Pinku Das, a fair, young, bespectacled man, was an usher in Ujjala, a well-known single screen theatre in the southern part of Kolkata. He had stepped into his father’s shoes who was also an usher in the same theatre. Over time, as he became absorbed in the world of films through his work, Pinku Das began to dream of becoming a scriptwriter and he did (with a few Bengali popular hits to his credit today.) It is said that the founder of the iconic New Theatres, Birendranath Sirkar, was once driving by on the main road when he saw a serpentine queue leading to this very same cinema hall. He got off the car to investigate and was told that a cinema was playing inside the theatre and that people had queued up to buy tickets. He was stunned and this gave him the idea of beginning a career through cinema. And thus was born New Theatres.
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Sadly however, Ujjala – the institution, witness to landmark developments in cinema in the city – is no more, having been replaced with a glitzy and smashing new building owned and run by a famous beautician and hairstylist. But a brand of chanachur (a famous Bengali savoury mixture) continues to be sold from a shop in the corner, which became famous as Ujjalar Chanachur – a unique brand name derived from its location next to the theatre.
Dipendra Krishna Mitra who closed down Mitra Cinema founded by his ancestral family 88 years ago, recounts that none other than Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose personally attended the opening of this theatre and since Bose refused security provided by the British Government, two notorious toughs of the neighbourhood named Rajjak and Jamal were entrusted with his security! Mitra broke into tears at the television interview where he said that he was closing down the theatre, which has a history of its own because of his own ageing issues and failing health.
“I renovated and restructured the hall because I really wanted to keep it going. But it did not work and since I am a bachelor, I have no heir to look after this business. I am closing it down especially for my employees so that I can clear their dues and set them free to look for other jobs,” he said. The projectors lie around, like discarded machines and he even offered to sell me a projector at a throwaway price if I was willing to buy it.
Jyoti on Dharamtala Street had a mini-theatre on the second floor for press previews. It was a tiny 25-seater. Jyoti has closed down and so has the mini. Debarati Gupta, a young filmmaker, laments “This closing down of single screen theatres is a big blow for Bengali filmmakers because multiple screens schedule their screenings according to box office expectations of different films. Bengali films get short shrift and are pulled out of theatres or are given slots that are counter-productive. We know that change will happen. But the blow is difficult to confront.”
EIMPA (Eastern Indian Motion Pictures Association) president Surinder Singh says, “more than 250 cinema halls have closed down in Bengal over the past few years. The villain is video piracy which is rampant in the suburbs and districts where people watch Bengali films and this is killing the single screen theatres there.”
Almost every month, this or that single screen theatre pulls down its shutters. Among them are Aruna, Lighthouse, Bharati, Chaplin, Globe, Mahua, Minerva, Purabi, Purna, Sree, Grace. The last film screened at Mohua which also closed down, was Bela Sheshe meaning “at the end of the day” — which is ironical as the theatre closed down soon after, despite the fact that the film had a good run.
40 single screen theatres closed down in 2015 and the city was left counting. 26 more such theatres in 2016 were in different stages of breaking down. Malancha, a well-known single screen theatre in the southern parts of the city, was the most recent to go, as it closed down in early August.
“Our viewing practices have changed,” says Ranu Sen, an avid cinegoer till single screen theatres began to close down. “I cannot afford cineplexes. Besides, the food stalls offer goodies at sky-high rates. I miss the chomping of freshly bought potato chips and cups of ice-cream. The viewers in single screens would come to watch films and not to talk over stocks and shares across their cell phones, a common feature in multiplexes,” she adds.
Bharati, a friend in her sixties, is open both to single screen theatres and multiplex theatres. “One has to slow with the times and my daughter is my company and as she is a fan of multiplexes in shopping malls, we watch in both places. The expense does not bother me. The experience is different, though. If given a choice, I would opt for single screen viewing any day,” she comments.
A theatre is not just bricks and concrete and mortar and ticket counters and chips sellers. It had within itself, a small world of its own – the hawkers, the men at the ticket counters, the projectionists, the ushers, the torn down seats and the very poor men, women and children who would loiter around the theatre for hand-me-downs and alms. I remember, for example, Purna had an in-house restaurant, Basanta Cabin separated from the theatre lobby with a swing door. I watched Komal Gandhar there as a child, understood nothing but waited to be taken to the restaurant by my uncle for a plate of chicken cutlet I had never tasted before!
According to Arijit Datta, who owns the still-popular Priya cinema in south Kolkata and runs two other theatres on lease, the city has lost 300 cinema halls. (The figure has not been verified) “I have modernised the theatre not only technically through sound but also by putting up snack stalls and even a restaurant plus an ice-cream cart right inside the lobby. My infrastructural additions are an on-going process and I mostly run a full house,” says Arijit who takes personal care of his house. But what seems to have worked for Priya is not true of other city theatres also screening different films on the same day besides investing in modernisation to some extent.
Indira has sealed the ground floor and has kept the upper floor open but without much renovation. It still manages to draw a reasonable crowd because the theatre screens regional cinema — Gujarati and Tamil and Telugu films alongside Bengali and Hindi films. How long it will continue in business however, is not hard to guess. “We were almost threatened by closure and just then, a mainstream film called Chirodini Tumi Je Amaar (2008) struck gold and the owners changed their decision to close shop. We were happy as our jobs were saved and we are doing okay now,” said an old usher who requested to remain anonymous.
Basusree on Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Road is in dire need of reconstruction and modernization. It runs multiple films on the same day but the infrastructure needs rapid revamp if the owners wish to continue in the business. The seats are not good, the stairs to the balcony are too steep, the acoustics need reworking and the toilets need a thorough upgrade.
“I have stopped going to theatres completely. I prefer watching the same films either when they are released on television or when they are streamed on the several streaming platforms we have today. I do not miss theatrical screenings as my focus is cinema and not the fringe benefits we get out there,” says Tathagata Sen (name changed) an avid cine-goer who watches films on his computer alone.
True, that the glamour of the multiplexes in shopping malls is absent in single screen theatres. Much of the audience that can watch films on streaming channels either free of cost or at a nominal annual fee will stop going to the theatres anyway, never mind that they cannot watch these films on the large screen. And an entire culture of movie-watching will be lost to the next generation.