100 Single Screens Across India May Shut After COVID-19 Lockdown

India’s single-screen movie halls are in the fast lane to fade out due to COVID lockdown.

Updated
Cinema
7 min read
Dreamland theatre in Mumbai.
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At a modest estimate, 100 single screen cinemas across India, of them at least 25 in Mumbai -- the hub of Bollywood -- are expected to down their shutters following the loss of revenue under the impact of COVID-19.

Add to that, the long-standing apathy of the powers-that-be to green-light their plaint for loans and incentives.

Nitin Dattar, veteran President of the Theatre Owners Association, Mumbai, confirms this, adding, “The number could be higher unless there’s a miracle. We have petitioned the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and sent a copy to the Prime Minister of India, but there has been no response yet – that’s natural perhaps because the priority is to combat the coronavirus right now.”

Innumerable small cinemas were on the verge of closing down, in any case, he asserts. To the question, will the state government respond to the petition, he replies tersely, “I don’t have much hope but then clutching on to hope is the only straw in the wind for us right now. What’s to be done in a system when popcorn sales are more important than ticket collections?”

Ask Mr Dattar which single-screeners are likely to never operate again, and he regretfully mentions Mumbai’s cushy single-screen Dreamland cinema, which has hosted scores of premieres of blockbuster hits like Khilona, Tohfa, Sargam, Shahenshah and Krantiveer ever since the 1970s.

Back in the 1950s, it was known as the Krishna Talkies, complete with a quaint family circle – viewers who were accompanied by a woman would get discounted rates on tickets in reserved rows.

Eventually, Krishna was redeveloped and named Dreamland, equipped with a swishy tea lounge and soda fountain for the viewers who patronised the balcony seats. The family circle was abolished. A nearabout 850-seater situated in the populous Girgaum, off Grant Road, Dreamland’s business had plummeted drastically in recent years, exacerbated by the closure of cinemas on the outbreak of COVID-19 in March.

Sahakar Plaza in Chembur, Mumbai.
Sahakar Plaza in Chembur, Mumbai.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

The lights will never go up either at the single-screener Sahakar Plaza cinema in Chembur, established in 1971. Girgaum’s homely 84-year-old Central Plaza cinema, has announced its pack-up too. Its co-owner Sharad Doshi has gone on to record to lament that the the state government has been granting incentives to the multiplexes but have ignored the single screens entirely, even though some of the vintage theatres were redolent of the history of Marathi and Hindi cinema.

Meanwhile, the iconic Vijay Chitra Mandir, Narayanpeth in Pune, inaugurated way back on August 14 on the eve of the nation’s Independence Day, 1947, has announced its closure. Pune’s Ratan Chitra Mandir, at Budhwar Peth, has also thrown in the towel.
Eros cinema hall opposite Churchgate station, Mumbai.
Eros cinema hall opposite Churchgate station, Mumbai.
(Photo: Khalid Mohamed)

Before the pandemic, Mumbai, in the last two years had witnessed the closure of single-screeners Chitra at Dadar and the iconic Eros cinema, a stunning art-deco structure, opposite Churchgate railway station. And it’s been years since the curtains fell on the gorgeously upholstered Naaz, Apsara, Novelty, Shalimar, Minerva and Swastik in close proximity to one another in south Bombay. Plus Parvati in Vasai shut shop, too.

The Regal cinema, also an art deco marvel in Colaba– started in 1933 and said to be India’s first air-conditioned theatre -- which has been long-suffering losses annually -- was also heading towards its end. However, trade sources point out that the family trust, which runs it, has so far been unable to take a final call.

Regal cinema in South Mumbai.
Regal cinema in South Mumbai.
(Photo: Pintrest)

Similarly, the art deco landmark, Liberty cinema built in 1947 on Marine Lines, was soldiering on thanks to the tenacity of its owner Nazir Hoosein, who however, passed away last year. Yet it is expected that the show will go on, at the Liberty which had become a go-to venue for Bollywood film shootings and international film festivals.

Right now the most vulnerable single screeners in the city appear to be Super, Alfred, Nishat, Royal and Moti cinemas, which encircle the city’s infamous red-light area of Falkland Road.

Mostly screening Bhojpuri fare and the umpteenth re-runs of the actions thrillers of Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty, as well as Dilip Kumar classics, their footfalls have fallen steadily. They are in a state of limbo since the lockdown imposed in the state on March 21. After the easing of the lockdown, cinema halls continue to remain shuttered as per state government directives.

