Bollywood's allure depletes along with the humble, working class single-screen
Single-Screen Theatres were once the hotspots where masses across the country enjoyed films.
Hailed to be the world's largest film industry, producing more than thousands of films per year, Bollywood seems to have loosened its grip over its audience. The Hindi Film industry aka Bollywood is at its low with one after another film failing on the big screen. On the other hand, it is being argued aggressively that the film industries based in South India like Tollywood and Kollywood are gaining the hype now while successfully attracting the crowd to watch their films.
One of the major factors that could have possibly led to the decline in the Box Office numbers of the Bollywood films as against those of the South Indian film industries could be the growth of the multiplex culture, in most of the urban and semi-urban areas. The Single-Screen Theatres (SSTs), which were once the hotspots where masses across the country enjoyed Bollywood films on the silver screen are depleting and shutting down. The SSTs were one of the major reasons why Bollywood got to the paramount, and gained viewership for its films. It was where 'stars' were truly born. These theatres provided the audience with an experience which is why watching Dil Wale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge at Maratha Mandir even years after its release is a nostalgic experience.
“We watch films, but once in two months, or if a really good film is released, we like watching films in Hindi and Marathi, our go-to theatres are Alka Talkies, Vasant talkies (both SSTs). But these theatres were closed for a long time during the pandemic, and even after lockdown,” says Ravindra Pethe, a flower vendor in Pune.
According to a report by Financial Express, there are about 8,500-9,000 SSTs in India and a majority of them, about 6,200, are in Andhra Pradesh alone. About 450 SSTs are in Maharashtra, where Bollywood resides. Several SSTs in the state, over the years, have shut down due to the unmanageable costs of operation and dwindling audiences due to the rise of multiplexes.
“The SSTs have been facing problems for a long time now, these theatres are struggling to survive because films are not delivering the content that the audience wants to watch and multiplex theatres are available everywhere. We have not been running at our full capacity for a long time, unless it is a highly commercialised film starring a very popular actor,” says Keyur Seta, Senior Journalist at Cinestaan.
These theatres are struggling to survive because films are not delivering the content that the audience wants.
These SSTs are being forced to shut down due to lack of resources that can help them sustain, despite having the capacity to accommodate a large crowd. “Gaiety Galaxy Cinema in Bandra, Mumbai owns six theatres out of which two are big ones. So the management shuts one of those two SSTs when no big film is released. For Instance, this week the theatre is shut because people won't come due to Ganeshotsav. While their other theatres are quite small, one is a stall theatre, the other is a 100-seater, and the other two are 40-45 seaters. Only these theatres are being run because the films are being hyped enough for the audience to come,'' added Seta.
These theatres are surviving only on larger-than-life, 'massy' commercialised films that gain audience tractions. South Indian films have still maintained the audience traction by making films that fall within this formula, generate a crowd and appeal the audience.
“The basic reason why the south-Indian films are doing well is that they appeal to the masses. Most of them are ‘masala entertainers’ such as Pushpa, RRR, KGF, etc. All of these are larger-than-life commercial films that appeal to a mass crowd”, added Seta.
Box Office Collection for films - a competitive study
According to the recent report by Bollywood Box Office Collection 2022, most of the recently released Bollywood films failed to make a mark. Rakhshabandhan’s box office collection was 40.07 crore while the budget of the film was 115 crore. Similarly, Ek Villain Returns' box office collection was 47.2 crores, while the budget of the film was 72 crores. These films have been a disaster on the big screen. On the other hand, Telugu film Karthikeya 2 had a Box Office collection of 20.11 crores and the budget of the film was 15 crores.
“We find films from all the languages such as English, Hindi and Marathi at the single-screens. The dubbed English films also work. Tamil films that are dubbed work the most. Films are not doing well because of various reasons, one of them being the content of the films. This was the situation before the pandemic, the only difference is that even the bad or the average films would earn an average collection at the Box Office at the time. Now people would go to watch a film on a big screen only if the story is worth the experience,” Seta says.
“There is a reason why the films from the south do well, they provide the audience with the content they want to watch. Most of these films are action thrillers and people love this kind of genres,” says Mr Phadke, Manager at Alka Talkies.
