Final show

Print edition : January 20, 2017

A 2005 picture of the Golcha theatre, which has shut down following dwindling business. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

A view of the Ritz theatre in the Chandni Chowk neighbourhood. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

A view of the Regal theatre in Delhi. Photo: Ziya us Salam

As business dwindles in the wake of demonetisation, several iconic theatres in Delhi are on the brink of closure.

DELHI'S biggest movie theatre, Vishal, with a seating capacity of 1,401, is on the verge of closure. Aamir Khan’s latest film, Dangal, could well be the last roll of the dice at the popular theatre, which opened in 1971 with the Raaj Kumar-Priya Rajvansh-starrer Heer Ranjha. Today Vishal is grappling with dwindling business. The footfall has declined by around 60 per cent over the last couple of months. The Delhi government’s decision to raise the entertainment tax to 40 per cent already had single-screen theatres reeling. Then the Central government decided to charge a service tax, the argument being that theatres provide a service to people.

Vishal could barely weather the first two challenges. Demonetisation seems to have broken its back. Arguably the largest single-screen theatre in the country, it is set to close down on January 5. Most filmgoers here are used to purchasing their ticket at the window, unlike the multiplexes where most viewers opt for online transactions. Nearly 90 per cent of the tickets are sold at the box office unlike at the PVR chain, where cashless transactions amount to 82 per cent of total collections.

Vishal is not alone. Most single-screen theatres in and around Delhi either have closed down or are on the verge of closure. The city, which once had more than 60 movie theatres, has seen six close down since demonetisation came into effect on November 8. Another half a dozen or so are on the verge of closure. According to industry estimates, the capital may well be left with only 15 single-screen theatres by the end of the financial year if things do not improve. Cine monuments such as the iconic Regal and the hugely popular Liberty and Shiela (home to Asia’s first 70 mm screen) are looking at an uncertain future. If Liberty has cancelled many a night show, Regal and Shiela, which have not had a single houseful show since demonetisation came into effect, hope to follow in the footsteps of the multiplexes in the vicinity.

The iconic Moti theatre in Chandni Chowk, the capital’s busiest commercial hub, which once played the best of Hollywood films, had counted on blue-collar workers for business. With around 40 per cent of contractual workers having been laid off in the National Capital Region (NCR) since November 8, Moti’s business has taken a serious dent.

The theatres have lost another serious client in the wedding bandwallahs, musicians accompanying a bridegroom’s procession. This season, weddings have been a low-key affair, and with most baraats dispensing with the band, band players have been left with little disposable income to buy movie tickets.

The distributor-exhibitor Joginder Mahajan said: “Most theatres are reeling under mounting debts. The business has declined so much that they have been running losses for two months now. Moti is no different because daily wage earners form the bulk of its audience. When they have no money to buy food, how will they come to watch a film in a theatre?”

Moti is considered a premier cinema theatre of the national capital, having started its business in pre-Independence days. It once counted nobles of the walled city as its patrons. Today, it plays dubbed versions of Tamil and Telugu action films. Big-budget Hindi films such as Dangal are out of its reach. With demonetisation resulting in the reduction of audience numbers in a major way, Moti had to cancel some night shows in November and December. Moti’s loyal patrons, immigrant workers, have been returning to their places of origin.

Ritz, located about a kilometre from Moti, is facing the prospect of dwindling business and possible closure. The theatre, which is close to the Old Delhi railway station and the Inter-State Bus Terminus, is now running on borrowed time. According to its proprietor, V.N. Seth, the cinema hall had to cancel night shows in December as “not even a dozen tickets could be sold”.

“We are still running the theatre to maintain our reputation. Otherwise, demonetisation has severely impacted our business. We were already under stress after the entertainment tax was increased. We hoped to compensate for that with better films and bigger audiences. But with a money crunch in the market, our business is suffering.”

Ritz is among Delhi’s oldest theatres. It was started in 1932 and was originally called Capital. It was rechristened as Ritz a decade later with the screening of Jawaab on November 1, 1942. Over the years, Ritz carved out a niche for itself. Its eight-seat boxes were reserved for women. In days gone by, burqa-clad women from the walled city used to come to watch films away from the prying eyes of neighbourhood men. Today, they too have stopped coming.

“When women are not getting enough cash to run the kitchen, how will they save for a movie?” Seth asked. “Youngsters have taken to watching films on their mobile phones. Every time you board the metro, you see young men and women watching films on their mobiles. With cash being a problem since November 8, why would a businessman, here for a deal, spend money on a movie ticket? Mobile films are available for free.”

