The battle for Bollywood: virus, streaming apps spark fears for cinemas

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A security guard sits at the entrance of a closed movie theatre complex due to a COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown in Mumbai. (File/AFP)
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Sandeep Bacche, an Indian rickshaw driver and fan of Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, poses for a picture in Mumbai. (File/AFP)
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Sandeep Bacche, an Indian rickshaw driver and fan of Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, poses for a picture in Mumbai. (File/AFP)
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Updated 03 July 2020

The battle for Bollywood: virus, streaming apps spark fears for cinemas

  • Frustrated Bollywood producers have turned to the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar to release films online
  • India has the world’s most prolific film industry, churning out nearly 1,800 releases in 2018

MUMBAI: A Bollywood actor’s face tattooed on his arm, Sandeep Bacche’s devotion shocks few in India where stars enjoy semi-divine status. But even here the hallowed silver screen may be losing its shine to streaming services and pandemic fears.
“Whenever things get better and theaters begin operations, I will watch three movies a day for sure just as a way to celebrate,” said the Mumbai rickshaw driver, who is recovering from the virus himself.
But others may not join the party.
With cinemas shut for months due to a coronavirus lockdown, and little prospect they will reopen soon, frustrated Bollywood producers have turned to the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar to release films online.
“Gulabo Sitabo,” starring Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, premiered on Amazon Prime last month. Other Hindi movies have followed a similar route, as have the huge Telugu-, Tamil- and Malayalam-language film industries.
This has sparked fury from cinema operators.
INOX Leisure Ltd, India’s second-largest multiplex operator, warned producers of possible “retributive measures.”
“Movie stars are not made on the small screen but on the silver screen,” Siddharth Jain, INOX executive director, told AFP.
But, noting the financial might of the competition, he said: “No business model in the world can compete with free money and Netflix is nothing but free money.”
Shoojit Sircar, who directed “Gulabo Sitabo,” told AFP that “a digital release was a tough decision” but financial constraints pushed him to do it.
“A lot of technicians are dependent on me,” Sircar said.
“Cinema magic cannot be replaced by TV, iPad or laptop experience. But I needed to move on.”
India has the world’s most prolific film industry, churning out nearly 1,800 releases in 2018. Stars are worshipped like gods, with fans building temples and making pilgrimages to their homes.
Going to the cinema also remains a hugely popular and affordable pursuit, with 75 rupees ($1) buying three hours of entertainment in an air-conditioned movie theater.
Some of the higher-end multiplex cinemas have menus that include biryani being delivered to your recliner, and blankets to snuggle under if the air conditioning is too cold.
But with more than half of India’s population under 30, and many of them consuming entertainment on mobile phones, the likes of Netflix were starting to make inroads even before the coronavirus.
Hotstar, the market leader now owned by Disney, boasted 300 million active monthly users in 2018 — offering some content for free and other shows only to subscribers.
The shutdown has only accelerated the shift.
For years Mumbai-based teacher Nigel D’Souza, 27, was one of the holdouts, preferring to watch films in cinemas.
But when India went into lockdown in late March, he bit the bullet and subscribed to both Amazon Prime — aggressively priced in India at just 129 rupees per month — and Netflix.
He is now hooked.
“It was very cheap... as we don’t spend money on expensive popcorn or travel,” he said.
Furthermore, he found he “could binge-watch any number of movies... without worrying about the virus.”
Vijay Subramaniam, Amazon Prime’s director of content for India, insisted the company was not looking to put cinemas out of business.
“Theatres play an important role in film distribution and we aren’t looking to change that,” he told AFP.
But he added: “As technology continues to change that landscape, customers’ preferences of what to watch and where will continue to evolve.”
Cinemas meanwhile are getting ready for the end of lockdown, which will come with strict rules that will further eat away at their profit margins.
Some seats will have to be left empty and cinema halls will have to be thoroughly disinfected after every show. The lavish menus and blankets will probably have to go.
But it is not all doom and gloom.
“The cinema experience is ingrained in our blood... (it) will never go out of fashion,” Mumbai-based film trade analyst Girish Johar told AFP.
For diehard fans like Bacche, the heady pleasures of the silver screen are simply too irresistible.
Even in the coronavirus treatment facility, the 41-year-old still needed his daily fix of Bollywood, he said.
He found it on the YouTube app on his phone, which he still uses — a sign that the pandemic’s impact on viewing habits may linger for a while longer.


Art and passion: Creative secrets of the Kiswa calligrapher

Updated 30 July 2020

Art and passion: Creative secrets of the Kiswa calligrapher

  • Mokhtar Alim Shokder tells Arab News about his remarkable journey and influences

RIYADH: With a steady and sturdy hand, a calligrapher’s passion and commitment to the art of the written word can be displayed through various mediums, but none more honorable than displaying that passion on the Holy Kaaba’s Kiswa (curtain).

