India's Single-Screen Cinemas Were Struggling Before COVID-19. Now They're Dying Out
MUMBAI — The slightly rusty metal gates of a single-screen cinema creak as they open to reveal a nearly 100-year-old white building whose curved contours and ziggurat roofline hark back to its Art Deco roots. Big silver letters proclaim its name — Central Plaza — but the letter 'T' is missing.
A placard outside the building says "House Full." The theater has been empty for more than a year, though.
"We've got very good, fond memories of this place, but at the same time it's just not possible to operate anymore," says Sharad Doshi, whose family has owned Central Plaza for more than 50 years. He officially shut the theater last spring.
For decades before multiplex cinemas came along, India had tens of thousands of single-screen movie houses. Some were large enough to seat 1,000 people. Fans flocked there to catch first-runs and reruns of old classics. The atmosphere inside was charged up: during Bollywood extravaganzas with runtimes of three hours or more, audience members danced along with their favorite film stars and threw coins at the screen in appreciation.
"You go to a multiplex, everyone's being really polite and shushing each other and you don't express yourself in any way," says Hemant Chaturvedi, a former cinematographer who documents India's remaining single-screen cinemas. "Whereas in a single-screen cinema, there was all the hooting and seat-shaking and coins being flung and people having emotional breakdowns along with the stars."
But the way Indians watch movies has changed, and these old talkies, as single-screen cinemas are sometimes called in India, have been struggling for years. Many lie abandoned, with paint peeling off their walls and bird droppings coating their floors. Some have been torn down. Now, the pandemic has forced many of those remaining to close their doors forever.
"The audience is not going to come back to us now"
Between 2010 and 2019, the number of single-screen cinemas across India dwindled from about 10,000 to less than 7,000. Dozens, like Doshi's, have announced they're shutting this year after India's deadly second wave of coronavirus infections.
When the Indian government imposed a strict lockdown in the spring of 2020, ordering all nonessential businesses to shut, Doshi says he knew his theater was doomed.
"We decided on the very first day of the closure that the audience is not going to come back to us now," Doshi says, giving a tour of his empty cinema.
The theater, which can accommodate about 500 people, smells musty and its blue foam seats are covered in dust. Posters from April 2020 — including one advertising an action film starring Vin Diesel — adorn the walls. A printed menu taped to a window shows prices for three flavors of popcorn.
"We had a very nice senior patronage here," says Doshi, explaining that older viewers preferred to come to Central Plaza because it was the only theater in the neighborhood with ground-floor seating and didn't require climbing stairs.
India's single-screen cinemas were at their peak between the 1960s and 1980s, a golden age featuring some of Indian cinema's biggest stars, including Amitabh Bachchan and Sridevi. Then the troubles arrived in waves, starting with the popularity of TV in households.
"When the first TV came, the first slump in the business came," says Doshi.
The second challenge came in the form of videotapes and VCRs. And then came the huge multiplexes, offering several movies at a time.
The single-screen theaters never recovered after that, Doshi says. Now people watch from the comfort of their couch.
"Netflix is there, Amazon Prime is there," says Doshi. "You can watch a movie on your phone. Why would you come?"
Single-screen cinemas struggle with taxes and regulations
But he and other cinema owners haven't given up without a fight.
Some cinemas resorted to screening erotic films when more family-friendly fare didn't sell enough tickets. Many owners undertook costly renovations to update their cinemas' technology.
For a few years, Doshi experimented with showing only Marathi-language or Bhojpuri-language films, trying to draw in specialized audiences. Then he started screening Hollywood movies, dubbed in regional Indian languages. But nothing could bring back the glory — or sales — of the theater's heyday.
Doshi says high taxation, especially in Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is the capital, has also been a burden. According to a 2018 report by the Producers Guild of India, cinema owners were taxed at a rate of more than 100% in some states.
Ticket prices at single-screen cinemas are low — sometimes less than a quarter of what multiplexes charge — and government regulations prevent cinema owners from developing their property to increase revenue, Doshi says.
"If I want to build a bowling alley, for example, I want to build a multipurpose entertainment place or I want to show sports on the screen, it's not allowed," Doshi says. "I have to show a film, no matter what."
What's lost when the cinemas close
"The rate at which these cinemas are being demolished, it would possibly mean that in the next 10 years or so, they may not exist at all," says Chaturvedi, the former cinematographer, who has photographed about 650 movie theaters in more than 500 Indian towns and cities since 2019 for a personal project.
"Each one has its own architectural uniqueness, unlike multiplexes which are just replicated without any emotion whatsoever," he says. "Inside, you'll find different eras of seating. Some of them still have their old projectors, so you find all kinds of old equipment. You wait to see which hero or heroine's image you're going to find on the men and women's loos, on the doors."
Chaturvedi says he has rummaged through garbage bins in abandoned theaters to recover old ticket stubs. Once, in a shuttered theater in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, he found an old reel of an erotic movie.
"You really don't know what you're going to find," he says.
Chaturvedi says before the pandemic, cinema owners were optimistic that if they could screen at least four blockbuster films throughout the year, they would survive. But the coronavirus crushed those hopes.
Now, longtime Central Plaza patrons like 41-year-old Pankaj Gole, who runs a small shop selling samosas and potato fritters a few blocks from the theater, wonder where they will go.
"There should be at least one theater that is affordable for the common man like me," says Gole. "I used to take my family to Central Plaza every Sunday, on my day off."
Meghshyam Mahimkar, 78, says Central Plaza was like a temple to him and his friends. He's lost count of the number of movies he's seen there. Nowadays, like so many others, he peers at videos on his smartphone.
There's no comparison, he says, with watching a film in a talkie — where the stranger next to you cracks a joke and the entire row erupts in laughter.
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