The Lost Era Of Single Screen Cinemas

An Interior Shot Of The Ritz Single-Screen Cinema In New Delhi

Watching films on the big screen had become something of a weekend ritual during my childhood. I lived in a cozy one-bedroom apartment in South Delhi; my father had an office on the floor above us. Every Saturday, after a quick lunch, he would wrap up his work and run downstairs. We would head down to Chanakya Cinema, a single screen theatre ten minutes away from home, and one of the biggest in New Delhi with a seating capacity of over a thousand people. One would think that a late afternoon slot would attract thin crowds, but as we found out one day, this was far from true.

The year was 1998 and my mother had given into the charms of the Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, like millions of women in the country at that time. His new film Duplicate had come out the previous week and my mother was itching to see it. My father was certain that we would find ourselves a seat on the spot; it was an extremely hot Saturday afternoon after all, and the film had been out for a week. The fact that we found the theatre full for the next three days, with tickets in black being sold for more than quadruple the price, says as much about the popularity of the cinema hall as it does about Shah Rukh Khan. My father begrudgingly ended up paying Rs.150 (2.50$) for a ticket that would’ve otherwise cost us Rs.40. In all those years of single-screen dominance, the price remained the same; Rs.40 for the balcony ticket, Rs.20 for popcorn. A family of four could happily watch a film and feed themselves at the swanky new Nirula’s restaurant on the ground floor of the theatre by spending less than Rs.300 (5$).

That of course, is the average price of a single ticket in a multiplex today.

Rise Of The Mammoths

The multiplex era began in India thanks to the well-known Bijli family, owners of the good old Priya Cinema in the Vasant Vihar area of New Delhi. They launched the first PVR theatre in the country, in association with an Australian media company called Village Roadshow (which is where PVR gets its ‘VR’ from). With multiple centrally air-conditioned halls, caramelized popcorn, recliner seats and the absence of pigeons on the roof, these multiplexes revolutionized cinema-viewing in India, albeit at an exorbitant price designed to rake in huge amounts of profits.

Interior Shot Of A PVR Director's Cut Theatre Cinema Hall

PVR’s Director’s Cut Theatre is one of the most luxurious (and expensive) theatres in the city. (photograph from PVR official)

Single screen theatre owners that boasted an army of loyal audiences built over decades, didn’t think the phenomenon would last and waited quietly for the storm to pass. Except it never did; most single-screens in the past decade either shut down or were acquired, one after the other. Chanakya, having lost profitability, was razed to the ground in 2008.

Striving to operate in dingy old lanes, single screen cinemas recycled films from the 80s since they could not afford licenses for newer films while struggling to pay their rent. I visited one of these theatres early last year. Imperial Cinema was one of the oldest theatres in the city, in operation since the 1950s. The manager told us,

It has had a grand legacy, right from the beginning. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the hall when it first opened, and it has seen the likes of Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna and even Dharmendra as attendees over its decades of operation.

The theatre, barely a skeleton of what it used to be 60 years ago, had lost none of it’s pride. As we entered the building, the box-office was empty and had been turned into something of a store room; the food counter, just like the box-office, was empty except for a handful of used water bottles; framed photographs of yesteryear celebrities adorned some walls, a blanket of dust covering the glass; and each corner of the room was painted with red stains of Paan.

An Interior Shot Of The Ritz Single-Screen Cinema In New Delhi

The manager, who first scanned me apprehensively due to the camera bag on me, gave us two tickets for Rs. 20 and led us into the hall. It was littered with maybe half a dozen men, all sitting at a respectable distance from each other, at least one of them surely asleep. I found myself a seat, a wooden one with foam that had long since lost all its sponginess, a pungent smell greeting me. I looked up at the screen; the film was Kudrat Ka Kanoon (The Laws of Nature), a multi-starrer from the late 80s. Five minutes into the movie, a rape took place, and a man a couple of rows behind me whistled. Halfway through the film, the smell and the dinginess got too much for us to handle and we walked out.

The manager cursed the multiplexes when we met him again. Business was at an all time low, he told us, and only a few loyal fans of action heroes from the eighties still visited the theatre. The only shows that did well enough for them to earn profits were B-grade films that had found a loyal following in rickshaw-pullers from around the area. But even that, he said, wasn’t enough to save the theatre from its eventual fate. He took us on a little tour of the theatre once the show had finished and led us right to the row in front of the seat I had earlier occupied. “There, look”, he said with disgust pointing at a seat, “One of these rascals urinated on the seat during the morning show. Cleaning their piss is what my job has come to.” I realised what the source of that pungent smell was.

