Batman: The Lego Movie was to start in 10 minutes but Deepak wasn’t buzzing. Its footpath-facing box office window remained idle, as did its solo food counter. Hindi songs weren’t blaring in its courtyard or inside its modest advertising-free toilets.

At the entrance of the 91-year-old single screen theatre in Mumbai’s Lower Parel neighbourhood, third-generation owner Punit Shah personally greeted the last of the four walk-ins. “Enjoy the movie,” Shah said with a smile as he tore the ticket stub. Then, in a true the-show-must-go-on spirit, Batman began.

“We are a single screen, not a multiplex in a mall that attracts default footfalls,” Shah said. “All average films here draw this small a crowd. It’s the bigger releases that do well.”

Off screen, re-branding Deepak has been no less of a battle for the Shahs. Ditto for single screen owners across Mumbai, who have been hit by the popularity of colour television sets and video cassette players in the 1980s and multiplexes in the ’90s. According to a 1992 rule, in Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad and all regions across Maharashtra that come under municipal corporations, cinema owners cannot redevelop their properties without including a movie theatre on the premises. This essentially means that once a cinema, always a cinema, even if partially.

Several single screen theatres in the rest of the country have been steadily shuttered since multi-screen cinemas spread after the first PVR multiplex was opened in Delhi in 1997. The capital’s 84-year-old Regal Cinema was the latest casualty. In Mumbai’s Lamington Road neighbourhood, single screens such as Apsara, Novelty, Swastik and Naaz have shut down. Of the 1,200 cinema halls across Maharashtra, only about 470 remain, according to Nitin Datar, president of the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India.

“Higher taxes, growing digitisation and increasing competition from multiplexes are forcing single screens out of business,” Datar said. “Those who are in the game are there just out of love for cinema, for sentimental reasons, or to carry forward their ancestors’ legacy.”

There are single screens that have shown resilience and retro-fitted themselves to boost footfalls. New Excelsior in Mumbai’s Fort area, for instance, was recently refurbished, while Deepak went in for a different kind of makeover.

‘Stop sulking and start changing’

“Instead of sitting and sulking we took Deepak’s revival as a collective challenge,” said Shah, a masters in business administration from Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. “Infrastructure was upgraded. My wife, an interior designer, refurbished the space in line with the original aesthetics. As a family we decided to make Deepak more personalised and hospitable.”

Deepak was started in 1926 by Punit Shah’s grandfather, Tokershi Jivraj Gandhi. Before it became a cinema hall, Deepak was a venue for musicals and circus shows. Shah is unaware of when the transition took place, or why two sturdy white elephants guard Deepak’s courtyard. “I know they were cut out of a single rock, but by and large they remain a mystery,” Shah said. “Maybe they were props with some role to play in the circus.”

Up until the ’90s, Deepak screened A-list Hindi films. When business began winding down, Punit Shah’s father, Sahadev Shah, turned to Telugu and Bhojpuri movies. With ticket prices in the Rs 30-50 bracket, these films brought in working-class crowds, including mill workers, taxi drivers and vegetable vendors. Huddled against Deepak’s powder blue façade, they would often stop by to check show timings.

Not anymore. Deepak, at odds with the changing demographic and Lower Parel’s transitioning skyline, had to evolve. With skyscrapers eclipsing the surrounding chawls, corporate offices and resto-bars populating the neighbouring Kamala Mills and Todi Mills, and a PVR multiplex coming up at the High Street Phoenix shopping complex four kilometres away; Deepak had to re-strategise.

So it did.

Pratham Gokhle/Hindustan Times.

Shah took charge in 2013, and the family decided to revise Deepak’s offerings to appeal to a more affluent demographic. In February 2014, Deepak Talkies became Deepak Cinema. The seating capacity was downsized from 850 to 450. Cushioned seats replaced rickety chairs. Projection was upgraded to 2K and sound to Dolby 7.1. Air-conditioning replaced creaky fans.

“The shift in content was the most significant overhaul, though,” Shah said. “We completely stopped showing Bhojpuri and Telugu films, and joined hands with media and technology company Matterden to screen classics and world cinema. Slowly we started showing Hollywood films and Hindi movies that weren’t too crappy.”

The 10,000-sq-ft property, divided into three sections – stall, upper stall and balcony – employs ten people, with Shah and his brother-in-law, Raj Shah, running the show.

“Foreign and Hollywood films pull in the maximum crowds,” Punit Shah said. “Some Hindi movies run houseful for weeks, as did the December release Dangal. Jolly LLB 2 also did fantastic business.”

With pizzas, dim sums and cranberry-flavoured mojito, Deepak’s menu is multi-cuisine. The ticket prices, naturally, are also higher – Rs 110 to Rs 300.

“Just look around – real estate has boomed,” Shah said. “The entire Elphinstone-Lower Parel stretch has metamorphosed into a buzzing commercial, cultural and residential district. So why not cater to that crowd?”

Deepa Thomas fits his description. Having accidentally discovered Deepak on Twitter two years ago, she would catch the latest Hollywood releases there with her fiancé. Now married and in Delhi, Thomas is still nostalgic about Deepak. “I’m a retro girl and a big fan of Bombay of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” said Thomas, the founder of a corporate communications firm. “Single screens are an integral part of that Bombay. Deepak is a charming heritage theatre and I enjoyed watching films there. Never more than 20 people. Nobody on their phone. No long queues for popcorn or to pee. It was like owning a private theatre behind my office.”

Besides movies, Deepak also rents itself out to keep its revenue stream well-oiled. For Rs 45,000 an hour for the auditorium and Rs 25,000 an hour for the al fresco section, you can hold pre-wedding shoots, private screenings and even mourning meets here.

The varied offerings can sometimes be tricky, said Matterden founder Pranav Ashar. “People travel to see quality content,” he said. “Unique programming is what attracts them. More than yeh theatre kyun nahi chal raha hain, people want to know, wahan kya naya chal raha hain.”

Whatever becomes of Deepak, it will resist becoming the next single screen to fade away from the cityscape. For taxi drivers, it’s a landmark they can no longer afford to step into. For film buffs, it’s a creative hub to dissect Ingmar Bergman over popcorn. But for the Shahs, it’s their elephantine legacy that has been revitalised with one focus – stay relevant, and in the race.