Welcome to the last show — the view from Calcutta

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Should the single-screen theatre mutate into something else to survive? asks Uddalak Mukherjee

As a child, I lived in a house next to a cinema hall. The single-screen theatre, a box-like building, with stained yellow walls, screened popular Hindi and Bengali films. Rather than the pictures, I remember the sounds that came from inside the building: the whirring ceiling fans, the low hum of the projector, soft murmurs of the hero and his lover, the sudden, piercing shriek of the heroine escaping the growling villain, the thud of the hero’s knock-out punch were interspersed with catcalls, the tinkling noise of soft drink bottles and the occasional loud snores of a bored viewer. The noises made me think that the cinema hall had a life of its own.

Then, one day, it died. The yellow of the walls got covered with red posters filled with angry, unreasonable demands. The life around the theatre ebbed away too. The phuchkawala and chicken-roll corners moved further down the main road; those who sold unauthorized tickets (the pejorative colloquial expression for these men, I think, was ‘blackers’) spent their time playing cards and the men who had struck work took up odd jobs in the locality. The cinema hall, covered in tattered posters, remained silent.

This occurrence was not uncommon in the Calcutta I grew up in. Along with jute mills and factories, other private enterprises such as cinema halls too began to close down, unable to survive the collusion between militant unions and an indifferent government. Janata, near Ganesh Chandra Avenue, was one of the early victims. Today, a vernacular newspaper office has come up where the cinema hall stood. Those that survived the initial onslaught began to fold up once the multiplexes arrived, and they included Jagat, Sree, Uttara, Tiger and Lighthouse among others. Sree and Uttara were two of Calcutta’s oldest cinemas. Started by a Parsi in 1910, these two theatres were known as Elphinstone and Cornwallis then. Uttara was converted into a commercial complex in 2004. Sree awaits a similar inglorious end in the hands of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, which has started building a similar complex on the premises. Some theatres like Metro and Navina have spluttered to life after several closures.

Perhaps this is why the unchanged bustle around Priya on Rashbehari Avenue has never ceased to surprise me. The other day, while waiting to meet its owner, Arijit Dutta, I watched as the people chatted animatedly around me as the smell of steaming food wafted in from the busy stalls and a large poster of Kareena Kapoor and Akshay Kumar flapped in the drizzle. Very little seemed to have changed ever since I first went and watched a film at Priya almost twenty years ago. To me, Priya is a bit of an anachronism: a successful single-screen theatre surviving among the debris of dead or dying cinema halls.

Once inside, I met the dapper Dutta who sat in his small office. The office, modern and elegant, having been carved out inside an older building, reflected a willingness to change. I wondered whether this ability to adapt and alter had helped Priya survive. As we chatted, Dutta made it evident that this was indeed the case. The choice of sensible content (films), state-of-the-art infrastructure and a vigorous work culture, Dutta said, are three basic survival tools that Priya adopted. While most of his contemporaries stuck to screening new releases that would often find few takers, Dutta chose a mixture of the popular and the classic. Priya is also the first theatre in eastern India to introduce advance computerized ticket booking facilities, and one of the early pioneers of DTS/Dolby theatre, the Xenon Christie projector, push-back seating arrangements and the cutting-edge Qube digital projection system. What Dutta effusively termed “brand positioning” also meant that Priya now chooses its clientele with care. A burgeoning and flourishing middle-class has elbowed out the less-affluent in this particular theatre.

Many of Priya’s competitors lost out because of what they became later — decrepit buildings run by owners who lacked the vision to modernize and keep pace with the changing times. But the reason behind their extinction can also be attributed to factors over which they had little control: government apathy and lopsided rules. Dutta mentioned that it has been years since the chief minister had granted members of the Eastern India Motion Pictures Association an audience. Dilip Kankaria, the eminent owner-producer, rues the fact that the CMC’s regulations often make it difficult for single-screen halls to be renovated into multiplexes.