Golcha shut down

If Moti and Ritz are teetering, Golcha, which was once the pride of the city, has already shut down. Unable to take mounting losses, it first began cancelling night shows. Then, when even Friday and weekend shows failed to attract a good audience, its proprietors decided to draw the curtains on the theatre that once played Guru Dutt’s romantic social Chaudhvin ka Chand. Back in 1960, the print of K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam arrived at Golcha on elephant back, in keeping with the film’s regal setting.

When Golcha decided to call it a day, it was left with only a few die-hard movie buffs, most of them with meagre savings. N.R. Saini, Golcha’s manager for over 40 years, said: “What can one do with multiple challenges at the same time? First, the AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] government was indifferent to our plight. Then the Centre imposed a service tax. Everybody wanted a share of our rupee. Then Modi decided to invalidate high-denomination notes. Suddenly, there was panic among people about what might happen next. They decided to hold on to their limited cash rather than watch a film.”

Golcha completed its diamond jubilee in 2014, having opened in 1954 with the release of Sant Kabir. The theatre was inaugurated by Vice President Dr S. Radhakrishnan. When the curtains came down for the last time, the theatre’s audience consisted of local shopkeepers who had hopped across because of lack of business in their premises.

Vishal, Moti, Ritz, Golcha…. the list keeps growing as the queues at the turnstiles keep getting shorter. Indeed, single–screen theatres across Delhi are bearing the brunt of demonetisation. While PVRs and other big chain multiplexes are trying to ride out the fall in business, single-screen halls are facing an existential crisis because of the nature of their business. Today, a multiplex can afford to sell 55 grams of Argentine corn for Rs.160 (the corn is procured for around Rs.110 a kilogram) but single-screen theatres do not enjoy that luxury. Their audiences are often blue-collar workers whose purchasing power is limited. Many of the halls have admission tickets costing as little as Rs.25. And the viewers cannot be expected to shell out more than Rs.10 for a bread pakora. Further, many of the loyal filmgoers are immigrant workers who prefer action films with big stars. Post-demonetisation not many big-budget films are sold to single-screen theatres. Worse, in many segments, including the textile, leather and glass industries, workers have been laid off. As a consequence, thousands of workers have returned to their small towns in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Those who have remained have little disposable income.

Little wonder then that theatres such as Lokesh in Nangloi, Aakash in Adarsh Nagar, Samrat in Shakur Basti and Supreme in Kanti Nagar have all shut down one after the other since November 8. They all catered to the lowest common denominator or what is known in trade parlance as “the front-benchers’ first day, first show crowd”. Aakash often played Bhojpuri films keeping in mind the preponderance of workers from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the region. Samrat, which once showed films for as low as 63 paise, used to show Haryanvi films once in a while in order to cater to workers from Kurukshetra, Sonepat and Rohtak.

Another theatre that is likely to join the “dead-and-gone” list is Seble in Badarpur. It was set up by Ranjit Singh Seble, who piloted the concept of moving theatres in the city.

Seble theatre

Seble too is losing its battle to demonetisation. “The business is severely affected. Those who say 10-15 per cent business is affected by demonetisation are underestimating the losses. In some cases it is up to 60 per cent if you count the fact that people who would otherwise go to a hall are now watching films, even pirated films, at home or on their mobiles. It cuts us both ways. First demonetisation has taken away the money from the market. Then these things have provided an alternative, even if it is illegal. I do not know for how long we can manage Seble. Maybe soon, we will have to stop the show,” Seble said.

This is particularly grave when one realises that Seble cinema was reduced to ashes in the riots following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Seble built it back from scratch. He could withstand the 1984 riots but Seble theatre may not survive the November 8 “bomb”, as a staffer put it.

Swarn theatre at Kanti Nagar, which resumed business a few years ago under the new name Supreme, was also burnt down in 1984. Over a period of time, it picked up the pieces. But demonetisation has rendered all the efforts futile.

“We met Arvind Kejriwal on behalf of the Indian National Motion Pictures Association [INMPA], but to no avail. We met officials from the Centre, too. Now with demonetisation hitting every industry, who do we turn to for relief?” asked Seble, who is the vice president of the INMPA. Joginder Mahajan said: “There is no relief, no hope from any quarter. One by one the halls are closing. Many theatres have been iconic, but today it is a question of bread and butter.”

With bigwigs of the trade looking for succour, one cannot help recall a scene from the early 1970s when the Hindu devotional film Jai Santoshi Maa was screened at Vishal theatre. It was common to see women first bow in front of a huge picture of Santoshi Mata and then take off their slippers before entering the theatre. They would take along incense sticks and marigold garlands and bow in reverence when the popular devotional song, “Main to aarti utarun re, Santoshi Mata ki” would play.

Vishal and other single-screen theatres in Delhi could do with a prayer or two today.