Bollywood looks to rewrite script after low turnout at reopened cinemas

People invited as 'Covid-19 warriors' and their families to a special screening watch Bollywood movie 'Tanhaji' in a cinema in New Delhi on October 15, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 18 October 2020

Bollywood looks to rewrite script after low turnout at reopened cinemas

  • Industry strikes optimistic tone despite complaints of recycled content

PATNA: After seven months of a pandemic-triggered lockdown, movie theaters across several states in India reopened on Thursday. However, some cinemas are reporting attendance as low as five to six people as opposed to 300 patrons before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sammir Dattani, an entrepreneur-actor-cineaste from Mumbai, Maharashtra, said he was not surprised.

He braved the coronavirus outbreak to see a film at a theater in New Delhi during a business trip, and while at INR400 ($5.45), the price of each ticket has remained unchanged, he was in the company of 11 people at one of the most popular cinemas in the capital city.

“I was watching Tanhaji (a historical blockbuster released in January this year) which I had already seen. The atmosphere in the theater was tense and far from enjoyable. I don’t think I’m going back until the temptation is greater. And that can only happen when a new big film is released,” he said.

With most films that had been lined up for a theatrical release being diverted to over-the-top (OTT) digital platforms such as Netflix, Disney-Hotstar, Zee5 and Amazon India during the coronavirus lockdown, the temptation to go for a quick profit has cost the Hindi film industry dearly.

The only two films to be held back were Reliance Entertainment’s Sooryavanshi, starring Akshay Kumar; and 83, with Ranveer Singh playing the legendary cricketer Kapil Dev in the sports biopic. Sooryavanshi is slated for release in December and 83 in January.

“From Day 1, we were very clear that Sooryavanshi and 83 would release in movie theaters whenever they open. These films are big-screen experiences. We are glad we held out,” Shibashish Sarkar, CEO of Reliance Entertainment, told Arab News.

Another major factor is the refusal by the government in Maharashtra, the hub of Hindi film production, to reopen movie theaters.

The authorities cite an uptick in coronavirus infections across the country, particularly in Maharashtra.

“With the Maharashtra circuit, one of the major contributors to national box office receipts, not opening yet, the response has been low,” Girish Johar, a trade analyst, said.

Johar said it was too early to interpret the initial muted response from audiences. The pandemic scare factor and the lower spending power of audiences will have played a role, but he hoped business will pick up during the Diwali celebrations on Nov. 14.

The Hindu festival is a time of celebration, when many families plan a trip to the cinema.

However, producer-director and film distributor Pahlaj Nihalani isn’t convinced.

“Why would a prospective patron pay Rs400 to see old films, and that too with the COVID risk being so high? Producers who sold off their films to the digital market have caused the current crisis of content in movie theatres. No wonder theatres look like wedding venues where the bride and groom have fled,” said Nihalani, who has also served as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification for two years.

Cinemas in the northeastern state of Bihar tell a similar story.

Several said they expected to cash in on Bihari actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by screening his old films such as Kedarnath and Dhoni: The Untold Story, but the idea fllopped.

A source from a leading multiplex chain said: “The attendance is poor. We are just grateful that it’s much better than zero. It will take four months to achieve 22 percent occupancy, which would be a break-even point for both producers and exhibitors.”

The situation is better in West Bengal where theatres re-opened on Oct. 1, a fortnight ahead of the rest of the country. Six new Bengali movies are being released during the current Durga Puja festival.

Elsewhere, the box office receipts are, in the words of trade analyst Amod Mehra, “disastrous.”

Producer-director-distributor Suneel Darshan blames the avarice of the multiplex chains for the current imbroglio.

“Cinema halls have opened up in several sectors but without a change in approach or business strategy. The multiplex chains had virtually monopolized the game for the past 15 years, and they resorted to practises which weren’t conducive to a fair and healthy business,” Darshan said.

He said that the only way to win back audiences is by providing “original, inviting content.”

“For multiplex chains to procure these titles, they will need to invest in content, something that they stubbornly refuse to do. The competition from digital platforms is staring them in the face, and their Nero-like approach will be responsible for their vacant seats in the days to come,” Darshan said.

However, Bihar distributor Kishan Damani is more hopeful.

“It will take some time to re-build the audiences’ confidence. We need some good original content and we will be back with a bang,” Damani said.

Trade guru Taran Adarsh has the last word. He said that the reopening of cinemas with a rerun of films was “never about box office collections or a substantial footfall,” but an attempt to bring the exhibition sector “back on track.”

“Jobs are at stake. The footfall may be scarce initially, but when big films release in the future, the cinema business will bloom again. The exhibition sector has faced several obstacles and COVID, in my opinion, is the worst setback ever. But let’s be optimistic. This too shall pass.”


