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New Delhi: On a wintery Saturday evening in Meerut’s Khair Nagar, a steady stream of men, young and old, make their way to Apsara theatre, a nearly 100-year-old cinema hall. Some have come in groups, some are there on their own, but it is an impressive enough turnout for the latest Sunny Leone starrer, Mastizaade. Tellingly, there is not a single woman in the audience. “This film is what we call a mass film, as opposed to say a ‘gentry’ film," explains Anupam Gupta, the owner of the theatre.

And in the multiplex-dominated movie viewing world of today, single-screen theatres, once the mecca of entertainment in India, are mostly reduced to showing “mass entertainers" of the Mastizaade kind.

There was a time when single-screen movie theatres were hallowed spaces. The ticket window, known as box office, akin to a pilgrim site, and tickets to a blockbuster, all but the holy grail. “In the late ’70s, early ’80s, it was all but impossible to get a movie ticket in open booking. For a film like Kranti (the biggest hit of 1981), there were no tickets available for 10 weeks," recalls Gupta. The rush for tickets could cause traffic jams, and it was not unusual for the police to be called in to maintain law and order.

In this day and age of online booking and multiple shows a day, this scenario might seem highly unlikely, but those who have lived through the 1970s and 1980s know that movie viewing was never the spontaneous activity that it is today. It was actually an occasion.

Hearing Gupta talk about the snacks that were sold in those days (“popcorn, cold drinks and bananas") brings to mind a far simpler age. This was also the time when film premieres meant stars watching the movie in a hall with the audience and promotion meant real life interaction with the viewers, as opposed to appearances on popular TV shows as is today. Gupta has played host to several stars of a bygone era, from Rajesh Khanna to Rakhee at his theatre.

But times changed and so did the fortunes of single-screen theatres. Today, they are widely considered a dying breed, unable to keep up with the competition offered by multiplexes, favoured by neither the trade nor the viewers. Big cities, such as Delhi and Mumbai have seen the shutting down of iconic theatres. In Meerut, there used to be 23 single-screen theatres through 1980s and 1990s. Today, there are less than a handful.

“The first blow to single-screen theatres came as far back as ’80s when colour TV was introduced in India," says Gupta. The twin combination of TV and VCR was too much for the populace to resist, says Gupta, who felt that they now had a theatre at home. The problem of content was solved by pirated versions of the latest releases. At that time, the industry, as well as the movie industry, fought back with technology—stereophonic sound was introduced and it did manage to get audiences back to the theatre, but only for a short while. “In 1995, Dolby sound came to India and at a cost of 10 lakh, I got the system upgraded in my theatre," he says.

But the turn of the century brought with it more technological advancements and the arrival of multiplexes. They were not just screening movies, but also offering an entire experience to the movie viewer, which Gupta admits, was wonderful. He used to travel often to Delhi and Gurgaon to watch movies in multiplexes, both for the experience as well as to keep tabs on the competition, though he was sure that they would remain limited to cities. “But then, the first multiplex opened in Meerut in 2004, and today, we have five."

From refurbishing the hall, to increasing the seating capacity, introducing air-conditioning and even purchasing the same popcorn machine as the multiplexes, Gupta did all that he could to upgrade Apsara to the same level, but admits that it only ensured survival. “Today, distributors are not very keen to give films to single-screen owners for screening. While their terms for the multiplexes are all set, most theatre owners have to negotiate a fresh deal with every release. Sometimes, they will even refuse to give us a film, saying it’s not a single-screen film. He gives the example of Bollywood’s latest releases, Saala Khadoos and Mastizaade to make a point. While the former is a “classes" film, and more suited for a multiplex, the latter is a “masses film". With each film being screened on multiple screens at different locations, it is no wonder that the average run of even a successful movie is a couple of weeks.

Different state governments gave tax holidays to multiplexes (100% waiver of entertainment tax) for a few years (it varied from three to five in different states), which too contributed to their spread. “We requested the government to formulate similar policies for us, but there wasn’t much help extended," he says.

Continuing with Apsara is a labour of love for Gupta, who switched over to television in the 1990s. He foresaw the cable television boom and is now one of the biggest distributors for different channels in Uttar Pradesh. “You can’t make a living off single-screen theatres anymore. But it’s difficult to let go also."

This is the 16th part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization.

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