You see them by the side of a road, at the corner of a town or beside a busy market. The buildings with auditoriums inside are standing there, forlorn and abandoned, waiting with a faint hope for return to the days of long queues, houseful shows and a spellbound audience. But ten or fifteen years back, no one imagined this was what they were destined to be for these theatres were then a great source of entertainment.
I was in my hometown, Maynaguri, a few days back. Wandering aimlessly in the streets, I went to one corner of the town, where there is the theatre, Bharati. The marquee has been closed for the last few years. I am keen to see it open again, so I asked a bystander whether anything was being done to restart the shows. He told me that the owners were indeed keen but would like to combine it with some other business to make the whole thing profitable.
Elsewhere in the country too, single-screen theatres are struggling to survive with audience turning to television, internet, streaming platforms and cinemas in the multiplexes for entertainment. Technology and lifestyle have changed the way people now watch films. Now they go to the malls, do shopping, have lunch or dinner and choose movies from multiple screens available there. The digital screens offer better viewing experience with improved picture quality, sound system or even 3-D view.
However, at one time, there were only those single-screen theatres with projectors and they were part of our growing up into adulthood. My schooling was at Jalpesh and Coochbehar of North Bengal, and then I spent my college life at Howrah. During those days, every Friday, town criers used to come in cabs or rickshaws in the mornings to announce the screening of a new movie. I had to strain my ears to hear those announcements. After the morning hours of studies, I used to go to the market to see the posters, which was a welcome distraction from the daily routine.
Going to cinemas, however, required consent from parents and arrangement of tickets. Parents were concerned about our losing focus from studies and going astray. This concern only resulted in seeing only a few of them, whether it was in company with them or with friends. On those rare occasions, we used to take rickshaws or ride to the theatres on bicycles. After watching movies, we would go to a restaurant, eat egg-rolls or cutlets and come back home. Thankfully, with the artistry of great actors and directors, and music by master musicians, remarkable art films and blockbusters were made those days, and the old screen hardly made the fun any less for us.
Then there were those guys who maintained hairstyles like those of the matinee idols, roam the towns on motorcycles, loaf about the teashops and perhaps watched each and every movie screened in the town. I envied them for their freedom and way of life. Sadly, they are the kind of boys that our parents tried to keep us away from and feared we would be like, if allowed to watch more films.
While too much of anything is bad, it is tough to survive in this complex world, being innocent of things happening around us – styles and fashion, love and romance, crime and violence, and inequalities in the society. Those screens were our windows on the world and helped us grow as adults by both educating and entertaining us.
In later years, when I was a grown-up, I had the freedom to go to the cinemas with friends and colleagues. I spent the time in theatres, when I had few hours’ break during journeys just long enough to squeeze in a matinee or evening show. The theatres – Bharati, Rupmaya, Dipti, Lipi, Kamala, Bhavani, etc. just to name a few – were there almost everywhere in the country to entertain me.
‘Old order changeth yielding place to new.’ The world keeps changing and there is no point holding on to the past. Screens in the multiplexes offer better viewing experience, making it impossible for the old theatres to compete with them and survive, especially in the cities. But in small towns like mine, there is now no screening at all as for many reasons cinemas have closed. People are obsessed with televisions or smartphones, but they can hardly replace the experience of big screens and social viewing. I believe audience in small towns will return to these theatres, if they upgrade their facilities to suit the taste of the modern viewers. Coupled with these, incentives from governments can help. The theatres in small towns must survive and the show must go on.