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Will Durga Puja Film Releases Help Revive Cinema Halls in Bengal?

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For theatre owners in West Bengal, scheduling films in the state’s single and multi-screen theatres has always been a challenge during the the four-day festive season of Durga Puja. This year though, with 12 Bengali films awaiting a theatrical release, screens are banking on the festival to revive ticket sales after having their shutters closed for almost seven months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the Central government giving a green light to open theatres across the country from October 15, some theatres are re-releasing films that made their debut on over-the-top (OTT) platforms. Most others are re-releasing films whose screenings were halted when the lockdown was implemented.

A total of 10 of the 12 Bengali films, starring popular actors like Nusrat Jahan and Mimi Chakraborty, are slated to release between October 15 and October 22. They include films like Dracula Sir, Saheber Cutlet and SOS Kolkata. Two films, Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti and Parcel, will be re-releasing on October 21. Both the films’ screening were halted in March as the nation went on a lockdown. Theatres have also planned to re-release popular Hindi movies.

Some single-screen theatre owners in West Bengal are sceptical of this collective 12 film-release in such a short time span.

“A week after Durga Puja, theatres will have not have new releases lined up. The movies should instead be spread out over time,” said Gautam Dey, manager at Lali Cinema in Barasat.

Hindi releases

As a tribute to actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who died by suicide in June, some theatre will be re-rereleasing his past works.

Rajender Singh Jyala, chief programming officer at Inox Leisure Limited, says that Inox will be re-releasing Rajput’s 2019 movie Chhichhore. Satadeep Saha, head of Ajanta Cinema in Behala, says that they will be releasing Kedarnath, a 2018 film starring Rajput and Sara Ali Khan, on October 15. 

In places like Asansol, in West Burdwan district, and the coal belt in Birbhum district; which have a large audience for Hindi and Bhojpuri film, Bengali cinema find very few takers. Lack of new Hindi releases have forced theatre owners here to re-release Hindi films. 

Ajoy Bakliwal, distributor for 12 single-screen theatre halls in places like Durgapur, Barasat, and Asansol, says that although a lot of attention is being given to re-releases, it is unlikely to be a crowd puller. “Repeat films generally do not run in theatres. Why will anyone pay for what is now free. Until it’s a super-duper hit film, there’s no value in re-release,” he says. 

Problems with SOP

Although theatre owners are welcoming the Centre’s move to finally re-open theatres, many say that the guideline of reducing seating capacity by 50% is the biggest drawback. Citing the examples of Singapore, China, and Japan where seating capacity was gradually increased, other owners are hopeful of recovering losses by reopening with the reduced seating capacity, which might eventually increase.

The film market in West Bengal is heavily dependent on releases from the Hindi and South film industries. Ajoy Bakliwal who is also the lessee proprietor of Lali Cinema Barasat, Bakliwal Pictures Private Limited, and proprietor of Ajoy Movies, says that unless these film industries function in full swing, markets in Bengal will be heavily affected.

Even within Kolkata, theatre owners are in two minds about re-opening halls as they are afraid of continued losses. Minar, Bijoli and Chhabighar- three major theatres- have decided not to open doors on October 15 as it would translate to recurring expenditure. 

Some owners feel that the release of films on OTT platforms may have dulled the charm of watching movies on the big screen for movie goers. Ajanta Cinema’s Saha says that if producers had the financial ability to donate Rs 25 crore to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund to tackle Covid-19, they could have waited for the theatres to re-open instead of resorting to OTT platforms to make money. 

Theatre owners are planning to strictly enforce the SOPs issued by the government, including provision of sanitisers, maintaining social distancing, and enforcement of strict hygiene rules. They want their customers to be ambassadors of the new movie-going experience, they say.

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