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Already struggling, now battered by lockdown, single screen theatres are not ready to call it curtains yet

Four owners from different parts of India tell us what it takes to run a single screen cinema hall in the age of the pandemic.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Vishnu Varma , Rahel Philipose , Pratyaksh Srivastava | Guwahati, Kottayam, Panaji, Unnao |
Updated: January 26, 2021 12:55:36 am
Saraswati Talkies, a single screen cinema hall in Uttar Pradesh's Unnao. (Express photo by Pratyaksh Srivastava)

Less than two decades ago, cinema halls were where you would go to escape the ups and downs of real life. Then came the TV, the Internet and the multiplex — despite that, the appeal of the big screen endured. But the Covid-19 pandemic, and its accompanying restrictions, has dealt the single screen theatre the body blow. How do they stay afloat? From incentives to social media engagement, from moments of hope to points of resignation, four owners from different corners of India tell us what it takes to run a single screen cinema hall in the age of the pandemic.

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Tezpur, Assam
Estb: 1939

Tezpur’s Anwar Cinema was established by late Abul Hussain in 1939. (Photo Courtesy: Akram Hussain)

“Running a hall these days is akin to doing social service.”

On April 20, nearly a month into the lockdown, the Facebook page of Anwar Cinema, a single screen theatre in middle Assam’s Tezpur town, sprang to life. “We miss you too,” read the post accompanying a photograph of the theatre’s recently-purchased plush red recliner seats. “But until then stay home, stay safe.”

The posts were the only way to keep the conversation going, said the hall’s 27-year-old owner, Akram Hussain. “We were out of action, yes — but that does not mean we were not around. I wanted our customers to know that.”

For more than 80 years, the Hussain family’s Anwar Cinema Hall has served the residents of Tezpur, a picturesque town located on the North bank of the Brahmaputra, 190 km east of Guwahati. “We were the second hall to open in town and every single resident has at least one memory associated with us,” said Akram.

Built in 1939 by Akram’s great grandfather, Abul Hussain, Anwar Cinema, has seen — and survived — it all: the Chinese Aggression of 1962, when the residents fled Tezpur town, the Assam Agitation of 1979, when public life came to a standstill, and even the tumultuous ULFA-era, when the militant group would issue diktats to hall owners run only local movies. Recent challenges have come in the form of shiny new multiplexes — one which has cropped up on the plot adjacent to Anwar. But none have been as big a blow as the Covid-19 pandemic. “Cinemas were the first to close and the last to open,” said Akram.

In November, when Akram finally reopened the hall, with social distancing protocols in place, and a Facebook announcement (“We are getting ready to welcome you after eight months!”), only two people showed up to watch the film they ran: an old Assamese movie starring the state’s most popular artiste.

The weeks that followed saw a similar turn out. “But we ran every show, even if there was only one person in attendance,” he said, “Because how do you send back the few people who have shown heart to come watch a movie in these circumstances?”

That is why, according to Akram, running a hall these days is akin to doing “social service”. “The overheads of maintaining a cinema hall is Rs 3-4 lakh. There is cleaning, sound management. And now, there is the added expense of sanitisation,” said Akram, who took over from his father in 2015, and pushed for a facelift in 2018, complete with new chairs, digitisation and a commercial complex to supplement income from the property.

In its new avatar, Anwar did very well. “We ran six shows a day for some films,” he said, “In a small town, there are only a few avenues for entertainment — and our hall is one of them. Even monks from monasteries in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh would come across to catch a film here.”

While times are hard now, it is this hope that keeps Akram going. “A movie outing is not just the act of watching the film but the whole experience around it— having popcorn, going with family or friends or your partner,” he said, “Now compare that to watching a movie alone in your home, by yourself. No pandemic can change that for good.”

Ettumanoor, Kerala
Estb: 1966

Lotus Theatre, built in 1966, became an important landmark in Kerala’s Ettumanoor town. (Express photo by Vishnu Varma)

“I took care of the theatre like it was my child. But now I’m exhausted.”

Every morning for the past 11 months, CL Jacob has stuck to a ritual of driving down from his home to the Lotus Theatre nearby. There, he would let the projector and the sound systems run for around two hours while he relaxed in an armchair in the small office within the compound, smoking cigarettes, reading the newspaper, or listening to devotional songs on his phone. Around 2 pm, he would break for lunch. On some days, he would return in the evening to repeat the drill.

“We’ve been closed since March, but it’s important to operate the light and sound systems regularly. Otherwise, they will get damaged,” said Jacob, who is nearing his sixties.

In the age of gleaming multiplexes, the Lotus theatre, located in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Ettumanoor town in central Kerala, sits as an oddity. It’s a single-screen, non-AC complex, and unappealing plastic chairs make up a chunk of its seating.

But that is least of Jacob’s concerns. “Good cinema is all about light and sound. And I make sure to offer high-quality visuals and sound effects here. If a pin drops on the screen, I want to be able to hear it. If I don’t, I call the sound engineer,” he said.

It is perhaps this precision to detail that has sustained the creaky old hall for more than 50 years. Established by Jacob’s father in 1966, the theatre, with its thatched (now asbestos) roof went on to become an important landmark in Ettumanoor — in its heyday, it would run packed shows of films with yesteryear superstars such as Prem Nazir and Jayan.

“Such was the craze for films that people were willing to watch the entire show standing, if they didn’t get seats. They would say, ‘Just give us a ticket and we’ll stand and watch by the side,’” said Jacob.
That kind of loyalty, he insists, still remains. Jacob is now the admin of a WhatsApp group of families who are given updates in advance of release of films.