Indian anti-hate group ‘victim of hate’ after leaders arrested

Updated 59 min 29 sec ago

Indian anti-hate group ‘victim of hate’ after leaders arrested

  • Several members detained on charges of inciting deadly religious riots in Delhi

NEW DELHI: A prominent group established three years ago to fight incidents of hate and prejudice against the Muslim minority community in India said on Monday that it is “gasping for breath” after officials detained some of its founding members under the country’s draconian terror law.

The authorities have accused the United Against Hate (UAH) group of inciting religious riots in New Delhi in February this year.

“The platform which has been fighting against religious and communal hate in society has become a victim of hate itself,” Nadeem Khan, 35, one of the founding members of UAH, told Arab News.

“With the detention of some of our founding members and the questioning of a large number of youths, there is a strong sense of fear among people who are part of such a platform,” he said.

Founded in 2017, when incidents of alleged hate crimes against Muslims – on the pretext of selling or consuming beef – were on the rise, the UAH was one of the few nonpolitical groups which played a significant role in mobilizing the masses against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which became law in December last year.

While the CAA guarantees citizenship for minority Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, and Buddhist communities from neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, it excludes Muslims.

The CAA is part of the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise aimed at identifying “genuine citizens” of India.

However, many Indians, and not only Muslims, feel that the CAA is discriminatory as any non-Muslim who does not find a mention in the NRC can seek recourse under the citizenship law.

Muslims, on the other hand, would become stateless.

“People, mostly Muslims, across India came on the streets against the CAA, and the UAH was just an agency for creating awareness. But the Indian government did not like the political mobilization of Muslim masses,” Khan said.

Protests against the CAA, which began in late December, surged for months, resulting in the leaders of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) launching a counter-campaign. 

The heightened communal tensions led to religious violence in the Indian capital toward the end of February, in which more than 50 people, mostly Muslims, died.

“It was a peaceful and democratic protest against the discriminatory policy of the government. This was our right to protest. But the government is now calling our protest sedition and arrested some of our founding members,” said Khan, who has been questioned by Delhi police in connection with the February riots after being named in the charge sheet.

Other UAH members who felt “the need to respond to such hate crimes through a social platform” include 28-year-old Umar Khalid and 36-year-old Khalid Saifi.

They have since been arrested.

“What was the crime of my husband? When has serving people and fighting for unity and secularism of the country become a crime in this nation?” said Khalid Saifi’s wife, Nargis.

Saifi was detained in February for “inciting religious violence” in New Delhi while Khalid was arrested on September 16 and faces multiple charges.

“This is nothing but an attempt to break the spirit of the people, particularly Muslims, and tell the community that they can live in India like ordinary citizens without raising their political voice,” said Nargis, a mother of three.

More than 600 people have been detained in the Delhi riots’ cases, the majority of them Muslims.

Several rights groups, including Amnesty International, have voiced concerns over the large-scale detentions of activists and students for protesting against the CAA and blamed the BJP government for “crushing democratic dissent.”

On Monday, the president of India’s main opposition Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, attacked the government for stifling protesting voices that it brands as “terrorism” and “anti-national activity.”

“The fundamental right to freedom of expression has been systematically suspended through suppression and intimidation. Dissent is deliberately stifled as terrorism or branded as an anti-national activity,” Gandhi said in an opinion piece published in the leading English daily, the Hindustan Times.

“The Narendra Modi government and the ruling BJP conjure up sinister conspiracies behind every political protest, indeed behind any and everything they see as opposition to them. India’s hard-won democracy is being hollowed out.”

Renowned author and activist Arundhati Roy agrees.

“It is really beyond humiliating to live in this atmosphere where people are funneled and marinated in this hatred. Today, you have a country whose economy is in shreds. People are hungry; people don’t have jobs. Everything is coming apart. But we are held together by a pipeline of hatred, which is funneled by the mainstream media,” she said during a press conference in New Delhi on Thursday.

The BJP denies promoting “hate.”

“We are fighting against hate. We don’t promote an ideology of hate. We can claim to represent India’s real intellectual legacy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family),” BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma said.

He described Gandhi’s article as a piece “written in pangs” as the Congress party’s “ecosystem is collapsing.”

“People are leaving the party. And there is no reprieve for the Gandhi family because the BJP is going to be in power for many more years. We can understand the pangs of the Congress chief,” he said.

Political experts, however, say that the broader aim of the governing party is to “disempower people and make them subjects,” who cannot act independently.

“My understanding is that the criminalization of organizations like UAH is the first step towards disempowering all Indians and turning them into subjects who don’t have their agency of their own,” said analyst Professor Apoorvanand Jha, of Delhi University.