Girishian Rhapsody: Diary of A Single Screen

Girishian Rhapsody: Diary of A Single Screen

Girish Wankhede22 Sep 2011

Girish revisits Kamaal Talkies, a single screen theatre in his home town after many years. It opens the floodgates of memories from his childhood and years of growing up. As he goes down the memory lane, he also looks at the current state of affairs of the single screen theaters, and delves deep into the reasons behind their fall from grace and laments how movie watching experience has changed forever with swanky malls and multiplexes.

Kamaal talkies in nagpur is one of the oldest single screen theater in MaharashtraIn front of Kamaal Talkies: Memories of a bygone era
Sad state of single screen theaters. Can they survive the multiplex onslaughtsNow playing: Laila O Laila (painted poster)
content with living in the past glory, Kamal Talkies owner Mohammad QamaruddinGirish with manager Mohammad Saifuddin Kamaal (left) and Owner Mohammad Qamaruddin Kamaal (right)
No more queues. single screen theaters show porn films to make the livingNo rush at the ticket counter
Once the darling of film distributors, single screen theaters are shutting down to make way for malls and multiplexesDeserted Parking lot: No cars here

The day was hectic but evening seemed to be quite dull. Nothing important was left to be accomplished. I was afraid it didn't give me the same feeling I usually used to get whenever I had unscheduled evenings in Nagpur. This was a rare instance in last six years when I had some space and no engagements were planned. As a normal Mumbai Media guy, I map my itinerary with extreme care stuffing all the meetings and visits “cut-to-cut” keeping me absorbed till late nights. Here, the meeting was cancelled and I was stuck. I stumbled upon some unlikely room (read vacuum) today. I took a deep breath to come to terms with this sudden awkwardness. I thought of catching up on a film. A film buff is a film buff is a film buff. Strangely, having worked in Multiplex Industry for all these years, it still didn't redeem my passion. Whenever I am alone, I can think of nothing but Cinema. As a change, I wanted to relive it but with a different stroke. I hastily looked up the list of people I can call and before the same old feeling of solitude started creeping in, I had made up my mind. I got company in three friends to be the part of my adventure. It's not every day that someone visits Nagpur from Mumbai and decides to visit KAMAAL TALKIES. With slight initial hesitation, the bunch agreed.

The street adjoining Kamaal Chauk, where popular KAMAAL is situated was sparsely crowded with some new shops (read bars) and supermarket like establishments throwing bright yellow lights here and there, struggling to create an ambience of sorts. I passed through “Baba Tea House”, the landmark of yesteryears where we used to flock-in to dish out “samosas” and tea. It was good 15 years after which I was coming to this vicinity. As I stood in front of KAMAAL TALKIES, the sight nearly baffled me. The theatre looked appalling. A small concrete dire structure with shoddy KAMAAL logo at the top was surrounded by huge barren ground with uncut grass and some bicycles spread here and there (cycle stand). It was nearly deserted. On one side wall, a frame of 20 x 10 was carrying a handwritten banner of LAILA O LAILA (A) while the other side had a small box-office with Iron Q-Managers and a huge over-board showing; First- Rs 15/-, Reserve-Rs 20/-, Balcony-Rs 25/- was erected. The box-office looked same, except rates when I used to come here with my Mother and later on with friends from Indora (a locality in North Nagpur).The overall scene was lousy. I immediately managed to call on one acquaintance who readily spoke to Manager and Owner and we were in...

The interiors were sloppy and the place looked run-down. The centre wall carried a large photo-case with a film poster (30 x 40) of LAILA O LAILA along with some photos of film plugged in. Strangely, the poster was painted (black) covering the lead actress up to neck by a hand-paint. On the side wall, a torn poster of OM SHANTI OM was fixed in a rusted photo-frame and another wall carried equally soiled DABBANG. The staff greeted me in reception and an elderly white-bearded gentleman courteously asked me “KAISE HO BETA...”. I smiled amusingly and wondered whether he had recognized me coming here watching films after films during my school days. We entered a spacious office escorted by Manager Mohammad Saifuddin Kamaal and Owner Mohammad Qamaruddin Kamaal. After a natural initial rigidity of a single screen Authority encountering a Multiplex Professional (me), the conversation gradually gained momentum. It was then I started getting some sense of the situation. As I sunk into the discussion, I realized that the entire journey of KAMAAL in 60 years (it opened in 1951) can make a great screenplay. It had its ups and downs like a big biopic with all emotions and thrill and adventure thrown here and there. Few staff members who were working here for more than 20 years also shared experiences of their heydays when the films like ROTI, SACHAA JHUTHA, MUQADDAR KA SIKANDAR and ARADHANA celebrated silver-jubilees.

