, there is a ripple effect to this. With 50 percent occupancy, no average Bengali film can recover costs. And we have to accept that there is not much demand for Bengali content on OTT platforms. Internationally there needs to be an alternative platform,’ he says. Despite a channel dedicated to Bangla content, HoiChoi, with footprint in West Bengal and Bangladesh, the presence of Bengali content on major streaming channels has been limited.

Shantilal Mukherjee, working secretary, Artists’ Forum, says people who worked on a daily basis or a monthly basis are the ones who have been affected severely. “Plus, the closing down of cinema halls has been terrible. There are no films, there is no audience, even with 50 percent accommodation in halls, there is not half the audience,” he says.

Arijit Dutta, owner of popular single screen Priya cinema, is plain heartbroken. ‘There is a huge deficit, crores have been lost, no halls are opening, yet salaries have to be paid. The financial situation is as bad as it can get,’ he says.

Gautam Dutta, CEO, PVR Limited agrees that the cinema exhibition industry suffered huge losses and business was impacted significantly due to lockdowns in the country. “The cinema exhibition sector suffered massive financial losses, with thousands of screens countrywide forced to close down, and many employees, not just of cinemas, but even their supply chains and other stakeholders, facing personal hardship. The cinema exhibition sector is a critical part of a functioning film industry, directly employing lakhs of people and contributing to indirect employment of millions of people. With zero revenues in eight months (from March till November 2020), and thereafter meagre revenues in the last 5 months, the cinema exhibition industry is now facing possible bankruptcies,” he says.

Noted make-up artiste of National Award-winning films Somnath Kundu is having a hard time making ends meet. ‘‘In normal times, I used to work in four to five films. Last year, I did only two films. This year too. I have two films in hand. I have suffered a loss of Rs 5 to 6 lakhs last year. It’s becoming difficult to keep my family going with this meagre work and amount,’ he says.

Mahananda Mahananda is helmed by Arindam Sil.

But directors and producers are not willing to lose hope. As a producer Shiboprosad’s ‘Lokkhi Chhele’ and ‘Belashuru’ have been stuck for release since last year. But he is not sitting idle. Currently he has finished another film ‘Baba Baby O’, which he hopes will see the light of the day very soon. Producer Firdaus-ul-Hasan, who has produced ‘Mahananda’ is producing two more films – Atanu Ghosh’s next and Anik Dutta’s next. “We have overcome challenges before. There have been challenges with television, satellite channels and now, OTT. But in spite of all these, cinema had held forth on its own and stayed strong. To me, cinema is not an individual medium. It is a community activity, to be enjoyed jointly by family and friends. We had released ‘Dictionary’ in February 2020 which was houseful at Nandan. Then I embarked on ‘Mahananda’, which got stuck for seven to eight months. Now, the film is finished with its post-production on. I am also producing two more films, one by Atanu Ghosh and another by Anik Dutta. Am doing this because I am hopeful. That despite all odds cinema will strike back again with all its force and beauty,” he says.

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