Imperial cinema in Mumbai.
Imperial cinema in Mumbai.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

In addition, there is Imperial cinema on Lamington Road which for want of an audience and regular film supply from the distributors, has been screening dubbed Hollywood actioners and semi-porn films. Its fate is merely a toss of a coin.

Overall in India, the number of single-screeners has reduced from 7,031 in 2016 to 6,327, according to the KPMG Media and Entertainment Industry Report. Official statistics also maintain that for every 200 new multiplex screens, 150 single screens have to close down.

Cost Involved When Cinema Halls Reopen

Whenever cinemas are permitted to re-open will entail higher costs and maintenance.

  • Sanitising an auditorium after every show will be difficult if not impossible, given the cost factors.
  • Social distancing is another dilemma. Can it be executed in practical terms?
  • With no new films being shot for months, fresh content, next year, are expected to be a trickle.
  • Migrant workers who have left Mumbai for their villages in U.P., Bihar and Nepal are returning to the city, but in decimated numbers. They and blue-collar employees are the main patrons of the single-screeners, motivated by the low ticket prices, ranging from Rs 20 to Rs 100, particularly in the industrial neighbourhoods.
  • Every theatre, be it single-screeners or at the multiplexes have to still receive the refund of the tax entertainment exemptions granted to the mega-hits Uri:The Surgical Strike and Tanhaji. Tickets were sold tax-free but the full amount of a ticket had to be deposited a the state exchequer. The refund, believed to be a hefty amount, is still pending.

The Quint sought to elicit reactions from a section of the city’s film industry. Second-generation film producer and distributor of NN Sippy Productions, Pravesh Sippy, stated emotionally, “My childhood Fridays were spent in these single screen cinemas. Now so many have shut down and many more are certainly on their way to closure. In fact, unbeknownst to many, several single screens have already been sold and are on the verge of shutting down nationwide as the pandemic has taken its toll. The daily expenses and staff salaries have become unaffordable. There is no support from the government – as in the UK for example – to help them stay afloat.”

“As many as 25 lakh migrant workers who were the mainstay of the single screeners have left the city. How many will be back? Moreover, there will be no content to feed the demand.”
Pravesh Sippy

Prominent distributor Rajesh Thadani was more optimistic, saying, “It will all depend on what rules are decreed for the re-opening of cinemas. Under the current scenario, we will have to wait and watch patiently.”

According to J Popat, exhibitor-cum programmer at Fun Fiesta in Nallasopara, “Single screens will not be able to afford extra expenses. Neither can they afford to change their Food and Beverage systems. Those who don’t have deep wallets will shut down for sure.”

A CEO of a multiplex franchise, on the condition of anonymity, remarked, “Multiplex chains have already lost upwards of Rs. 1,000 to Rs 1,500 crore. We are in the dark about the procedures to be followed in the future. Only out of hearsay, it is being said that the cinemas may re-open around the Diwali festival, or around the time schools and colleges start functioning again from the campus.”

The OTT platforms are fast becoming a viable option to cinema-going. The CEO doesn’t agree to that readily, emphasising that, “Cinema-going is an outing, an experience. And there is plenty of content that will be shown at the cinema halls – eagerly-anticipated films like Laxmmi Bomb, Kaali Peeli, Sooryavanshi, 83 and Radhe, for example.”

What about the worst-kept secret in the film trade right now? Talk has been rife that the multiplex owners and business tycoons are buying up single screen properties across India for a song. The land grab, as it were, amounts to a foresighted investment. The smaller cinemas could be converted to multiplexes, high-rises and malls in the future. To that the CEO retorts sharply, “Really? I have no clue about that.”

Hundreds if not thousands of cinema employees across India are facing the spectre of unemployment. The ‘regular’ on-the-rolls staff is being paid, it is claimed, but already the contractual employees, like canteen workers, the security guards and ushers, have been mostly axed.

To cite a tragic incident, 52-year-old Bhaskar, a projection operator at the Prasad IMAX in Hyderabad, was receiving only half his pay packet since lockdown. Employees were lately informed that from next month, they won’t get any salary. Reportedly, on 11 September, Bhaskar committed suicide.

Dreams were made at the movie halls once. Call it a sign of the times but today the grand old movie parlours, like Mumbai’s Dreamland, are on the extra-fast-lane towards a fade-out.

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