The writing on the wall has been clear for theatres such as Agastya for a while, pandemic or not.
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August 31, 2020. This was the day when the curtains came down for one last time at Agastya Theatre in Chennai’s Tondiarpet. But at the time of closing, the theatre was already non-functional for about six months, like every other theatre in the country, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As it quietly took its last bow, with its iconic brutalist architecture in faded yellow paint, Agastya joined the list of single-screen theatres that have had to make way for changing times.
The theatre, with an impressive parking space in front of it and housing a 26-feet screen and 1,004 seats, opened its doors for the first time in 1967, screening K Balachander’s multi-starrer family drama Bama Vijayam. Construction began two years earlier in 1965. It must have been a phenomenon back then, being the only 70mm theatre in all of north Madras. Several important films have been released in Agastya, making it a significant theatre for cinema lovers. And the theatre evolved along the way, equipping itself with Dolby sound systems and digital projection.
Even while it remained non-air conditioned, Agastya continued to draw crowds. “Since the day of its opening, the theatre has had 60 to 70% occupancy. Our ticket rates too were affordable and we enjoyed good patronage,” says P Natarajan of the TNK Group that has been running this theatre.
“But we knew this decision had to be made about three years ago. The theatre was slowing winding down this path,” he adds. Natarajan who is 76-years-old now, was made in charge of Agastya at its inception by the TNK family, which runs industries and owns several other theatres in Chennai, including the Devi Theatre on Mount Road. Moreover, a sizable portion of the parking space has been acquired by the government for its Metro Rail project.
File image of the invitation printed during its inaugral function with a graphic representation of the theatre's proposed outlook
So, they had informed their employees, around 20 of them, close to three years ago that the day of closing was not far ahead. “When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we decided to call it a day,” Natarajan adds. He cuts a long story short. “Earlier, when films were played in reels, only four theatres were there in all of Chennai. Then came digital, and the number of theatres grew. People preferred watching films in theatres close to their areas, the footfall reduced. Then theatres came inside malls which offered people more than just the movie-watching experience. We could not compete with multiplexes. We gave it a lot of thought before making this decision,” Natarajan explains.
The end of an era?
The writing on the wall has been clear for theatres such as Agastya for a while, pandemic or not. Earlier this year, AVM Rajeswari and Maharani, two big single-screen theatres, shut down. Multiplex Owners Association Secretary N Venkatesh says, 'Such theatres were already having a difficult time coping. The government does not grant permission for the splitting of a big screen into smaller plexes. This made it difficult to make profits. In 1994, Tamil Nadu Cinemas (Regulation) Act section 5A was updated, making it mandatory to obtain CMDA (Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority) permission to remodel a theatre. Applications were rejected and soon it became unprofitable to run single screens in the city,” he tells TNM.
“Consider this. Between 1986 and 2006, over 20 theatres on the T Nagar-Mount Road stretch have closed down and have become malls and real estate spaces. Seats have shrunk by nearly 15,000 in Chennai alone,” he points out.
Venkatesh continues, “In 2004, there were nearly 2,850 screens in Tamil Nadu. At this point in time, about 106 films were being released per year on an average. Now, as per December 2019, about 300 films released that year. But we only have 1,145 screens. Nearly 500 are single screens, concentrated mostly in towns.” Of these 500, Chennai has about six. Venkatesh counts, “Anna Theatre, Casino, Mahalakshmi, Basha in Parrys, IDreams and Bharath. That’s it.”
Agastya's interior | photograph courtesy: Balaji Maheshwar
Venkatesh claims that while there are about 40,000 screens in China, for a population of about 200 crore, in India, the number is just 9,000 screens for a population of about 130 crores.
“Consequentially, the kind of films being made too have changed. Earlier we had more artistic films being made. Now, we don't have enough screens and filmmakers would like to play safe by making commercial films. In any debate, we can see that those from the industry talk about how small budget films never get breathing space in theatres. Can you imagine why?” he asks.
Time to change viewing experiences?
Now, with the pandemic still raging, the Tamil Nadu government has put a lid on its decision to open movie theatres. Most single screen theatres come with the advantage of bigger seating space and almost all of them are still naturally ventilated; two features that could work well in post-pandemic cinema viewing. Multiplexes with the tightly packed, air-conditioned spaces, on the other hand, are considered a hotbox for virus spreading.
With that being the case, can single screens with their wide parking lots, be converted into drive-ins? “Not sure if drive-in might work for a city like Chennai. Earlier when Prathana had just opened I could drive to the theatre in just half-hour from my house in Kilpauk. Now, the same journey takes about two hours. True, Agastya’s big parking lot may have been an advantage. But with the Metro project and the already congested roads, it may not have been viable for us,” says Natarajan.
While we don't know yet how things will pan out for theatres and cinema viewing, it is clear that theatre owners will have to reinvent their spaces in order to bounce back and become profitable once again.
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