The Tamil Nadu government on Monday passed an order to allow theatres in the State to function with 100% seating capacity, up from the earlier 50% occupancy. With this order, Tamil Nadu becomes the first state in India to allow 100% occupancy since the Covid-19 pandemic measures were enforced.
The decision comes days ahead of a number of big-budget film releases, including Vijay‘s Master on January 13 and Silambarasan‘s Eeswaran on January 14. Master, directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj and starring Vijay Sethupathi, Andrea Jeremiah, and Malavika Mohanan, will be the first major Tamil film to opt for a theatre release, after Covid-19 related lockdown restrictions were lifted in Tamil Nadu.
According to the government order, theatres will be allowed to function with 100% seating capacity while following the standard operating procedure (SOP) issued earlier. The order also states that theatres must screen precautionary measures for Covid-19 during the show, to create awareness among the audience.
The order is a response to a representation from the Theatre Owners Association, who had asked for an increase in seating capacity of cinema halls, in light of the decrease in the number of Covid-19 cases in the State.
Theatres in the State were reopened with 50% seat occupancy on November 10.
The move has raised concerns among several health officers. Speaking to Silverscreen India, Dr Manoj Murhekar, the Director of National Institute of Epidemiology, felt that it would create a high-risk situation.
“In terms of numbers, we are seeing a decline consistently in the last two-three months. The number of cases are certainly low. But opening theatres with 100% occupancy, I am not really sure if it is the right decision. Because some demographics can be susceptible and people can get infected as there will be a lot of exposure. There could be another outbreak due to that,” he said.
Dr Murhekar also said that a decrease in the number of cases did not mean that functioning at full capacity was at all advisable. He said, “There is a risk with people sitting for three hours in an air-conditioned place. I personally feel that it is a high-risk situation. People can get infected. There have been instances with people in an air conditioned-room and the transmission there is much higher. People should be really consider whether they want to go or not.”
President of the Tamil Nadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners’ Association, Tirupur Subramaniam, however welcomed the decision and thanked the Tamil Nadu government. He told Silverscreen India, “We welcome this decision. We suffered a lot in 2020. Theatres could not function well. However, we expect 2021 to be bright for us. People have been suffering and stuck at their homes attending online classes. Now, when they step out, it will be a refreshing entertainment for them.”
When asked about the health risks posed by the move, he said, “We are screening Aayirathil Oruvan now and it is running house-full with 50% occupancy. There have been no issues at all.”
While other industries in Tamil Nadu have been functioning with 100% occupancy, the theatre industry has been at 50% occupancy. Rakesh, owner of Vetri Theatres in Chennai, told Silverscreen India, “We had represented to the Tamil Nadu government asking for 100% occupancy since the commercials were not working out with the existing 50% occupancy. With a big budget film like Master releasing, the budget cannot be covered with 50% occupancy. The first one week is the main business. So if there is only 50% occupancy during this one week then the collections also get halved.”
According to Rakesh, the frequency of the shows may decrease now. “Cleaning between each show will take more time now since every seat and armrest will have to be wiped. We will need more time between shows. Screening frequency may be decreased depending on a movie’s runtime. Earlier, just half an hour was enough for cleaning after a show. Now we may need an hour,” he said.
According to some media reports, actor Vijay had met with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami last week to request that cinema halls be permitted to run with 100 % seating capacity.