As we near the end of 2020, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel, with positive updates on a successful vaccine for COVID-19. The Indian government began a staggered reopening of businesses around August this year, after a strictly enforced lockdown that began during the last week of March. Cinema halls were allowed to reopen across the country in October. The dates were left to the discretion of the states. Among the south Indian states, Karnataka was the first to take the plunge.
Choosing to watch a movie in a cinema hall may be an option for most of us but for film reviewers, it is now a job hazard. TNM spoke to a few popular film reviewers on what they think about going back to theatres to review movies and what precautions they will take to stay safe.
Calling the experience of watching a film in a cinema hall nerve-wracking, film writer Subha J Rao says, â€śIncidentally, theatres have reopened in Karnataka, but I havenâ€™t stepped out. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll be going near a theatre anytime soon, because while I can be sure Iâ€™ll mask up and be careful, I canâ€™t expect or be certain that others in the hall will. Itâ€™s too stressful an experience.â€ť
Explaining that she also has elderly folks at home, she continues, â€śMy parents, who are 80 and 70, live with me, and I canâ€™t take that risk of carrying home an infection. Also, when watching a film amid such stress, will one really be able to take in the film the way it has to be? I doubt it.â€ť
As if echoing these sentiments, some theatre owners and movie producers in Karnataka reportedly decided to shut shop until January next year. But their distress has to do more with the fact that the times are not conducive to a profitable business. â€śYes, this is a traumatic phase for those making films, but one has to take a call on whether to go to a theatre or not depending on the risk factors too,â€ť Subha adds.
In Tamil Nadu, after a long wait, theatres reopened on November 10, just ahead of the Deepavali festival. The state follows Union government protocols that mandate only 50% occupancy rates and regular sanitisation among other things. However, apart from Christopher Nolanâ€™s Tenet which released in India on December 4, not many new films have hit theatres.
Baradwaj Rangan, film critic and editor of Film Companion South, who plans on watching Tenet in the theatre, shares, â€śIâ€™d go only if the movie is absolutely worth it and if the theatre guarantees adhering to norms. Iâ€™ve heard that even in some of the high-end theatres in the city people are taking off their face masks once inside the hall.â€ť
Subha recalls a dangerous experience that happened during the early days of the pandemic. â€śMy last film in the theatre was Kannum Kannum Kollaiadithaal and it turned out to be more of a horror show than a thriller because someone two rows ahead of me was continuously coughing, sans mask,â€ť she recalls.
Now more than ever it is important to remain cautious, even as some people are seen outside without face masks, convinced that the pandemic is already a thing of the past. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) categorises cinema halls as among the highest risk spaces, mainly due to their infrastructure being an air-conditioned, closed hall.
While Baradwaj ensures he wears a face mask at all times and keeps a sanitiser at hand, the environment inside a movie hall, where stale air circulates, is one of great concern. â€śWhatâ€™s also very worrying is that everyone seems to think coronavirus is gone. For me, going to movie theatres is more of a job hazard. I also head out for interviews sometimes. But with theatres, I limit it to one or two locations that Iâ€™m confident about,â€ť he adds.
The Kerala and Andhra Pradesh governments are still mulling giving the nod, but Telangana has become the third state in the south to allow movie theatres to reopen. While those in the industry are encouraging people to go watch movies in cinema halls, a reviewer based out of Hyderabad tells TNM that December is most likely going to be just a testing ground for the next year.
â€śTheyâ€™re testing the waters this month to see how the audience is warming up to the idea of going back to theatres. Depending on this, theyâ€™ll see if they can plan some medium or big budget releases for the Sankranthi festival in January. If the audience reaction is not great and the fear still persists, then most big films will get pushed to summer,â€ť he says.
However, he adds that he has no plans to head to theatres anytime in the near future. â€śIâ€™ve no intention of stepping inside a cinema hall or preview theatre at the moment because of the safety issues,â€ť he says.
But do reviewers miss the theatre experience? â€śItâ€™s a very mixed response,â€ť answers Baradwaj. â€śThe lifetime of a film in a movie theatre is only about 3 weeks. After that, the film is only watched on the small screen. Also, Iâ€™ve never seen some of the greatest films, like Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey, on the big screen. Iâ€™m sure todayâ€™s millennials wouldâ€™ve watched some of the biggest Rajini and Kamal hits only on the internet or on a television broadcast,â€ť he adds.
Neelima Menon, a film reviewer from Kerala, adds, â€śBetween theatre and OTT release, Iâ€™d always opt for the former but given the situation, Iâ€™m not very keen on going to the theatre as yet. Maybe after the vaccine comes, I might be brave enough to try. So right now, definitely no for theatres, though just scanning BookMyShow and such apps gives me a strange joy.â€ť