Big screen, AC, surround sound: Travelling talkies are a hit in small towns

New-age vehicles kitted out with inflatable theatres and comfy seating are offering the blockbuster experience for as little as Rs 35 per seat.

entertainment Updated: Aug 19, 2018 10:07 IST
In Churu, Rajasthan, locals gather to catch a screening in a PictureTime travelling theatre. The company’s 45 vans each carry an 18 ft x 7 ft screen. They tour much of central India, taking films to regions that don’t have local cinema halls. (VIPIN KUMAR / HT Photo)

Dinner and a movie is not often an option for the residents of Chhapar, Rajasthan. The small town is about 250 km from Jaipur, and 15 km from the nearest single-screen cinema hall.

So when the PictureTime truck rolls in for the first time, with its inflatable theatre, big screen and seats for 150, crowds gather just to watch it being assembled.

“I have never in my whole life seen something like this. They just made a cinema hall in front of my eyes and it has AC too!” says Babu Singh, 22, a college student.

In the town, children run behind the announcer as he paces with a microphone, calling people to gather for a screening of the 2017 film, Bahubali 2: The Conclusion. Tickets are priced at Rs 35. Women hurry with the housework to make time for the evening show.

‘What time are you going,’ one man asks a neighbour; ‘go first and grab the best seats,’ another suggests. Inside, a screening begins, but the excited chatter won’t die down. There’s a lot of clapping; some of the seniors in the audience are chatting.

Caravan Talkies has 114 vans that tour villages in 14 states. The side of the vehicle opens up into an LCD screen to mimic the cinema hall experience.

For Puja Bhowal, 21, who works in the local ward office, this is her first big-screen experience. “I am so excited, I don’t have words to describe it,” she says.

The PictureTime travelling theatre toured Rajasthan all through June, organising 80 shows on its 18 ft x 7 ft screen, mainly of the high-octane Bahubali, this year’s Akshay Kumar-starrer Pad Man and Aamir Khan’s Secret Superstar (2017). In all, about 10,000 people turned up.

PictureTime, founded in 2015, currently has 45 such vans touring rural Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, charging Rs 35 to Rs 75 per seat. And they’re not the only ones.

Over the past five years, new-age travelling talkies have begun taking content to new markets. These are not the rough-and-ready tents with shaky picture and uncertain sound. They’re outfits that offer surround sound and seating, allied events, even interactive sessions where the movie is followed by a discussion.

‘India is a screen-deprived country. We have more than 1.3 billion people and only about 9,000 cinema screens.’

Caravan Talkies, owned by distribution company UFO Moviez and launched in 2015, has 114 vans that tour villages in 14 states, from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan to West Bengal, Odisha and Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In Assam, Aaideo Talkies was launched in 2013 up by two film institute students and serves as a platform for Assamese films.

“India is a screen-deprived country. We have more than 1.3 billion people and only about 9,000 cinema screens. But we have hundreds of films being made in more than 20 languages and the films don’t get access to all audiences,” says Kulmeet Makkar, CEO of Producers Guild of India.

“The US and China have about 40,000 movie screens each. So despite producing the largest number of films of any country in the world, India loses out on revenue. Cinema needs alternative ways of reaching to people.”

Given the high costs and overheads involved in setting up and running a theatre, this kind of mobile outfit makes sense, adds Anupama Chopra, film critic and founder of online platform, Film Companion. “In a time of dipping footfall at multiplexes, it will be interesting to see how they fare among audiences new to the big screen.”

An outside view of the inflatable, sound-proof, air-conditioned PictureTime theatre. Ticket prices range from Rs 35 to Rs 75. (VIPIN KUMAR / HT Photo)

Moving pictures

Better tech has been a key turning point in transforming this mobile movie experience. Even in the relatively low-grade Caravan Talkies set-up, the picture and sound are crystal clear in daylight and at night shows, even though the screen is essentially the truck’s doors, which open out into an LED wall about 12 ft by 7.5 ft.

Aaideo, meanwhile, has a portable 35 ft x 20 ft screen, a projector, a generator and a Blu-ray player that it takes from village to village in a lorry.

PictureTime prides itself on its tech. “The mobile element of our theatre is that it can be taken from one place to another. Otherwise it’s a semi-permanent set up,” says founder and CEO Sushil Chaudhary.

Their revenue models vary — where PictureTime relies on ticket sales, Caravan Talkies depends on advertising, typically by agricultural vehicles like tractors and two-wheelers or fast-moving consumer brands ranging from colas to biscuits and low-end smartphones.

Caravan Talkies and PictureTime typically choose big commercial release like Dangal, When Harry Met Sejal and Sultan, which have proven to have mass appeal.

Producers and distributors share film rights for a particular duration or number of screenings, because it’s a low-cost way to battle the theatrical movie’s biggest challenge — piracy. And it’s a way to monetise areas where there are no screens.

“I believe piracy is simply a function of accessibility,” says Makkar of the Producers’ Guild. “These initiatives can be a game changer because they have low overheads and so ticket prices can be kept low too.”

Aaideo’s setup is a portable 35 ft x 20 ft screen, a projector, a generator and a Blu-ray player that it takes from village to village in a lorry.

Act Two

With a new audience, you have to expect surprises, say the organisers of the travelling talkies screenings. In some areas, it helps to have women-only screenings. Tears and emotion in a film mean you can expect repeat viewings, because the men that first attended will likely return with the whole family.

The biggest surprise, though, is that audience requests are not uncommon — and they’re often for classics from decades ago.

“The first time, the audience will watch whatever is playing,” says Siddharth Bhardwaj, chief marketing officer and head of enterprise sales of UFO Moviez. “But the next time we visit the region, there are often specific films they want to see — and it may have nothing to do with what’s recently been released in theatres. In Saharanpur, UP, in 2016, the audience wanted to watch Henna, a 1991 movie starring Rishi Kapoor and Zeba Bakhtiar. Another time, a survey group that visited beforehand found that the most popular pick was the 1985 Raj Kapoor film Ram Teri Ganga Maili, which we then screened!”

This kind of customisation is also unique to the travelling talkies—only a few, fairly expensive, spaces in the metros offer this kind of big-screen experience on request.

‘Tears and emotion in a film mean you can expect repeat viewings, because the men that first attended will likely return with the whole family.’

For PictureTime and Caravan Talkies, the future is pegged on growth and expansion as they cater to this market with variety, customisation and scale. PictureTime wants to have 120 vans by March and 3,000 across the country by 2022. Caravan Talkies started out with 24 vans and now has 114. Adding screens, states and films will build its own momentum, Makkar says.

As Nitin Kaushal, 22, a farmer from Chhapar, put it, “This is an experience no one from here is willing to miss.”

For Aaideo, the future lies in a growing role in content creation too. As part of their effort to promote niche films, co-founders Pappu Kabeer and Ratna Das are currently crowdfunding their first production, a comedy feature film titled Anamay Dot Com that will look at the state of toilets installed by the government in Assam.

“Until about 15 years ago, Assam had a working commercial film industry. Now it has turned into an industry where films are considered arthouse and people watches pirated versions of Hindi movies, often on their smartphones,” says Kabeer. “We want to revive local cinema.”

Already, though, nearly 2% of India’s big screens are travelling ones. And that’s no small thing.

First Published: Aug 18, 2018 19:43 IST