Alka Talkies, the second oldest SST in Pune that emerged in the 1950s, is a cinema hall with a total capacity of 800 seats. It was once a popular hub for Hollywood films as well. But as the years went by, only the frames of the Hollywood stars remain at this theatre.
The Survival Struggle for the SST
“The situation before the Covid-19 pandemic was slightly better, we would at least have four shows running throughout the day. But after the pandemic, things have become worse and now we just run two shows per day to manage operational costs,” Phadke added.
The pandemic made it next to impossible for SSTs to function successfully. “During the Covid-19 lockdown, the government did not provide any subsidy to help with even the electricity cost. Every month the bill would just get generated even though the theatre was not in use. We paid about Rs 45,000 for the electricity bill during that period. Even now, with just two shows running, the cost of electricity is Rs 60,000. We have pleaded to them to reduce this burden but they’ve kept pushing us away with excuses,” added Phadke.
The electricity charges are just the peak of the iceberg of costs. Even if the theatres are not functioning the corporations order them to be well maintained. Phadke also stated, “The property needs to be renovated every now and then, we need to ensure the fire safety is in place, get the water tanks cleaned. These costs add up making it difficult to survive the tough competition.”
With the rise of multiplexes and with too many options being available, people have started counting on the word of mouth reviews before deciding whether to watch a film in the theatre or not. This is mainly because multiplex theatre experience is very expensive.
Watching a film in a multiplex theatre costs Rs 500 per person, sometimes even excluding the price of the popcorn/ other snacks. The expenditure easily goes to Rs 1,000 and above. A common man cannot afford to spend so much on entertainment, especially with the rising inflation.
The SSTs provided the crowd with a complete experience in just Rs 200 which is probably how much one can set aside for leisure.
“Our pricing is also economical, with the tickets for stalls costing Rs 100 and the balcony tickets costing Rs 120,” Phadke mentioned.
Eventually, it is also upto the films that decide the audience interaction, he added. “The films decide the kind of crowds that come here, for a film like Takatak you will see the younger crowd coming in, while for Dagdi Chawl, more people from the middle age segment visited,” he further said.
“The government also won't help us but will deduct tax the first opportunity they get. Also according to the laws and regulations, you cannot demolish the theatres because they are supposed to be entertainment centres.” Phadke said.
SST led to the lifestyle of watching films on a big screen. Each film would gain great attention from the audience as their whole focus was just on that one film. But multiplexes started capitalising on the viewers' experience of watching films. With multiple films being showcased at the same time the audience scattered.
Multiplex chains also have a location advantage. Most of the multiplex theatres are situated among the shopping malls, and the locations themselves become a selling point.
The SSTs have come a long way, paving their journey to survive yet another day. “One of the reasons why the crowd prefers the big theatres is because of the ambiance, we do not have air-conditioned cinema halls, we have benches and not sofa seats. We cannot afford to change due to the losses that we are facing. But we have improved our sound quality and that makes it our selling point,” said Ulhas, who works at Alka Talkies.
Rise of OTT
“There has been a change in the consumption pattern of content, people nowadays are inclined towards watching content on OTT platforms, mainly because of the pandemic when the theatres were shut for a long time. Due to this people only visit theatres if the film is good and if it has a good big screen experience. This is why films like Pushpa and Bhool Bhulaiya 2 did well even after being released on OTT,” Seta explained.
“Even before the covid-19 lockdown we would rarely go to the theatre, even now there is not much difference with work and business it is difficult to find time to go and watch a film at a theatre. If we really want to watch a film, we watch it on our phones,” said Maraba, a local tailoring shop manager in Pune.
Since the pandemic hit, filmmakers also shifted their visions to the OTT platforms. Films have started releasing on these platforms which have made viewers also subscribe on the platforms. With the high costs of watching a film in a multiplex and the decline in the availability of SSTs offering a good cinema experience, many people prefer subscribing to OTT platforms and enjoying films at home. The once popular drama and character films are watched on the OTTs keeping the pressure on the viewer's wallet light, while cinema theaters now remain an experience exclusive to spectacle or 'event' films.
“Going to a theatre to watch a film has become less exciting for people because it is easily available on their phone within a few days after the film releases. In such a scenario, people always ask why to spend Rs 200 on tickets when we can easily watch it in the comforts of our home,” Phadke said.