Cinemas in India begin re-opening on Thursday after a nearly seven-month coronavirus shutdown

Bangalore (India) (AFP) - Cinemas in movie-mad India tentatively re-opened on Thursday but with worries about coronavirus and only old films showing, early punters were few and far between.

The pandemic has clobbered theatres worldwide but in India, home to the planet’s most prolific movie industry, it has upended a culture that treats the stars of the silver screen almost like gods.

After the recent loss of several luminaries to coronavirus, cancer and even suicide – as well as a Bollywood drugs scandal – the industry is desperate for some good news.

But it may have to wait, with some states still keeping theatres closed – including Maharashtra and its movie mad capital Mumbai – and film studios offering no new releases.

At the Sharada Cinema in Bangalore on Thursday, there was only a small trickle of customers for the morning showing of action fantasy “Kaanadante Maayavadanu”.

Temperature checks and masks are the new normal at India's re-opened cinemas

One of those in line was businessman Chandrashekhar Naidu, who said he was “excited” to return to the cinema after the almost seven-month-long coronavirus-imposed hiatus.

“I prefer watching movies on big screens, mobiles don’t give you that much pleasure,” the 55-year-old told AFP.

The Indian Express daily quoted unnamed industry executives as saying that advance bookings were very low, and some cinemas scrapped previously scheduled morning screenings.

India’s largest operator PVR – which lost $30 million in the last quarter – on Thursday was only screening movies for employees, police and their families, before opening to the public on Friday at selected locations.

Lights, camera.... and disinfectant

“Right now, what we are working on is getting the confidence of people back by letting them know that the cinemas are safe and secure,” said Lalit Ojha, a regional director for INOX, the country’s second-largest multiplex operator.

“We are hoping to have a blockbuster release at Diwali,” Ojha said, referring to next month’s Hindu festival that usually spells a bonanza for theatres and retail businesses.

Movies and their stars are big business in India

A trip to the cinema remains an affordable pursuit in India, with as little as 75 rupees ($1) buying three hours of drama, dancing and song in air-conditioned luxury.

At high-end chains like INOX, before the pandemic patrons could get biryani or hot fudge sundaes delivered to their recliners.

But with temperature checks at the door, half the seats left empty for social distancing, and only a limited selection of food, the experience now is a far cry from what was previously on offer.

- ‘Vicious circle’ -

Nervous producers have so far refrained from lining up any big-ticket releases, with many pushing their films directly to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Cinemas in India will have half the seats left empty for social distancing when they re-open on Thursday

“It’s a vicious circle – people won’t come to cinemas unless there is fresh content. And producers won’t release a movie without some guarantee that it will do good business,” film trade analyst Komal Nahta told AFP.

“Ultimately, someone will have to take a chance and release an exciting film,” he said.

A handful of producers are reportedly ready to take the risk, with at least one Hindi film, “Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari”, due for release on November 13 – Diwali weekend.

Fudge sundaes and biryani can usually be delivered to your seat in a luxury Indian cinema, but the new normal will see services pared back a little

Top Bollywood producer Aditya Chopra is also preparing to release “Bunty Aur Babli 2”, a sequel to a 2005 hit, at the same time, according to media reports.

But with India’s virus cases surging past seven million, the threat of infection remains strong, prompting authorities in Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, to put off reopening cinemas for the time being.

“Mumbai is the heart of the film industry – if theatres are closed there, half the battle is already lost,” said analyst Nahta.

In such uncertain times, if the remaining cinemas are able to sell even half the tickets available – 25 percent of normal capacity – they can celebrate, he said.

“If they manage to fill 60 percent of the seats on offer, it will be superb news for the industry.”