Taking cinema back to Indian masses

A Government of India arm and a private company have come up with this fantastic (if implemented as conceived) idea to revive cinema watching through small-capacity theatres in small towns and villages across India. It was a part of life, watching a film in a cinema hall. For many it was the thing to do. For some, the day a new film was released and for others, every Sunday.

Besides families, a cinema hall was also the convenient place for young couples to date, a few hours of proximity with a loved one, oblivious of a few hundred others around. Dating was never more affordable and safe. In small towns, cinema was the only outing available. In these places, it did not matter that a film reached months after its metro release.

Because there was no piracy, no video and no television. A film remained a new film. Everybody was charmed by the cinema. Imagine, the fairs that small towns as well as cities had during certain annual occasions, which boasted of a tent as a cinema hall, where clippings from various films were screened, all in their 35mm glory. Bits collected from discarded old films provided the content. This tent pulled full houses!

Guess what the thrill was, it was identifying the film, the source of the clips. For very small villages with populations ranging from 10,000 to 12,000, there were touring cinemas. From a projector to chairs, all packed in a truck. The truck would visit different villages, set up a tent that accommodated as many as 1,000 people divided on both sides of the screen. But, that era has ended now.

Then the video format came, bringing along with it video piracy and the Illegal video parlours. This was the first threat that the cinemas in small towns faced. Though governments collected various taxes from cinemas, they did little to check piracy.

But, like the video player, even piracy was in its infancy and, hence, poor in quality. The cinemas survived. The people could not get cinema out of their system. The cinemas were surviving, barely though. This happiness was short-lived as the multiplex wave took over the cinema exhibition business in the country.

The authorities encouraged the growth of multiplex screens, offering them concessions such as entertainment tax holidays and others, even as the single screens were left to fend for themselves. Their old properties carried the burdens of various taxes, licences and huge entertainment taxes applicable to them. Government policies, more than the competition from multiplexes, killed the single-screen cinemas.

The cinemas in small towns were the first to close down. These cinemas as well as the one in bigger cities also catered to film lovers in the nearby villages. It was a done thing for the youth to travel to these places on a Sunday to take in three shows. It was a Sunday well spent. Then there were folks who visited a big city for an errand. It was the norm to take in a movie before taking the train back. This way, the cinemas close to railway stations enjoyed what was known as the patronage of the floating population.

Capitol Cinema as well as Maratha Mandir in Mumbai and Shiela in Delhi got this benefit. In a country with a population of 140 crore, not all can possess a television set, an internet connection, and, least of all, OTT subscriptions. Ergo, a huge population still remains deprived of enjoying cinema.

Cinema-going is now a pleasure available only to the city audience. Even in metros and cities, just a few single-screen cinemas are still standing. Film watching has been reduced to the affluent few in cities and to nobody in villages. The daily wage workers, the auto and cab drivers can’t even imagine stepping into a multiplex.

Cinema was a business of volumes. Now, with exorbitant admission rates, the masses who made a film a hit have been locked out. During the initial years of the multiplex onset, I stressed in a column I wrote in a prominent South weekly that India needs ‘janata-plexes’ with limited seats and very reasonable admission rates. Rather late in the day, a business house as well as the Government seem to have wised up to the situation.

Even though we claim that cinema binds us together as a nation and also helps spread Indian culture across the world, a lot of our own population is not privy to our films.

The government may credit the cinema industry for a lot of things, but it has never done anything to help it. It is fine to roll out box-office figures of multi-crore businesses of big films (almost invariably questionable), but, for over two decades, our films, especially the Hindi films, don’t even reach the Indian masses.

The cinemas have closed down in small towns and the multiplexes don’t find these addresses viable enough to set up cinemas there. Now, a move is being initiated to make movies available in small towns and remote villages. Common Service Centre

(CSC), a Government of India arm, has tied up with October Cinemas from Mumbai. The plan is to bring cinema back to the

villages of India.

CSC is a special purpose vehicle set up by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), registered as a company under the Companies Act of 1956. Though the CSC’s agenda also includes providing services in rural areas, one hopes that its priority remains ensuring people gain access to films.

October Cinemas and CSC plan to start with setting up 500 cinema outlets by March 2023, each with a seating capacity varying from 100 to 200. The target for 2023 is 200 cinemas and the ultimate aim is to set up one lakh cinemas.

While one can admire the idea and the purpose of the initiative, what remains to be seen is the pricing of admission rates. Also, how does the CSC and October Cinemas plan to beam the content at these cinemas considering that the CSC plans to apply for a video parlour licence! And, one must not forget that the video format is no longer available, besides the fact that the film production sector has always been against the video licence system.

If it has to be economical, it will have to be totally independent of other agencies that operate now. Self-reliance is what will determine the costs.

An earlier attempt to take cinema to remote areas was launched by Sushil Chaudhary of Picture Time, a company launched in 2015. His ‘touring talkies’ use state-of-the-art equipment. No tent here; instead, an inflatable yellow cube specially designed for better acoustics. It provides air-conditioned comfort. Plastic chairs are placed on a carpeted floor and the projection is crystal clear with Dolby sound.

Chaudhary’s expansion plans were slowed down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture Time owns 37 touring cinemas out of which 14 are operational at present in Leh (Ladakh) and the Naxal-dominated parts of Chhattisgarh. What is more, the tickets are priced in the range of Rs 30 to Rs 70. Picture Time plans to set up 15 touring cinemas in Maharashtra and another 20 in Andhra Pradesh.

Picture Time is the result of one man’s determination. CSC may have registered a company, but someone there will also need that required drive and determination.

20221211-141202

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