India's Single-screen Theatres Under Threat As Glitzy Multiplexes Boom

by VR Sreeraman on  February 17, 2009 at 1:21 PM Lifestyle News
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Ravi Muhamunkar has been a projectionist at the New Shirin Cinema in central Mumbai for the last 18 years. Some of the equipment he uses may be decades old but he is just thankful to have a job.
 India's Single-screen Theatres Under Threat As Glitzy Multiplexes Boom
India's Single-screen Theatres Under Threat As Glitzy Multiplexes Boom

As glitzy multiplexes spring up across India, often in Western-style malls, single-screen theatres such as the Shirin are under threat as movie-mad Indians change their cinema-going habits.

Harish Dave is a casualty of change. The switch from obsolete, clunky projectors to cutting-edge digital technology has left him unemployed and his traditional skills unwanted.

"They (multiplexes) have their in-house people," he said. "When I go and ask for work they say we don't need anyone. They already have their senior people working there."

The Indian film industry is the world's largest, churning out more than 1,000 films each year. Most are made in the western city of Mumbai, where the Lumiere Brothers' new-fangled moving pictures premiered back in 1896.

There are an estimated 12,000 cinemas in India. Of those, nearly 700 are multiplexes but that number is expected to more than double in the next three years, according to industry projections.

Many of the historic single screen "talkies" that helped create legends out of actors such as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan have either shut or been converted into multi-screens.

Those that remain are often shadows of their former selves, with creaking ceiling fans, ripped seats, peeling paint and dirty lavatories.

In place of the 1,000-seat Regals and Roxys with their chandeliered lobbies and 60-foot (18-metre) screens are INOXes, Adlabs and PVRs, purpose-built picture palaces with air-conditioning, plush seats and even plusher carpets.

Tickets for a matinee at the likes of the Shirin can still cost as little as 30 rupees (61 cents), going up to 70 rupees for a prime balcony seat at a sought-after Saturday evening show.

Audiences can expect to pay more than three times the top price for a seat at a sleek, suburban multiplex, with even more on expensive confectionery and popcorn. But many say it is money well spent.

"There are digital sound systems and better seats. In case we don't get seats for one theatre, we can also buy tickets for another theatre," said Mumbai cinema-goer Manisha Jhaveri.

For Nestor D'Souza, big business and profit margins are beating tradition, individuality and affordability, and it is only a matter of time before single-screen cinemas are consigned to history.

"The march of time and economic viability is finally going to be the harbinger of all this," said D'Souza, who runs the landmark Metro cinemas that opened in Kolkata in 1936 and Mumbai in 1938.

But D'Souza, a former president of the Theatre Owners' Association, also blames the complacency of single-screen bosses, who believed their prime city-centre locations guaranteed them audiences.

The changing nature of society and cinema, not to mention a thriving market for pirated DVDs offering five of the latest movies for little as 40 rupees, and perceived preferential treatment for multiplexes has also contributed.

Multiplexes, helped by the deep pockets and lobbying of their corporate backers, which often include film studios, have benefited from large tax breaks.

They can show more films, more often, making them a more lucrative proposition for distributors, D'Souza told AFP. "It hasn't been a level playing field," he said.

And whereas only four or five Bollywood blockbusters would have been shown in a year at cinemas, sometimes in 15-week runs, multiplexes and the advent of satellite and cable television have shortened the shelf-life of movies.

Maximum opening weekend takings at the box office are now the bottom line, rather than overall returns, he said.

"The social demographics are shifting. People are moving more towards the suburbs and beyond. Single screens have been concentrated in central Bombay or south Bombay," said D'Souza. "People don't want to travel back into town to see a film."

Mumbai's experience is not unique. The trend has also been seen in other major cities, from New Delhi to Kolkata, Bangalore to Chennai, he said.

The Shirin's Muhamunkar said: "The projectionists here have very good work. We all like our jobs."

Whether they keep them is by no means certain.

Source: AFP

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