While the theatre was a joint family business for decades, Jacob took over seven years ago. Dismissing the staff, he and his wife took on operator’s licenses and began to manage all aspects on their own, from selling tickets to getting films from distributors. But as newer theatres and multiplexes mushroomed in the region, Lotus struggled to catch up. Distributors eventually offered films to bigger theatres which could cough up more money, resulting in single-screens like Lotus getting reels only two or three weeks after release.

Even on January 13, the day theatres reopened in Kerala, Jacob said he negotiated hard with the distributor of much-awaited Vijay-starrer Master but was unable to get the film as his was not an A-grade theatre.

“I took care of the theatre like it was my own child. But now I’m physically exhausted,” said Jacob, who has faced a few health problems of late. “Before the pandemic, I was planning to take a loan and install a few split ACs and maybe even upgrade the seats. But now, I don’t think I will do it,” Jacob said, adding that he had great passion for cinema. “So if someone is willing to buy Lotus and invest in it, it will work wonders.”

Usgaon, Goa
Estb: 1980

Cine Kamala was founded by late Goan businessman Jagdev Pangam in 1980. (Express photo by Rahel Philipose)

“We will have to start reconnecting with the people again.”

When Goan businessman Nitin Bandekar rented Cine Kamala in January 2019, he knew the first film he screened once he reopened the four-decade-old single screen cinema hall would have to be special. After careful consideration, he settled on the action-war drama Kesari, starring Akshay Kumar. Bandekar and his team — like most distributors at the time — believed that the film had the makings of a sure shot box office hit. But at the theatre’s grand opening in March, only a few trickled in.

Earlier this week, a similar scene played out as the cinema hall, located in the Goan village of Usgaon, raised its shutters for the first time since the lockdown. This time, the film’s operators chose Tamil action film Master, widely being credited for singlehandedly reviving India’s flailing cinema business. However, since opening day, only a few dozen people have visited.

Despite the 400-seat auditorium running at less than 15 per cent occupancy, the businessman remains hopeful. “Around 60 people have come so far. The response is not bad given the circumstances. Business will get better slowly,” he said.

Since its inception in 1980, Cine Kamala was popular among locals in Usgaon and its neighbouring villages because of its consistently cheap ticket prices. It was founded by late Goan businessman Jagdev Pangam, along with two other single screen cinema halls just like it in Sankhali and Valpoi. While the other two theatres folded, Cine Kamala remained with the Pangam family, even after Jagdev passed away in 2008. After the demise of his son in 2018, Jagdev’s daughter-in-law decided to lease out the cinema hall.

“My grandfather’s goal when he started this place was to give people good service at a cheap price. Even today our ticket prices are very less compared to other theatres in Goa,” said Sohan Pangam, Jagdev’s 27-year-old grandson.

Bandekar continued this tradition after he took over in 2019, and plans to lower ticket prices even further to pull in bigger audiences after the pandemic. While tickets cost between Rs 80-100 before the lockdown, he is now going to sell them between Rs 50-75. “We will have to start reconnecting with the people again,” he said, “So maybe if somebody comes and buys five tickets, we will throw in one more for free or give them a samosa or batata vada.”

In 2019, Bandekar remembers how they screened just about every genre in the book — romance, thriller, horror, comedy — before they realised that action was what got the crowds coming. Soon they were catering to full houses, screening movies like War and Baaghi 3, before the pandemic upset everything. Bandekar hopes that those days return soon. “We have nothing to lose, we need to see how quickly we can recover and if we can’t then we will have to look at an exit strategy,” he said.

Unnao, Uttar Pradesh
Estb: 1974

Saraswati Talkies has been Shuklaganj’s sole theatre for nearly fifty years. (Express photo by Pratyaksh Srivastava)

“I had plans of converting to a multiplex. Now that’s out of the question.”

Gopal Jaiswal, blazer-clad and thoughtful, observed his staff, busy washing the theatre’s lobby on a quiet Saturday afternoon. There was no audience waiting for the next show and inside, the auditorium — playing a dubbed Kannada movie, Rambo – Straight Forward — was occupied by only 15 people.

=In the pre-pandemic world, the day would have panned out differently. At least 50 per cent of the theatre would have been occupied — which according to the 52-year-old Jaiswal was enough to keep the business afloat.

For 47 years, Saraswati Talkies — located 85 km from Lucknow in Shuklaganj in Unnao — has been the suburb’s sole theatre, a household name catering to local audiences, both young and old.

“Ever since I took over from my father Jugal Kishor Jaiswal in 1994, demand has never been an issue in Shuklaganj,” said Jaiswal, “Up until now.”

According to him, the new social distancing rules allow for only 300 people to watch a film in his theatre, which can accommodate nearly double the capacity. “If the occupancy is less than 50 per cent, it equates to running the show at a loss,” he said.

But the social distancing rules are just one part of the problem. “The pandemic has an effect on the business of the production houses as well. Either they release the movies on OTT platforms like Netflix or Amazon, or have suspended their releases. Nobody is interested in watching old movies in a theatre,” he said.

Ashfaq, a 25-year-old local, agreed. “Saraswati Talkies used to be our favourite adda to hang out about a year back but OTTs and the pandemic have made it almost futile to visit a theatre to watch a movie,” he said.

With the pandemic, Jaiswal’s plans to remodel his theatre into a multiplex are on the backburner. “I had begun making preparations to convert Saraswati Talkies into a multiplex. But with the pandemic, that’s out of the question,” he said.

On a regular day, only 10-15 people end up buying tickets — sometimes even less. Yet, Jaiswal continues to run the shows, despite mounting losses. “In small towns, the most effective way to advertise is by the word of mouth. People talk about the shows playing at our theatre. If the word travels that we are shut, it will be extremely difficult to revive the business when the pandemic is over,” he said.

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