With the Coronavirus taking the shape of a pandemic among the first establishments to have shut down in India were the movie theatres.
Since then it has been a huge loss for everyone and anyone involved in any part of movie making and exhibiting business.
Left with no work and adjusting with pay cuts, the financial hardship of the unorganized sector workers and the people employed in cinema halls and everyone whose livelihood depended upon cinema and their families, are beyond imaginable.
Further, without any specific policy support, the theatres are struggling to pay rents, keep up with their maintenance, and provide for salaries of their staff.
With permission to resume production granted under strict guidelines earlier, filmmakers, guilds and associations of exhibiting bodies have been expressing their displeasure and were appealing to the central government to give them permission to re-open.
The Multiplex Association of India even took the help of social media to register a digital protest.
The body stated that the losses incurred by this integral part of the highest tax paying industry, in the last six months, stands at an estimate of Rs 9,000 crore.
Many single-screen theatres in India, running on life support even before the pandemic, have already pulled their curtains forever with no hopes of re-opening as a result of the losses incurred during the lockdown.
If history stands as a witness then long time closures have not been in favour of the cinema halls in Assam as well and the All Assam Cinema Hall Owners’ Association has been requesting the government for tax exemptions and other relaxations.
Considering the social, economic, and cultural value of a sector that directly employs more than two lakh people and provides employment to lakhs indirectly, the Ministry of Home Affairs, for Unlock 5.0, finally gave the go-ahead to movie theatres.
The first sector to close down will be the last to re-open after seven months. As cinemas halls in several countries have already opened up with stringent safety measures, the real test for the survival of cinema halls in India will start now.
With the West Bengal government approving the resumption so far, it is to be seen how many more states allow the opening of their cinema halls.
With COVID19 far from over, various stringent safety measures like limited capacity, air temperature control, cross allocation of seats, paperless ticketing, deep sanitization of interiors after every show, etc., are being designed.
But the inherent risk of being in a closed auditorium with close proximity to strangers for an extended period with no proper ventilation and circulation of air must also be noted.
In addition, the sale of concessions poses another threat as people would need to take their masks off to consume the food and drinks.
Then there is the concern of non-compliance with the rules and regulations set and non-symptomatic carriers can easily bypass the temperature check.
Also, with the weather and temperature changes in the days ahead, people are more vulnerable to fall sick. It puts not only the safety of the visitors at the question but also the safety of the employees.
We must also note that in these challenging times, nothing is completely safe. Therefore, for the theatres to survive and continue in the long run, it will call for a responsible act on behalf of both the staff and the patrons.
We should keep ourselves distanced from other people and refrain from consuming food in the theater. We should be mindful that no one has been allotted the seats directly in front of, behind or beside us.
The air filters of the theatres must be upgraded and the air temperature must be kept at check. Movie show times should have sufficient gaps in between for cleaning and sanitizing and provide for systematic entry and exit of the audiences without crowding.
It is also true that with a perfect commitment to the safety protocols, theatres can be safer than taking an airplane journey or visiting that nearby restaurant as a theatre is more spacious and there is less verbal communication exchange between people involved while in a movie.
When the safety measures are best employed, cinema halls can set an example for how successful social distancing and measures of crowd control can be exercised in a safe and planned manner as compared to the unregulated and unorganized crowd in markets and malls.
Again, will screening films with half the capacity and the expenses of maintaining the safety and hygienic standards increase their expenses over returns?
With every family facing financial crisis, will they choose to spend on entertainment? Will there be new releases or they will have to make do with previous blockbusters and fan favorites?
As the online streaming platforms are playing a dominant role, will people visit the theatres to watch these old movies?
After spending years in limbo, the Government of Assam has recently fulfilled a promise made long back by presenting the first term of the subsidies to set up new cinema halls, renovate the existing ones and reopen the closed and old ones in Assam.
While it will definitely help the entertainment industry of Assam, the question remains if it would be wise to utilize the grant, which is meant for renovation, for staying afloat during these times of distress.
Falling at the bottom of everyone’s order of priority, many opinions are against the re-opening of movie theaters. While it is true that entertainment of opulent comfort is of less importance right now, it also can’t be denied that going to the theatre is optional and either ways lives are at stake.
With allowances and permissions for the gathering of a maximum of 100 persons lifted, functioning of metro services, malls and restaurants resumed, will the entire weight of government responsibility fall only upon the re-opening of movie theatres?
If theatres re-open should we return to the movies? I think the safety of any place depends only on the seriousness and strictness with which the rules devised are followed.
(The author is a movie enthusiast and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)