Exterior Shot Of Imperial Cinema In New Delhi

The manager passed away a few months ago. The Imperial, inaugurated by the first Prime Minister of India, quietly met its demise earlier this year.

Adapt To Survive

One single screen that has managed to beat the odds, though, is Sheila, deep in Central Delhi. And while it’s barely able to stay afloat in its current condition, the management is willing to embrace facts and adapt to change in its struggle for survival. When our photographer, Anirban Goswami, landed at their doorstep with his camera, the manager’s face, unlike the one from Imperial, lit up. Most existing single-screen’s have resigned themselves to their eventual fate and therefore show reluctance to stories being written on them, but the staff at Sheila let us in with a smile, glad at having found the kind of attention that they so rarely receive nowadays.

An Exterior Shot Of The Shiela Single-Screen Cinema In New Delhi

The theatre opened to public in the early 1960s and is known to be India’s first 70mm theatre, built for a thousand-strong audience. The hall still sees 50-60% occupancy on the weekends, thanks to regular upgrades to its infrastructure. The fully air-conditioned theatre is equipped with Dolby Digital sound systems and modern projection setups to ensure they’re on part with ever-increasing crop of multiplexes, while continuing to offer tickets at much more affordable rates. Passageways in the theatre are lined with sofas and paintings of yesteryear superstars adorn the walls, and the jumbo-samosa, a speciality of theirs since they began operation, has successfully replaced popcorn.

The cinema’s close proximity to the New Delhi Railway Station doesn’t hurt either;“One of our most consistent customers are railway passengers, who drop in to watch movie or two when their train gets delayed by a few hours”, the manager says, gleeful at having turned the discrepancies of the Indian Railways into an opportunity for their own sustainability. While the future may have seemed bleak for them a couple of years ago, these single-screens have successfully managed to hold their own, and at least for the next few years, are here to stay.

The “Startups” Fighting Bollywood

While single-screens continue to lose out to multiplexes in the battle field, one bent on holding on to a legacy and another bent on creating a new one, a third alternative has slowly been brewing under the surface over the past few years.

An Interior Shot Of The Ritz Single-Screen Cinema In New Delhi

The independent cinema industry has always existed coyly next to its bigger, more immodest brother “Bollywood”, never really making a strong attempt to make its presence felt. But the advent of internet changed things; because as they say, internet is impartial. A great independent film does not have to fight for space on the internet like how their DVDs struggle to be noticed when fat sections of the store are dedicated to the 100-crore club. The fight between the two cousins has become a lot more democratic, and deserving independent film content, for the first time in the history of cinema, stands a fair chance to reach out to a massive audience.

In country where most of the population is working class and poor, ‘the industry of dreams’ has succeeded on keeping the masses entertained, but ignorant. This has, of course, successfully diluted the experience of cinema over time.

- Abhishek Nilamber, from Popup Talkies.

Popup Talkies, currently based in Pune and now expanding to Delhi and Goa, holds independent film screenings in creative, cultural spaces for an audience that is genuinely interested in cinema as a means of expression, and not just a mode of entertainment. These screenings, often attended by the filmmaker themselves, are followed by a nice round of discussion around these films over some great food and an occasional beer.

A lot of initial events saw only a handful of people attending, but growth has been steady. “The last two or so years have seen something come to surface which had been brewing throughout. These films have been making waves in reputed film-festivals like Berlinale, Cannes, Oscars, Tribeca and quite a few indie festivals too. They are where Bollywood has hardly ever reached and is now slowly but surely gathering an audience in India too.”, Abhishek continues.

An Exterior Shot Of The Ritz Single-Screen Cinema In New Delhi

And gathering an audience it is. Viewers are slowly opening up to this more interactive form of viewing cinema, where the act of ‘viewing’ isn’t limited to just the literal definition of it but also pondering over what the film says, what it means and what it stands for, answers that they can conveniently get from the filmmakers themselves. Most of their recent screenings have seen a full-house and venues all over the country have responded positively to the idea this new culture.

With the constant change in forms of viewing cinema over the years, the relationship of an audience with a film has seen a tangible change too. On their way out are the single-screen days when we used to sit at the back of a thousand-seater, watching superstars we worshipped on the silver screen. Over time, the screens have become smaller, and the content more realistic, relatable, and the stars and filmmakers more approachable. The gap between the film, the filmmaker and the audience has never been lesser. And the screens, literally and metaphorically, never been closer. 

 Photography By Anirban Goswami

Our heartfelt thanks to the managers of Ritz and Sheila Cinemas for their contribution to this article (and also allowing photography in the theatre!) and to the unnamed manager of the now-defunct Imperial Cinema.
May he rest in peace.

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