With over 10 new Bengali film releases lined up for theatrical release this Durga Puja, theatre owners in West Bengal were an optimistic lot. However, sparse crowds that marked the first day of Puja releases has come as a dampener.
A few theatre owners and distributors stated that the number of movie goers were abysmally low.
“We saw very scanty audience. I don’t think even the electricity bill can be recovered, let alone the staff or the maintenance” said Ajoy Jain Bakliwal, distributor and owner of single-screen cinemas across West Bengal.
The October 15 reopening date is very close to the Durga Puja festivities (starting from October 22). For Bengalis, the four-day festival of Durga Puja is the most keenly awaited time of the year. Besides the festivities, pandal hopping and catching up with friends and families; it is also the time when movie goers await the special lineup of Pujo releases. In keeping with the tradition of Pujo releases, every year, producers and directors release their best works during this time to attract the most number of viewers.
On Monday, the Calcutta High Court ordered that pujo pandals across West Bengal will be made into no entry zones for public, after expressing apprehension that overcrowding in pandals will lead to an “uncontrollable” rise in the number of Covid-19 cases in the state during the festive season. While this comes as a massive blow for revellers, it is reason enough for them to flock to theatres and catch the new releases.
The Calcutta High Court’s order may spell disastrous for theatre owners as well.
“During the festive season, people would usually go pandal hopping in the morning, then have lunch somewhere and then plan to watch a movie. But in this case, the plan has to be changed and how many people respond is very important. Basically, we have to wait and analyse things. It’s just going on a trial and error method,” said Ajanta Cinema owner Satadeep Saha.
“But the losses cannot be compensated. There are so many factors working in this. There have been 10 releases yesterday, but out of that only one or two are big budget movies. Otherwise, all eight of them are small budget. So, there was no buzz for the rest of the movies. We have our stars like Dev, Jeet, Prosenjit, but they don’t have any movies this year for Pujo, so we need a boost things like good movies and good content. Only then will people be interested in visiting theatres,” he added.
Asked if these films are pulling in families or small groups of audiences, Bakliwal said: “Only youngsters are mostly coming. The families are not coming, they are still avoiding crowded places. People feel haunted when there are just five-six people in a 900 capacity single-screen hall. So who will come? It is uncomfortable.”
Commenting along the same lines, Saha said: “Mostly youngsters are coming. According to the SOP provided by the Centre, only 50% capacity is allowed now and the occupancy should be on alternative seats. So if a father and a young son visit, it’s peculiar for them to sit apart. Many people aren’t following the restrictions, even if we ask them to sit apart, they change seats the moment we are not looking. So the SOP doesn’t really make sense to me.”
Theatre owners say that OTT platforms have been a great competition during the lockdown.
“Youngsters are also avoiding because OTT is available to them, there are so many options. I think if they find anything that is really good, only then will they go to theatres. Due to the amount of web series available on the OTT platforms, the concept of big stars has changed in the lockdown. They prioritise good content over big heroes now. If the content is good, then they will come,” said Bakliwal.
When asked if recently content has been more of a priority over big stars, Saha said: “Yes definitely! We have seen that in the last seven months and I feel that the audience’s taste is changing.”
Sceptical over the turnout in the next few days, Priya Cinemas owner Arijit Ghosh said: “I don’t see any crowd on the roads. I don’t know how it is going to be. Even in the evening, there was no crowd, so I think this is having a reverse effect. I will have to take a call whether to run the theatres or close them down. Nobody cares about the SOP, nobody listens if you ask them to sit one seat apart, and honestly, we can’t interrupt every five minutes. All the movies crashed, not even one has done better than the other.”
While the first day since reopening has been a big failure, theatre owners are still hopeful of the coming weekend which happens to be the three main days of the festival: saptami, ashtami and navami.