cinema theater
Ray Talkies in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad has screened many a Bollywood blockbuster since it opened in 1952 (Picture credit – Raduman Choubey)

Dhanbad: Ray Talkies in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad has screened many a Bollywood blockbuster, seeing its packed audiences ride the emotions since 1952. Its filmy fever, however, was broken by the Covid pandemic, during which the government did not allow cinemas to function.

Last month, the government reallowed cinemas to open with caution. “But, only five per cent of people returned to Ray Talkies,” said the cinema hall’s owner, Nitesh Shahbadi.

The pandemic had dented an already crumbling single screen culture in Jharkhand. From 400 cinema halls in the 1980s to 33 in February 2020, the viewership has plunged due to television, streaming platforms and stiff competition from plush multiplexes.

Following a year-and-a-half-long lull, the situation has worsened further. With a host of films releasing on streaming platforms and the fear of coronavirus constantly looming large, people prefer to watch films from their comfort zones.

As a result, only three cinema halls — two in Dhanbad and one in Ramgarh — are functional in Jharkhand.

Maintenance woes

COVID Response Watch LogoThe functional single screens are on the brink of closure given their revenue situation. The cinema hall owners, having been out of business for a year, are struggling to bear overhead costs like staff salaries, electricity, diesel for generators, municipal corporation taxes and so on.

Mithilesh Kumar, the owner of  Sri Plaza Cinema Hall in Baghmara — which has been entertaining viewers since 2015 — said that he had paid salaries to over 50 staffers between March and July 2020.

“We truncated the staff only when we realised that the pandemic will continue,” he said.

Nonetheless, he had to keep four to five staffers on board to maintain the cinema hall and its air conditioning. “We can’t afford to sustain losses due to dismal viewership as our maintenance cost is high due to the air conditioning. Minimum maintenance is required on a permanent basis,” he said.

Furthermore, Kumar has not been able to open his cinema hall since big-budget Bollywood films have not been releasing frequently — like they did before the pandemic hit.

Kumar claimed Jharkhand, where Bollywood movies are a staple, is the worst hit in terms of revenue.

“In bigger cities, people watch Hollywood movies during their weekend outings. Here, there are no takers for Hollywood films,” he said, adding, “Even in smaller towns of Bihar and Bengal, the regional languages films — Bhojpuri and Bengali cinema — draw a good response. Jharkhand has very few regional film viewers.”

The owner of Ray Talkies, Shahbadi, said that the single screens would not be able to survive such losses unless the government waives off fixed charges, like that of electricity, which was not in use when the cinemas were closed.

“We are passing through a difficult phase. In absence of government help, we will not survive for long,” he said.

Taxing times

Kumar also pressed for government support. He said that the 12 per cent goods and service tax (GST) charged by the Jharkhand government on single screens — despite being lowered from 18% — is still a lot.

“In Bengal and Bihar, the state governments waived off its six per cent share from the 12 per cent GST (charged to cinemas),” he said.

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After bring closed for more than a year, Puja Talkies opened earlier this month but has only been able to screen one matinee show a day, that too with poor response (Picture credit – Praduman Choubey)

Kumar’s sentiment was echoed by the owner of Puja Talkies in Dhanbad, Prashant Singh. He opened his cinema hall on September 3 but has only screened one matinee show per day due to lack of response. In such a situation, he feels that lowering taxes could provide the much-needed respite.

“The situation in the majority of the other states, including neighbours Bihar and Bengal, is better compared to Jharkhand due to several relaxations in taxes,” Singh said.

He also cited the example of Andhra Pradesh, where the government has offered loans up to Rs 10 lakh for single screen operators with a moratorium of up to six months on loan repayment. Further, the Andhra Pradesh government has also agreed to bear 4.5 per cent of the interest on the loan as a subsidy for a further period.

There was a certain tax pressure, Singh said as Dhanbad Municipal Corporation had not intervened with any such aid.

Singh and other cinema hall owners have written to Chief Minister Hemant Soren on several occasions, seeking relaxation in taxes. “We even sought a meeting with him to explain our situation, but to no avail,” he said.

The demands of Jharkhand cinema hall owners include a rebate on the electricity bill for the first three months when there was a complete lockdown and a moratorium for the remaining period when the cinema halls were closed.

“We are also writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding loans up to Rs 1 lakh without any demand for collateral security,” Singh said.

(The author is a Dhanbad-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)


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