Multiplexes have crippled single-theatre cinemas, as have the lucrative trade in pirated films and the inability of the administration to curb this malpractice. The future, Dutta conceded, is challenging, but it also held possibilities. Apart from strengthening its distribution base, Priya has already started making inroads into the districts. The Gitanjali Cultural Complex in Bolpur has been taken over and turned into a cine hub. There are two more entertainment complexes that have been planned: one in Memari, in Burdwan, and the other in Annapurna in the South 24 Parganas.

At one corner of the city, an innovative single-screen theatre plots to stay ahead in a vicious race. In another stretch — the suburb where I grew up — I noticed, days later, a yellow, box-shaped building being brought down by monstrous machines. A placard in front of the demolished site announced the arrival of a plush apartment in place of yet another old cinema hall.

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2 Responses to “Welcome to the last show — the view from Calcutta”

  1. The Graduate Says:

    Single Screens in Kolkata are mainly spread in an area called Dharmatalla or Esplanade. The culture of people,even the so-called posh people visiting single screen is as much prevalent in Kolkata as it was in yesteryears when SS formed the place where elite would come and occupy seats in their boxes.There is a pic of “Metro Cinema” with tongawallahs waiting outside somewhere on the net.Currently that place is a bar cum cinema hall. It rarely puts up any good cinema,rather the sure-shot duds are mainly screened there.Once in a while it also screens some dubbed HW movie.The area in front of it is congested with the ferry-wallahs selling myriad items.

    The culture of frequenting SS in Kolkata is highly family influenced.The theory goes as such that “Ma-Baba oei cinema hall te movie dekhte gel chhilo,onek baar…bhalo acche.”[Ma-Papa had frequented that hall when they used to watch cinema,it is a good hall.] The glory of cinema hall is like transferred as a folklore from parents to children.They also love going to the same places.It has something to do with a sense of comfort with the cultural aspects of life that also gets layered with a very “homely” environment in which kids grow in Kolkata.Yes,multiplexes are growing at faster rate but it is amazing that halls like ELITE,PARADISE,ROXY,PRIYA,NEW EMPIRE still sustain. GLOBE closed long ago.LIGHTHOUSE is a part of folklore now. JAI HIND got converted in a miniplex. But you all will be heartened to know that ELITE and PARADISE still command the maximum audiences in Kolkata for a picture starring a major star.NEW EMPIRE is famous for screening HW films.Now you all will be bewildered to know that there exists a separate floor above the balcony which consists of old chairs,comprising of maybe 50-60 in number,where ticket rates are 20 Rs/- as compared to 100 for balcony and you can watch the film in peace.Lewd remarks are passed sometimes in some scenes but guess that is acceptable for a gallery that only boasts of boys. Sometimes when the audience does not seem to get a film like 127 hours,there also is lots of talking which can make movie watching experience a bit sour one.But the essence of watching movie in SS meets its zenith there with views passed on every scene,whistling galore and some little fights also ensuing between two groups that have come to watch the film.

    SS remains the “symbol” of many generations including mine.Multiplexes are replacing it fast and guess after 20 years or so kids would never know that there existed a scenario where a single hall screened a film with people dancing like mad to many songs,whistling,orgasming[not literally] at the very sight of a sexy beautiful heroine with stalls selling “neembu-paani” and “jhaalmudhi” outside. Guess the true Blockbusters were appreciated in such halls only that as of today are receding into oblivion!

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  2. rockstar Says:

    yup long time to kolkata but ya had fond memory of esplanade( where it had the chain of 6-8 single screen attached to it in short distances) and nearby park street or eden garden added much more flavour to it … inafct on my short stay of 2 months ( coinciding with overseas trip ) was really fascinating

    remember watching parineeta in priya and the crowd was pretty young and refreshing… place had the history of filmstars attending premiere and nearby kalighat proximity has been used many time infact more recently in kahaani

    Like

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