Mokhtar Alim Shokder, a calligrapher at the Kiswa Factory of the Holy Kaaba in Makkah, fell in love with calligraphy at a young age and developed his skill over the years, which landed him the prestigious and honorable position he is in today.

As a third-grader, he joined a three-month calligraphy course during the summer of 1977 held in Makkah’s Grand Mosque. At the outset, he showed extraordinary skills, which impressed his teachers, and he was made a calligraphy teacher the following year.

With practice and determination, Shokder fell more in love with calligraphy and felt happier when his skills improved.

“I would practice for long hours each day because I loved Arabic calligraphy. My classmates would come and ask for tips on how to improve their handwriting,” he recalled. “I felt overjoyed, with a strong drive to perfect my skills. My colleagues and I would spend long hours training nonstop, with full focus on the tasks at hand to perfect our work.”

Mokhtar Alim Shokder, a calligrapher at the Kiswa Factory of the Holy Kaaba in Makkah, fell in love with calligraphy at a young age and developed his skill over the years. 
(Supplied/ Reuters)

His preferred type of font is Naskh, a sans-serif script that is characterized by the lack of “hooks” on the ends of ascending and descending strokes, considered to be one of the earliest forms of Islamic calligraphy and which is used in the Holy Qur’an. However, he uses the Thuluth font more often, because it allows for curved and oblique lines and slopes, and is used for writing on the Kiswa.

Shokder said that Kiswa writing methods had developed immensely, noting that the calligraphy takes a lot of time and requires patience and precision. 

He was influenced by several calligraphers, especially the 19th-century Ottoman calligrapher Sami Efendi, whose works were prominent during his time for its attractive design for vowel signs, decorations, and numbers. Heavily influenced by his work, Shokder was impressed the first time he saw one of Efendi’s works, calling him a role model for all calligraphers.

After teaching calligraphy for several years at the Grand Mosque, he enrolled at Umm Al-Qura University’s Art Education Department in 1989 to hone his skills. He said he benefited most from Muhammad Hassan Abu Al-Khair, a professor at the department and a famous calligrapher known to participate in several competitions and exhibitions. 

FASTFACTS

  • As a third-grader, Mokhtar Alim Shokder joined a short course during the summer of 1977 held in Makkah’s Grand Mosque. His preferred type of font is Naskh, a sans-serif script that is characterized by the lack of ‘hooks’ on the ends of ascending and descending strokes.
  • Due to his extraordinary skills, he was made a calligraphy teacher the following year.
  • After teaching calligraphy for several years at the Grand Mosque, he enrolled at Umm Al-Qura University’s Art Education Department in 1989 to hone his skills.
  • His preferred type of font is Naskh, a sans-serif script that is characterized by the lack of ‘hooks’ on the ends of ascending and descending strokes.
  • However, he uses the Thuluth font more often, because it allows for curved and oblique lines and slopes, and is used for writing on the Kiswa.

“The artistic works need a lot of patience and precision. For example, to write five words using calligraphy can take you two to three months and sometimes longer,” said Shokder. “It is the execution of the work that takes a long time. Some people think that such an artwork that has three words can take an hour but this is not true.”

According to Shokder, calligraphers will spend long hours working and have to bear the pressure associated with executing such works, to hone and perfect skills with years of practice and training.

In 2003, he was appointed the sole calligrapher for the Kiswa, a position his father saw in a dream, a moment he cherishes deeply. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life and a great blessing from God, for which I will always be indebted. My father’s dream came true,” he said. 

The methods of writing on the Kiswa have developed over the years. The late calligrapher Abdulraheem Ameen Bokhari, Shokder’s predecessor, used chalk to write the script on the silk cloth. In later years, silk-screen printing was introduced which allows the calligrapher to save the script and preserve it on a computer, a method which allowed the Kiswa’s calligrapher to improve the script.

Mokhtar Alim Shokder, a calligrapher at the Kiswa Factory of the Holy Kaaba in Makkah, fell in love with calligraphy at a young age and developed his skill over the years. 
(Supplied/ Reuters)

“In older times, ink was used to write the words on papers, then the edges of the letters would be punched with a needle, the papers would be placed on a black fabric, the surface of which would be used for writing,” said Shokder. “Later, a transparent bag made of cloth would be filled with white powder that would be used together with the papers to punch letters on. An embroiderer would use a thread to identify the outside edges of each letter then start his process of embellishing.”

Shokder noted that the process of developing the writing methods was only approved after thorough studies had been conducted on the methods.

Writing on the Kiswa requires strong skills and long hours of training to master the skill. Another challenging part of his job would be the compound and overlapping texts, which require the calligrapher to try several times before reaching the desired outcome, which should be beautiful and with the logical order of words and combine all the elements of the art.