Cash crunch forces Indian town’s cinemas into a long intermission

Locked gates of Milan Talkies. Photo by Zeyad Khan

Milan Talkies used to be a cinema hall. Now it’s locked behind iron gates, home to a family of stray dogs who growl when other dogs show up to urinate in its dark corners.

Recently, the theatre’s owners installed two more dogs there. A German Shepherd named “Roosi” and a Doberman pinscher named “Tyson” guard the property against intruders who would ransack the place for scrap metal and wooden planks. Tied to the leashes just outside the arcade, they occasionally bark to let people know they’re there.

Milan Talkies and Krishna Talkies are the only two cinema halls in Ganjdundwara, a quiet town in western Uttar Pradesh, about 250 kilometers from New Delhi. Both have been closed since mid-December after Prime Minister Narendra Modi abolished 500- and 1,000-rupee notes and moviegoers stopped showing up. The government’s move wiped out 86 percent of the money in circulation, causing a major cash crunch.

“Do tell me if you find some work in Delhi. I have wielded the pen my whole lifetime and am now too old to work as a labourer,” said Acche Miyan, booking clerk at Milan Talkies until the shutdown cut off his paycheck.

After he failed to find another job, Acche Miyan had to move in with his in-laws. The savings from his 6,000-rupee monthly salary are not enough to start a business or a shop.

“I have been working in Milan cinema since it started 27 years ago and have built a considerable influence in the town in the past years. Everyone knows me here. It was because of me no fights ever took place in the theatre,” he said. “It will be really embarrassing for me if I had to resort to do some menial work.”

Ganjdundwara lies in the midst of the fertile Ganges River plains. The estimated 45,000 residents mostly rely on agriculture, hand-looming and textiles. It’s the place where people from neighboring villages come to do their weekly grocery shopping. Between sips of over-steeped tea, people talk about politics, exploits of the local cricket team, the ongoing state elections, the effects of demonetisation, and without a doubt the closing of the movie houses.

Locked gates of Krishna Talkies. Photo by Zeyad Khan

“I had to go to Kasganj, 35 kilometers away, to watch Aamir Khan’s ‘Dangal’ and have still not been able to watch Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Raees’. If the film was playing in Ganj, it would have been first day, first show”, said Shahenshah Khan, 27, a local businessman and self-certified film expert of Ganjdundwara.

“Earlier they were saying, the theatres will open in the beginning of January; then they extended it to January 10, but now it’s nearly the end of the month and they are still not telling us when they plan to resume their services,” he told me when we spoke in January.

India produces the most number of films in the world, with single-screen theaters being the backbone of the industry since its early days in the 1920s. Though urban multiplexes bring in a huge amount of box-office sales, 8,500 single-screen theatres still contribute about 35 to 40 percent of a film’s earnings. These theaters, usually found in smaller cities and towns, have long formed an integral part of the emotional, historical and cultural consciousness of India’s heartland.

At Krishna Talkies, dozens of pigs roam the cinema hall and the deserted streets outside. A piece of paper pasted to the whitewashed wall near the gate of the theatre says the space is available for parking space rentals and godowns. Torn posters of films in the Bhojpuri language as well as dubbed Telugu-language films hang on the walls. Rusted, abandoned rickshaws stand inside the parking space.

Ram Kishan’s paan and cigarette shop in front of the theatre used to be the centre of activity when the cinema hall was open. “Now the area remains deserted and only pigs roam here,” he said, waiting for customers at his stall on an empty street. “Few people come here after the sun sets and my income has nearly halved.”

Manoj Kumar, 42, sits by the paan shop and plays the song “Meri Mehbooba” from Shah Rukh Khan’s 90s film “Pardes” on his Chinese phone’s music player. His tailor shop lies just opposite the hall. “Even after more than two months, most of the banks in the villages are not giving more than 3,000 rupees. Who has the cash to get their clothes stitched?” he said.

His friend, Sanjeev, said he’s been going to Krishna Talkies since his childhood. He has seen old standbys like “Coolie” and “Mard,” and recent ones like “Gadar” and “Sultan.”
Krishna Talkies was the first cinema hall in Ganjdundwara, opening in 1985 with “Teri Puja Kare Sansaar”, a film about the goddess Maa Sherawali (also known as Durga) and containing Hindu devotional songs. The last film which played here before the government’s cash ban forced it to shut down was the south Indian action film “Ek Ziddi”.

Torn film posters at Milan Talkies. Photo by Zeyad Khan

It was on the seedy side, Sanjeev said. “The kind of films played here are not suitable for ladies and families, and women going to cinema halls is not part of our culture. Moreover, this particular theatre invites an especially vile and indecent crowd. Now they have generators, but earlier the light used to go out in the middle of the show many times. Then the audience used to shout, kick the seats, abuse the owners and laugh at each other.”

Hari Om Gupta, 50, is the manager of Krishna Talkies. He has run it for the past 30 years. “It was the first theatre in the whole of Ganjdundwara, a matter of pride in those days. In days after the cash ban, the attendance reduced to just around 20-25, whereas the seating capacity is much more. Out of the eight people employed, six have been fired while the two still remain on the roll.”

Ankit Garg, the theatre’s owner, cites dwindling attendance for the layoffs. “In normal days, we would host up to at least 300 people or sometimes even more if the film was a hit. In the last few weeks, it dropped to around one-tenth of that. The cinema compound has a lot of space, which is now utilised as a parking space and godown for traders in the area”.

His cousin Rishi Agarwal said they hear in nearby towns that people are coming back to the movies as the effects of demonetisation ease. “Let’s hope the theatre can be opened once again. Maybe at the end of February or by Holi,” he said. “It’s mostly the poor labourers, farmers and cotton spinners who used to come here, and they are waiting for it to be opened eagerly.”

The owners said single-screen cinemas were suffering even before demonetisation, but the cash ban may just be the final push. They discounted ticket prices to 30 to 40 rupees to attract viewers, but it hasn’t helped much. High licensing fees, rising taxes, producers demanding good returns, the rise of multiplexes and video pirates have done their part to erode these movie houses’ foundations.

Rishi Agarwal said single-screen theatres have not been able to keep pace with technology either. “Most new films don’t come on prints anymore. Every single-screen theatre had to install the new satellite technology system costing about 4-5 lakh rupees, a cost many could not bear.”

Industry experts say nearly 500-1,000 theatres have closed down since November. Most of the films released in the aftermath of the cash ban earned less than their projected ticket sales, forcing many distributors to go for only-multiplex release for their films.

And all those erstwhile moviegoers? Since the theatres closed, many go to mobile phone shops to load up their memory cards with pirated movies. They cost 5 rupees each. Business is booming.