As single screen theatres in the South struggle to survive the pandemic, they rely on old favourites — from Kamal Haasan’s ‘Kalaignan’ to Vijayakanth’s ‘Karimedu Karuvayan’ — that still draw crowds
When the Tamil Nadu Government passed a directive allowing theatres to function at full capacity ahead of the release of Vijay’s Master in January, the decision, which was later rebuked, was largely perceived as a signal for the return of normalcy by the Tamil Nadu Theatre Association, in a bid to revive lost business.
Four months and a handful of releases later, it appears there has not been much of an improvement, now that the Tamil Nadu Government has rolled back to 50% capacity in new restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. While the sharks (read: multiplexes) barely managed to surf through, it is the small fish (single-screens) that seemed to have suffered most of the onslaught.
Movies you can count on
South India’s first cinema hall, Variety Hall as it was called, was constructed in Coimbatore in 1914. Now known as Delite Theatre, the single-screen theatre boasts of a legacy of witnessing several transitions in and outside of cinema.
It was among the earliest to introduce the concept of tentkotta (tent cinema), wherein a tent was erected for the audience to sit on the floor and watch. Benches and chairs were put up and were later replaced by sofas with a balcony, as there was an ever-burgeoning demand for cinema.
The theatre has seen films from the silent era, which were taken over by talkies; the conversion of film-reel projection to digital cinema, and has also survived the influx of multiplex cinema. Today, it serves as a remnant of the city’s past with cinema, as it attempts to adapt by screening reruns of old movies.
Not just Delite, but two other single-screen theatres in Coimbatore — Naaz Theatre and Shanmuga Theatre — have been screening yesteryear hits of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan from their archives, to keep the business afloat.
According to G Navamani, an employee at Delite Theatre, these films draw a crowd even today. “We cannot afford new movies as it is mandatory to run four shows, which is not feasible for us. Though we have Qube technology [digital projection] as well as the old projector, most new movies like Master are taken off from Qube’s platform in a month’s time after release. So, we resort to old movies which are screened using the projector,” explains Navamani.
The responses for movies such as Nattamai (1994), Sakalakala Vallavan (1982) and Muthu (1995) have been heartening with an audience of over 100 people in a 600-seat capacity hall. “Reruns of Kamal Haasan’s Kalaignan (1993) and Vijayakanth’s Karimedu Karuvayan (1985) were big hits,” she says, adding that tickets are priced at ₹45 and ₹90 for the two shows at 2 pm and 6pm.
Artist V Jeevananthan, author of National Award-winning book Thiraiseelai on cinema, has watched Sholay, Enter the Dragon, Aradhana, and Yaadon Ki Baarat at Delite. “I remember watching Sholay on the first day, 50th day, 100th day and 150th day. Shanmugha Theatre still shows MGR’s Aayirathil Oruvan and Enga Veetu Pillai to a handful of 10 or 15 people.”
Some of the old players like Royal Theatres, one of the first in the city to introduce reruns with MGR films, prefer to wait and watch, and have closed operations for now.
Survival of the fortunate
Mounting debts and financial crunches forced some of the single-screen theatres to convert their properties or call it quits altogether. Like the 50-year-old Shanti Theatre at Narayanguda, Hyderabad, which raised a few eyebrows when it announced in November 2020 that it will shut down operations permanently, owing to losses. However, in mid-February 2021, the property reopened with the Telugu film Check, directed by Chandra Sekhar Yeleti.
“We have 20 people working with us and indirectly, 50 families depend on the income generated from the theatre. We requested the owner to keep the theatre running, in the hope that things will limp back to normalcy,” says N Balakrishna, the theatre manager.
The pandemic-induced lockdown forced Chennai’s Casino Theatre, one of the iconic single-screens in the city which breathed a new lease of life in August 2019, to convert its space for parking when the lockdown restrictions were eased in July last year. The 80-year-old theatre was surviving as a hand-to-mouth business, until the situation moderately improved when Master released with 50% occupancy.
With newer restrictions in place, single-screen theatres are fighting a lonely battle for footfalls; some of them attribute this to the lack of star-backed films. “The noon show for the recently-released Wild Dog [starring Nagarjuna] had to be cancelled because there was no audience. The losses can only be recovered when we have a star’s release,” says the spokesperson for Casino.
Master, which many believe to be the biggest release till date, largely helped revive the business of Bengaluru’s Mukunda theatre in Banaswadi. One of the oldest cinema halls in the city, the theatre has been predominantly screening Tamil films due to the large Tamil population in the area, since its opening in 1976. “The recent releases — Puneeth Rajkumar’s Yuvarathnaa (Kannada) and Karthi’s Sulthan (Tamil) — are doing well, too,” says Bharani V, a representative.
But as COVID cases surge in Bengaluru, the Government has asked the theatres to roll back to 50% occupancy. “Just as things were starting to look better, there is a new obstacle. There are a few big releases in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi lined up for April. But we are now back to a state of uncertainty,” he says.
The alarming rise in the number of COVID cases in the second wave, is keeping families and audiences away from cinemas, believes RS Devdas, owner of Ajantha Theatre, Thiruvananthapuram. Only months before lockdown had Devdas spent nearly a crore to renovate the theatre, which has a rich history of playing classics such as The Sound of Music, Mackenna’s Gold, Oliver Twist, Rathinirvedam and Chithram to mention a few.
While there are whispers that suggest that the situation might improve by Onam for Malayalam cinema, there is palpable tension about another lockdown, “It is too early to comment about that and these are still early days to plan ahead. I can do three or four shows with two different films but I can’t screen more than that,” says Devdas.
Now, with few films and fewer crowds, single screen theatres are finding ways to stay relevant in the business.
With inputs from Sangeetha Devi Dundoo, Jeshi K, Praveen Sudevan and Saraswathy Nagarajan