Delhi’s single-screen cinemas inch closer to the final curtain call


©Wani Ishtiaq


Aman Singh Verma is counting the money he got for his last show. “Eleven hundred,” he says out loud.

An accountant at Regal Cinema in Connaught Place since 1977, Verma has seen ups and downs in the business, but has always remained content. Today, he is a worried man. Once among the most famous single screen cinemas in Delhi, the Regal attracts hardly any visitors these days.

“Those days are gone,” says Verma, referring to the era when the Regal lived up to its name, bustling with cinemagoers.

As he sits in his dimly-lit room, with ledgers piled high on the table, Verma’s phone rings repeatedly. His answer remains the same. “Scandal is playing this week.” Outside the theatre, a row of posters advertising Scandal, a B-grade Bollywood offering, are pasted on the pillars.

Verma is one of the many who are associated with single screen cinemas in Delhi. Once proud of their association, they are now used to empty halls. The number of visitors to single screen cinemas has been dwindling ever since Delhi’s first multiplex, now called PVR Priya, opened in Saket in 1997. The subsequent mushrooming of multiplexes and malls in every corner forced the smaller single-screen theatres to shut down. But now the bigger ones are also losing to multiplex culture. Attempts at survival are proving to be ineffective. Even after renovating the cinemas, installing latest technologies, and keeping the price of tickets to minimum, these cinemas find themselves inching towards the end.

“This is not multiplex and we don’t have food outlets here, so you cannot spend more time than the show time,” says Shrawan Kumar, manager at Abhishek Cineplex, in the heart of the old city’s Chandni Chowk market.

Earlier known as Kumar Cinema, a change of management and renovation has not been able to restore the theatre to its lost glory. Costs of running the shows exceed the collection from weeks. Only 29 seats are occupied out of the 289 for the afternoon show of the dubbed Independence Day: Resurgence movie.

But when blockbusters such as the recent Salman Khan-starrer Sultan release, the mood brightens for at least a few days. “Whenever it is a big name, chances are we would run full-house,” says Shrawan Kumar.

Equations with distributors have changed too. They set the terms now, whether they want to rent the cinema or ask for an advance. Cinemas accept it even if they get a small percentage. “Distributors ask for an advance now, there used to be a time when they were trying to bribe us to screen their movies,” says Verma.

Kumar, who has spent a lifetime working with single-screen theatres, has no idea what the future holds. He remembers his stint at Chanakya in Chanakyapuri, starting in 1969 and the movies he played there, from Mera Naam Joker to T aare Zameen Par.

He joined Abishek Cineplex in 2009, one month before it was reopened. “After Chanakya closed, I worked with other single screen theatres and finally settled here.”

Kumar’s colleague, Vijay Kumar Puri, feels that the cinemas will close down unless they change into multiplexes. Both point to the nub of the matter – that today’s theatres have transcended their meaning as places only for movies.

At Regal, Verma echoes the sentiment. “We have sent a proposal to change into a multiplex, we cannot survive if we are not getting anything back,” he says. He has collected 1.40 lakh last week. The restaurant in the cinema is also running into losses.

Chandni Chowk’s Moti cinema has started showing only Bhojpuri films, to draw in a crowd of migrant rickshaw-pullers and daily wage labourers who work in the market.

Unlike Regal and Abishek Cineplex, there is a queue of gamcha-wearing rickshaw pullers and daily-wage labourers outside Chandni Chowk’s other single-screen theatre, Moti. A Bhojpuri movie, Kashi, is playing. Moti stopped playing Bollywood movies a few years ago. “From last six years only Bhojpuri movies are played here, catering to audience speaking the language,” says Kirite Desai, the owner of the cinema.

The 780-seat hall is filled 40 per cent. Compared to other cinemas, ticket prices are low here and the highest price for a ticket is Rs 85.

Inside Desai’s room, a painting of Raj Kapoor hangs from the wall behind him. Trophies of famous movies are kept on a table. The first trophy in the line is of the movie, Beta, starring Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit . In the waiting hall, a poster of the same movie is covered in dust.

“We started our distribution business with that movie,” says Desai. That business, however, had to be closed down.

In the coming months, the owner of the building which houses Moti wants to build a commercial shopping centre there.

“Moti will be history then,” says Desai.


Story published in Hindustan Times,

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