With barely any income in the last 15 months, and the preferences of audiences changing, the single screen theatres are staring at a bleak future.

Lakshmi Talkies in Mysuru that shut down permanently due to COVID-19 pandemic
Features Theatres Tuesday, June 29, 2021 - 16:36

It was 2008. Kannada movie Gaalipata was released at Lakshmi Talkies. There were serpentine queues to buy tickets. People stood for hours waiting for their turn. Gaalipata had a very good run. Lakshmi Talkies, after all, made the whole experience very memorable.  It’s 2021. The theatre stands permanently closed.

If you’re a Mysurian, then you know that the 100 feet Chamaraja Double Road is synonymous with the twin sister-theatres Lakshmi and Gayatri. While curtains are down on Lakshmi, the fate of Gayatri is not sealed yet. Mysuru had 21 single-screen theatres at one point. With the blatant replacement of these theatres with multiplexes at first, and then with Over-the-Top (OTT) platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, the survival of the remaining 10 single-screen theatres hangs in the balance.

“Single screen theatres cater to every class of the society. Any ordinary person can just walk in, buy tickets and watch movies because it’s affordable unlike multiplexes that seem to have taken the film industry by a storm,” says Rajaram, the Vice-President of Karnataka Film Exhibitors Federation.

When that seemed like a huge blow in itself, there are other issues that these theatres are trying to battle. According to the Self-Assessment Scheme introduced by the Government of Karnataka in 2000, theatres in the Mysuru district pay the property tax according to the actual size of the property as opposed to what the theatres pay in Bengaluru. “Why does Mysuru have to pay more than Bengaluru when the latter is more commercially viable?” asks Rajaram.

Along with property tax, there are minor issues regarding obtaining trade licences and the government notifying theatres as multi-storied buildings which would mean that the bracket to pay the electricity bill is also more. “COVID-19 acted as a driving force and accelerated all these issues. There has been zero income for the last 15 months, cinema producers are extremely reluctant to release new films with 50 percent seating capacity, and even though we briefly opened in March for a month, the second wave pushed it further down the ladder,” adds Rajaram.

Rajaram is also the owner of the Gayatri Theatre opposite Lakshmi. Jayanth Subramanya, the owner of Lakshmi Talkies, has a sad story to narrate. “It was not a kneejerk reaction to COVID-19. We were already reeling under the pressure of taxes and digital platforms, and COVID-19 just became the ultimate reason to sell the theatre,” he says.

Lakshmi Talkies has been in Mysuru since 1949. Initially owned by a Bombay businessman, it was eventually bought by Srikantan and K Ramarao in 1970. Jayanth Subramanya, the son of Srikantan had been running the theatre until recently. “A lot of people working for us left after the pandemic struck, it was a very difficult time,” Jayanth says, his voice shaking. It was evident that the questions about the history of his theatre brought back painful memories. 

Last year, in 2020, Mysuru lost another iconic theatre, Shanthala, to COVID-19. These theatres join the long list of theatres like Ranjit, Opera, Vidyaranya, Ganesha, Shree Nagaraj, Shalimar, Rathna and Srinivasa that have shut shop. “Saraswathi and Prabha theatres in the city are for sale. It’s only a matter of time,” Rajaram sighs.

 
The Shanthala Talkies, popularly known as Family Talkies, in Mysuru shutdown due to COVID-19 pandemic

They also added that they have not received any sort of relaxation or compensation from the government. Once numbering 1,200 in Karnataka, the number of single-screen theatres now has come down to 585. Last year alone, the state lost around 32 of them, and this year, around 40-50 are estimated to be permanently closed.

“I still remember watching movies at Lakshmi Talkies. There was a bakery nearby that sold delectable food. Standing in long queues, waiting to buy tickets, going in and watching the movie, it’s a different experience altogether, nothing compared to what multiplexes are doing,” says Shaila, a movie aficionado. “Now that these theatres are closed, Mysuru is losing its charm,” she says sadly.

Chamarajanagar district has 11 single theatres to boast of. A relatively smaller district than Mysuru, single-screen theatres here have been relatively faring better than the theatres in Mysuru. Jaya Simha, owner of Simha Movie Paradise in the Chamarajanagar district, is the latest new theatre to come up in the district, in 2003. “Many theatres are in the queue to become permanently closed because of the pandemic. A couple of theatres in the district are considering closing down, but nothing concrete yet,” Jayasimha says.

Regency Theatre once stood majestically in Mysuru district. Now, it has been replaced by an amusement park. Similar plans await the other theatres, the futures of which hang in the balance. Jaya Simha, also a movie aficionado, says that it’s an absolute tragedy. "OTT platforms do not give the same experience that theatres do. The entire scenario has been changed since the internet became easily accessible,” he adds.

The architect who designed Padma Talkies and Lakshmi Talkies, also designed an old theatre in Chamarajanagar which was once owned by Jaya Simha’s father. “I tried to pay off some salaries to the staff. I laid off a few,” he says.

Cleaning staff, gatekeepers, people at ticket counters, digital operators, security guards have been severely affected because of the impact on these single-screen theatres. Manjunath, who was the manager at Lakshmi Talkies for 25 years, finds himself without a job now. “It’s very sad. COVID-19 affected us irreparably. Some people who worked with me left, and some worked till the end. Numbers started going down, and came to zero after a point,” he says, as his voice chokes.

Bhargavi Srivatsa Theatre is one of the four theatres in the Nanjangud taluk in the Mysuru district. It has been running films for five years now. But since the last two years, the future has looked bleak. Rakesh, the owner, has been badly affected. “No movies have been released. Even though we haven’t decided to close right now, we don’t know what the future holds for us,” Rakesh says. Their staff strength has come down to 10 from around 25. “We are trying to pay at least 50 percent of the salary that we used to pay before. But it has been very hard,” he adds.

Echanur Kumar, a historian in Mysuru, affectionately recalls how the situation was in Mysuru before the pandemic. “When the Kannada film Bangarada Manushya was released in 1973, people saw it in these talkies, went home and talked about it. Movie theatres, tea joints, local parks were places for art, culture, Mysuru’s rich history was discussed. It’s not the same anymore. I doubt it will ever be,” he says.

He continues, “People don’t talk anymore. As generations have gone by, people have stopped talking altogether. Now, with these theatres closed, the entire culture that surrounds these places is lost,” he adds in the end.

Chirag Kashyap gets nostalgic as he speaks about his experience watching movies at Lakshmi Talkies. Tea joint owners acted as wonderful film reviewers then. “I used to go to Lakshmi Talkies with my father, watch the movie, and go to a nearby tea joint and talk about the movie. We used to hear the owner tell stories about Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan and compare them with today’s movies. The whole experience cannot be replaced with anything else,” Chirag recalls.

Single screen theatres have added to the culture and tradition of Mysuru city. Kannada movies have reached their excellence because of these single-screen theatres in Karnataka. Many artists who reached the pinnacle of their careers attribute it to the single screen theatres in the state. With COVID-19, multiplexes, and OTT platforms replacing the entire experience, it remains to be seen if any of these theatres will survive or end up biting the dust.

Sindhu Nagaraj is a reporter based in Mysuru. She likes books, theatre, politics, and wildlife.

 

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