It's been a downhill journey for single-screen theatres in the tricity for the past 10 years - from being landmark entertainment hubs about a decade ago to now when they're steadily fading into oblivion.
Malls like Elante have been the biggest pullers of the crowds that used to throng theatres in the city. Keshav Singh/HT
All the six single-screen cinema halls in tricity have similar stories to tell: of their struggle to stay in business at a time when multiplexes have become a favourite destination for cinema-lovers and weekend-shoppers.
While KC and Jagat in Sector 17 and Nirman in Sector 32 have silently ceased to exist, the remaining, too, may soon join the list of bygone theatres that once entertained moviegoers for decades together.
Located in the heart of Sector 17, Neelam no longer seems to be what it was in its days of glory, stretching from the 1980s to early 2000s. Reminiscing that time, Kulbir Singh, the gatekeeper at Neelam, has memories of his colleagues and he taking the help of policemen to manage the crowds that used to swell to several hundreds back then. "We used to get a lot of importance; people always looked for opportunities to befriend us so that they could get tickets easily," he says.
(Neelam cinema in Sector 17)
But now the only crowd seen in front of Neelam is of those at the eating stalls on its premises. The situation has worsened at Kiran in Sector 22, the city's oldest theatre, and Batra in Sector 37. The two cinema halls once ran houseful shows day after day, but now attract only a handful of viewers, that too for low-budget masala movies.
The condition of KC and Suraj theatres in Panchkula, and Bassi theatre in Phase 2 of SAS Nagar is no different - all struggling to make ends meet. Surinder Kaur, a retired government schoolteacher from Chandigrah, recalls how difficult it was to get movie tickets at times. "To get a ticket during the first few weeks after the release of a good movie was a challenge for all," says the 63-year-old. "We used to consider ourselves lucky if we managed to get movie tickets in the first few weeks."
Recalling the old days, 37-year-old Ashwani Kumar, a store manager, says that they had many a times bribed gatekeepers to buy tickets of a movie's first show.
Home theatre systems, satellite television, Internet piracy and now multiplexes - all have made it difficult for theatres to survive.
Cancelled shows seem to be a common place at all of them and since 2008, most have registered annual losses between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 15 lakh. Chandigarh Film Exhibitors' Association president Naresh Batra, also the owner of Batra Theatre, says they are not sure for how long they can sustain.
Anil Verma, owner of Nirman Theater adds, "Popularity of cinema started to decline with the invasion of satellite television. But the advent of multiplexes sounded the death knell for us." Nirman Theater was closed in 2012.Pritam Sharma, the in-charge of Kiran Cinema, feels the preference for multiplexes is but obvious: "People want variety and comfort which multiplexes and malls offer and for that they don't mind spending more."
"When people can shop, dine and watch a movie at one place, why would they come to single screen theaters, which have very little to offer in terms of facilities and experience?" he questions.
(Nirman cinema in Sector 32)
Cost-cutting has entrapped these theatres in a vicious circle. With little revenue, all have been forced to spend less on maintenance, which only ends up keeping the clientele away. Manpower, too, has been reduced to the minimum - most have cut their work force down to around 15; it was 50 when business was booming. To bring down electricity bills, air conditioners are mostly turned off. They are usually switched on when 100 or more people are watching a movie.
Change's but necessary
In tune with changing times, these theatres have been exploring the options available. For conversion of existing cinemas into multiplex theatres and setting up new multiplex theatres, UT administration had introduced the Multiplex Theatre Scheme, 2006.
In the notification, the administration had laid down a condition that existing cinema halls, for converting into a multiplex, will have to have minimum three screens and retain 75% of the existing capacity of cinema seats.
Chandigarh Film Exhibitors Association has been requesting the administration to allow single-screen theatre owners to start businesses of their own choice. "We should be allowed to start any business . After all, we had purchased the sites in auctions at very high rates," says Naresh Batra, owner of Batra theatre in Sector 37.
The association has urged the administration to allow them to open hotels, have exhibition areas, boutiques, beauty parlour, health recreational facilities such as spa and gym, shopping mall and office complexes.
Supporting their demand, Chandigarh Beopar Mandal (CBM) building bylaws committee chairman and general secretary Vinod Joshi says the administration does not impose any restriction on industrialists who opted for Industrial Conversion Scheme. "Similarly, theatre-owners should be allowed to decide for themselves," he says.
The theaters in Panchkula and SAS Nagar are planning to start multiplexes with single screen, hotel and other facilities in their complex. Chanderdeep Jain, owner of Suraj Theater, says they have plan to come up with a multiplex.
Heritage is Kiran theatre's curse
Being a heritage property, Kiran theatre has been denied permission for conversion into a multiplex and the management has been forced to run it in the present state. The theatre, designed by a team led by Le Corbusier, started in 1953; the UT administration has turned downs its management's offer to sell the building. "We have not been given permission to start new business nor the administration is ready to purchase the property from us," says the in-charge of the theatre.
UT chief architect Sumit Kaur said Kiran being the first theatre of the city has been given heritage status. "As per norms, the structure of any heritage building cannot be tinkered with," he said.