Rest in peace, dear Anupam
Mourning the demise of an entity that revolutionised movie-going in Delhi and thereafter all over the country
Back when he was a student at Delhi's Hindu College, like everyone else, entrepreneur Ajay Bijli would frequent the Capital's theatres like Archana and Sheela. The first thing that would strike him, he told me (during an interview) once, was the incredible gap between what he saw on screen — larger than life images, stunning-looking heroes and heroines, the colourful environment they inhabited — and the dank life of the theatre you were in, to gawk at this scenic world from.
I know what he means. As would you — if you watched movies in cinema halls/talkies in the '90s. They were supposed to be slumming experiences, what with torn seats with zero recline, stinky loos, negligible leg-space, shitty flooring, etc. But what choice did we have? And besides, what did we pay to deserve any better anyway?
This would be the predicament of any other film buff. Bijli's was no different, and his family was in the trucking business, that he joined, with presumably very little interest.
But there was still something Bijli could do as a movie buff since his family also owned a (run-down) theatre, Priya Cinema, which I'm guessing no one cared for much as the numbers were hardly enough to take seriously.
Bijli took up Priya as a side-project of sorts to spruce it up, in fact, over-haul it completely — introducing in its schedule top Hollywood releases to match the swanky interiors. Within days, Priya began to rival Chanakya — up until then the hub for quality entertainment in Delhi (with the popular Nirula's downstairs to dabao 'big-boy' burgers, and hot-choc fudge, after a film).
As it used to be with cinemas before malls, the fact that Priya became the city's favourite haunt, with school and college couples sticking around for back-to-back shows — sometimes for the film, but often for the exquisite company, inside a plush dark hall — the complex Basant Lok in the tony Vasant Vihar neighbourhood, sprang to life with a whole new ecosystem of bars (India's first TGIF opened there), pool parlours, and fast-food joints.
It's in 1997 that we heard the owners of Priya had opened something called a multiplex (India's first) in Saket (in south Delhi) — Priya Village Roadshow (PVR), Anupam-4. What's a multiplex? Several (as in four) screens, simultaneously playing films inside a single theatre! Ah, what again?
Well, that wasn't so important to know under our meagre monthly allowance during school as a frickin' ticket cost around R75 (the going rate then was R25-30). So, then? The government came to the rescue, stipulating that the front row seats be priced at R7, to ensure beggars like us could still be choosers.
A separate box-office got created at the back of the building with police lathi-charging crowds lined up to pick up single stubs (since you could only buy one R7 ticket at one go).
Soon as we entered, we felt like Alices in Wonderland, observing wide-eyed what a theatre could be — a civilised place to chill, pick up flavoured popcorn, along with a picture from multiple choices (sometimes starting at 11 pm), feel cushion under our bums, carpets beneath our feet. Besides, of course, feel a film, the way it should be.
Since '97, Bijli and his company PVR have spread their wings with close to 800 screens across the country — a profitable scaling up that he reckons is only possible in India. "For one, consumer appetite is incredible. Two, you can hedge your bets between 1,500 movies in a year (impossible anywhere else in the world) — depending on location/language. So if films on two screens (playing Hindi or English) in a Bengaluru theatre is going empty, the third one (in Tamil) could be packing crowds (justifying the overall expense)."
Also, he says, 65 per cent of a multiplex's revenue comes from the film itself, 25 to 30 per cent from food and drinks, and the remaining from advertising. There's much talk about OTT platforms (Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar etc., which primarily dominate web-series space) being a threat to multiplexes.
But the fact is that a PVR, which often puts in an investment of a crore plus (on sound plus projection), or an IMAX theatre, upwards of Rs 7 crore, will easily trump a home theatre system, no matter how good. Multiplex chains globally are doing exceedingly well. PVR is not an exception. Some PVRs, like the one in Mumbai's Lower Parel, or the Inox Insignia in Worli, seem like fine-dining restaurants, that also serve films.
Don't know where we're going with this. But it all started with Anupam. Which, I hear, is no more. Curtains came down on India's first multiplex last week. It might be refurbished to something even more high-end by next year. Maybe there's something to cinemas with human names. Read the news. Felt like a friend/acquaintance passed away. Felt the same when Delhi's iconic single-screen Chanakya shut down — to be replaced by a PVR multiplex, by the way. Hah, sound old; that's all!
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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