(Note: This is Onmanorama's special project that tracks the impact of lockdown on people from different strata of Kerala society. Read all the nine stories here.)
As you enter the deserted Sree Padmanabha theatre in a corner of the busiest street in Thiruvananthapuram, the cleanliness seems cinematic. The tiled floor and the partly wood-panelled wall of the old-world lounge shine like in a Mani Ratnam or Priyadarshan film where such surfaces are given a glossy oiled look. It feels like sacrilege to walk in with the shoes on.
Not just the skin, the circulatory system of the theatre is also kept in fine flow. “The projection mechanism is highly advanced but so fragile that we have to maintain it on a regular basis. We play it for one hour, at least twice a week. Same is the case with the sound system, it is tested minimum once every week. The generator is run at least 15 minutes daily,” Girish Kumar, the owner of Sree Padmanabha, said.
But there is something tragic about this preparedness, like in films where a mother constantly dusts and tidies the room of her dead son. Girish is unsure about the future of traditional exhibition centres.
The competition will worsen. Nearly 25 new screens are set to open in Thiruvananthapuram alone. Filmgoers have also taken a liking for the home theatre model popularised by Netflix and Amazon Prime. COVID-19 precautions will also keep occupancy low.
Last January when theatres opened, despite screening a Vijay movie ('Master') and two Mammootty films ('The Priest' and 'One'), Girish found himself staring at losses. “My monthly losses crossed Rs 10 lakh,” Girish said.
Only 50% occupancy and three shows were allowed. “When a big star film releases, we normally conduct five and even six shows daily. Night shows were our biggest earners and they were banned,” he said. Add to this, the additional Rs 60,000-Rs 70,000 Girish had to spend a month to keep the halls and premises sanitised.
Truth is, debts had accumulated long before. The pandemic just put a sudden and absolute end to the dwindling revenue that theatre owners used to service a portion of their debts.
Television, multiplexes and the wide-release strategy that saw superstar films releasing in mofussil centres had undermined city-centred single screens. Girish tried to pamper his viewers back. He invested crores in technology and comfort (DTS-Dolby, Dolby Surround, digital screening, 2K, 4K, reclining seats, floor lights), all the while keeping the ticket rates low.
Debts mounted. And then in 2018, a sudden blast of early morning short-circuit fire burnt down more than half of Sree Padmanabha. “What was left was just a shell,” Girish said. Sree Padmanabha was constructed in 1934 by his grandfather, the legendary P Subramaniam, the founder of Merryland Studio, one of the first big production houses in South India.
More crores were spent and, in two months, the theatre was revived with state-of-the-art 4K projection. Just when Girish thought he was standing up to the competition, the virus arrived.
Initially, the invasion did not seem worthy of a disaster movie plot. When theatres were asked to shut down on March 12, there were just 14 active cases in Kerala. If anyone had then thought up cinematic 'end of the world' scenarios – ghost cities, floating corpses, abandoned theatres – Girish would have dismissed them as crazy.
More than COVID-19 numbers, Girish was then focused on the release of the Mohanlal-starrer, 'Marakkar- Arabikadalinte Simham', on March 26. On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a total shutdown.
The falling meteorite was still out of Girish's frame. “We thought theatres would open by Vishu. When that did not happen, we hoped to open by May, for the Ramzan releases. June came and went, and Onam, too. By then we had lost heart,” he said.
Revenue dried up, but his pocket kept draining. Not only as interest, but also as taxes and other government charges. “We now pay nearly Rs 50,000 monthly as fixed power charges. Besides, we pay a huge amount as building tax and cannot default on the monthly share we pass on to the KSFDC and the Chalachithra Academy,” he said.
To survive, Girish knows he has to find other means of income. But abandon Sree Padmanabha, he never will.
“I remember the first show of Vijay's 'Master' last January. We were opening after nine months. Our Merryland logo appeared on the screen and just when the film began, there was a tremendous applause. It was so overwhelming that I teared up. I knew I would cry if I sat any longer. I walked out,” Girish said, all the while smiling at the thought but repeatedly turning his gaze and moving his fingers over his eyes as if dust had fallen on them.
This eruption of collective joy, it was clear, can never stop exciting him.