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The obituary of the iconic Bharatmata cinema in central Mumbai has been written several times over the past few decades. The first farewell note for the single-screen theatre in Lalbaug was issued in the 1980s, when films began to be available on video cassettes. Then came satellite television, which beamed movies into the living room. The shiny multiplexes followed with the promise of a new and supposedly more rewarding big-screen experience. The threat posed by streaming platforms is a more recent phenomenon.

“Every ten years, there has been a new challenge,” said Kapil Bhopatkar, Bharatmata’s owner. “In the 1980s, people said, it’s all over, you cannot survive and you will shut shop soon. After 2010, we had other issues that came together – terrorism, bomb blasts, multiplexes and OTT platforms, and now we have started 2020 with this new pandemic.”

The Covid-19 health crisis led to the Indian government ordering the closure of several types of establishments, particularly those that feature large crowds, over health concerns. As Covid-19 continues its rampage, theatres are expected to be among the last indoor spaces that will be allowed to resume operations.

The fate of single-screen cinemas is particularly dire. Larger than multiplexes by design, these picture palaces are expected to be gutted by the pandemic’s still unfolding economic impact. Already dealing with rising costs and dwindling footfalls, single screens will be hard-pressed to deal with restrictions on seating.

“Even before Covid, we were facing issues – for instance, low occupancy, unfair revenue sharing terms with distributors, and a range of taxes,” Bhopatkar said. “And now, with OTT platforms, many theatres won’t survive anyway.”

An undated photograph of Mumbai’s Bharatmata cinema in its heyday. Courtesy Kapil Bhopatkar/Facebook.

Bharatmata closed for renovation on March 1, only days before Maharashtra imposed a lockdown in mid-March. The proposed remodelling isn’t the only hurdle to be overcome for the theatre. Whenever cinemas open, they will have to sell fewer tickets to ensure physical distancing. Sanitising booths will need to be installed for visitors. The cafeteria, a theatre’s most lucrative source of income after ticket sales, will function with severe restrictions, if at all.

“We started using metal detectors in the 1990s after bomb blasts and terrorist attacks,” Bhopatkar said. “We will now have to ensure that safety protocols are in place whenever we open. We can’t let in people without masks, and we will be selling tickets at less than 50% of the capacity.”

Some of Bharatmata’s problems are unique, while others are common to the 100-odd single screens across Mumbai. Set up in 1939, Bharatmata was originally named Lakshmi. It came up on a corner of land owned by the National Textile Corporation mill, and was meant to provide after-work entertainment to mill superintendents and officers.

Renamed Bharatmata in 1941, the cinema ran shows depending on mill shifts. It focused on Marathi cinema and continues to screen only films in the state’s official language.

The strike across over 60 mills between 1982 and 1983 transformed the landscape of central Mumbai. Textile units across the neighbourhood known as “Girangaon” – the village of mills – shut down over the years, and lakhs of mill workers lost their jobs, never to recover them. The mills were gradually replaced by expensive high-rise buildings malls, and office complexes.

Thousands of Girangaon’s original residents had to move to more affordable housing in Mumbai’s suburbs. The neighbourhood’s character changed drastically, but Bharatmata survived gentrification by keeping its ticket prices low and continuing to focus on the latest Marathi releases. The derelict chimney of the now defunct NTC mills next door to Bharatmata are the only reminder of its link with Girangaon.

Bharatmata in the shadow of the shuttered National Textile Corporation mill. Courtesy School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Bharatmata’s original capacity was 750. The hard-backed wooden chairs were gradually replaced with more spine-friendly seating over the years, which changed the capacity to 600. The most expensive ticket costs Rs 80 – a little over what it takes to buy a plate of samosas at the average multiplex.

To be remodelled as a multiplex, as some single screens in Mumbai have done, requires a deep investment. To continue in the same way but with improved amenities – more plush seats, technologically advanced projectors to ensure better picture quality, an upgrade of the sound system – also requires a deep investment. Most single-screen cinemas cannot afford to scale up or charge higher ticket rates. A highly contagious virus that thrives in closed spaces with many bodies to act as carriers might be the final blow for Mumbai’s single screen cinemas.

“We missed the bus because the bus never came to our stop,” Bhopatkar said.

A host of regulations prevents single screens from shutting shop and converting into another type of commercial establishment. There are several discouragements to running other businesses on the premises – say, a cafe or a bookstore – that might bring in additional revenue.

“There is no flexibility, you can’t do anything in a theatre besides run a theatre,” Bhopatkar said. “You can have a canteen, but you need a separate licence if you want to run a kitchen. That is why you get the same samosas at every theatre.”

Kapil Bhopatkar. Courtesy Facebook.

The most restrictive government rule is that a theatre can be replaced only by another theatre on at least a one-third portion of the land. The rule, passed in 1992 ostensibly to protect cinemas and allow for mixed use of the property, has been a chokehold for exhibitors in a megapolis whose most valuable commodity is land.

“People who want to leave the industry should be allowed to leave,” Bhopatkar observed. “The rules say that it you demolish a single screen, it is mandatory to build a theatre on at least one-third of the plot. A change in user is a fundamental right. What if you owned a loss-making plant on a piece of land and you wanted to shut down the plant? Let the weak players go and allow the strong players to survive. Either help the theatres survive or let them go – preferably both.”

Several exhibitors may flee the business if cinemas are ever allowed to shut down permanently. Bhopatkar, despite his never-ending headaches, says he won’t be among them.

He inherited Bharatmata from his father, who in turn took over from his father. “When the video boom started, I was around seven,” Bhopatkar recalled. “I was teased by my friends that your father won’t make any money because the theatre will go, so perhaps some childhood trauma is built into it.”

Over the years, Bharatmata has managed to outlive every doomsday prophecy. “In the 1980s, my father told a journalist who asked about the future of cinemas that humans likes to spend time in the company of others,” Bhopatkar said. “Watching a movie in a theatre is therapeutic and concentrated viewing. To dress up and go to the cinema and laugh with others – that cannot happen anywhere else.”

A film on Bharatmata by Tata Institute of Social Sciences students.

Read the other articles in this series here.