KAMAAL started with another single screen VIJAY, owned by the father of current Owner, late Mohammad Shafulla Kamaal in early fifties when there were only 5 to 6 theatres in Nagpur. The business was good and with MOTHER INDIA, BAIJU BAWRA and MUGHAL-E-AZAM, the crowd was all receptive to big Bollywood. With Musical sixties, the theatre was at the zenith of its exhibition with a range of blockbusters like MERE SANAM, EK MUSAFIR EK HASINA, KASHMIR KI KALI and ZINDAGI. Stars like Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukherjee, Biswajeet ruled the masses. With seventies, Amitabh Bachchan was the biggest draw. SHOLAY celebrated silver jubilee and the only Ambassador Car in the area was owned by the KAMAAL owners. KAMAAL ruled for almost two decades with several “hits” and was the toast of distributors and Producers. It hosted several shows and visits of an array of Bollywood Celebrities in Nagpur. V SHANTARAM's Marathi films; PINJARA and CHANDANACHI CHOLI ANG ANG JALI were Silver Jubilee in this Marathi speaking locality. One staff recalled how Asraniji came here during the afternoon show of CHALA MURARI HERO BANNE and stayed here meeting the houseful crowd and causing a mammoth traffic jam in Kamaal Chauk. By early eighties, many new single screens opened and the competition thickened and the theatre tally in Nagpur reached almost 30. In late eighties, another mega single screen JASWANT opened in same locality (15 minutes walk) and the box-office collections of KAMAAL took a severe beating. KAMAAL started working on releases in second/third week or mostly reruns of old classics. In late nineties, with Multiplex- invasion, the entire patronage had a loyalty-shift and the picture changed drastically. While Multiplexes packed shows of new releases with multiple screens, multiple-timings and variable ticket-rates, the B-category of Single screens like SMRUTI, LIBERTY, PANCHSHEEL and ANAD (better than now called C-category of KAMAAL, KRISHNA, RAJVILAS, BHARAT and VIJAY) picked up films in second/third week and concentrated on regional cinema (Marathi). The picture became grim (pun intended) and KAMAAL settled down to semi porn flicks dubbed from Hollywood imports or home grown south Indian Industry. With Cable-attack, the second and third week run soon became dismal. A staff pointed that when they acquired WELCOME in second week and put an Advertisement in daily newspapers, the cable ran the same film in that night and the occupancy plunged.

The distributors turn down new Hindi films to KAMAAL as the box-office collection stands too small (what do you except with rates of Rs 15/-, Rs 20/- and Rs 25/-). By the time the film runs out of steams in Multiplexes and single screens like KAMAL are ready to release it, it is shown on cable or in some cases, even on DTH and satellite channels. In fact, when KAMAAL decided to acquire SINGHAM in this week, it was shown on a popular satellite channel. The staff salaries, electricity and Newspaper Ads are regular expenses. By showing C-Grade films, the ire of local Authorities is order of the day. The theatre was sealed for three weeks a few years back when the Authorities found obscene posters. Theatre owners approached High Court and the theatre regained its run. The posters and facade-banner are to be approved on weekly basis by the Collector's Office. The cleavage is covered by black paint and then put on display. It's a regular practice and a painter takes a weekly chunk to paint the posters. The print has to be approved on Monday with necessary paper work and is checked by the Authorities. The ATR (Any Time Raids) interrupting the shows are a regular feature. While the Entertainment tax is smoothly shelved out, good-will money is also offered to local Police stations and Politicians (read Social Workers). The weekly collection comes to a paltry Rs 20,000/- to Rs 25,000/- and the mounting overheads take-out the lure of business. The court-cases fighting obscenity keep the Managers and Owner on their toes and the local Mafia often indulges in routine showdown at their premises. Media is always at bay looking out for some “masala” and dishy stories. The picture is dismal and hopeless.

Often, KAMAL is approached by local Politicians and Businessmen offering them to set-up a Mall and revamp the entity. The Theatre Owners and staff refuse to budge. They still live in nostalgia. They consider it like a heritage and a souvenir to be passed by their generation to another.....on and on. They don't want to part away with it despite all these set-backs. They still feel that the days of single screens will return and they will have runs like GERAFTAAR and DO AUR DO PANCH. The theatre will again see the same crowd they came across in MAHERCHI SAREE. The Owner lives in past glory and is content with it. New Marketing Mantras and fresh business ideas still don't cross the entrance, here. They are delighted to speak about the past and their faces lit up. They are delighted to share their experiences with elan and customary poise. They have a memoir to be proud of....and they enjoy every bit of it.

A very rare movie premiere of Mughal-e-Azam

It was a big education. The whole establishment has turned upside down. My adherence to single screen magic looked shattered. This was the place I flocked in my school days watching PROFESSOR PYARELAL and SAMRAAT. I have watched most of the classics like BAIJU BAWRA, DO AANKHEN BARAH HAATH, JAB PYAR KISI SE HOTA HAI, GUIDE, MERE SANAM, AANKHEN (Dharmendra starrer) and SAJAAN (Manoj Kumar - Asha Parekh starrer) at this place. I remember holding the hand of my mother and coming here to watch SHARAABI, bunking school. When we friends grew up in Indora and were in junior college, we used to come here in groups. The Muscular One amongst us used to take our money and handover his wristwatch and wallet to enter the mammoth crowd covering the entire box-office. You needed to push and force and jump and make your way in the crowd to put your hand in a small hole (box-office window) and yell the “class” and “number of tickets” to the box-office clerk who could be seen from another iron-clad hole (window) above the first hole. We used to wait in the corner watching the huge banners of Amitabh Bachchan, eyeing oily samosas and aalu-bondas (as vada is referred here in Nagpur) on tapree/bakda ( a canteen-like structure) and praying for tickets. After some time, The Muscular One used to come running out of the crowd with his hair rumpled and shirt half torn. With gleeful victorious smile, he used to open up his sweaty-fist where we would see the red colored muddled movie tickets. It was the moment of pure joy and we used to scream in thrill. Like Kings, we used to enter the theatre and sit on wooden planks (first three rows). The dark lights in the auditorium used to take us away to a different world. A large part of our adolescence and coming-of-age was spent on those wooden planks. Nonetheless, the initial charm and allure of Bollywood deeply dwelled inside me is all credited to this now-worn out structure.

The state of single screens is same everywhere. While some succumb to the lure of big mullah and make way for a Mall and a Shopping complex, some stay there as they are. They bid for time painstakingly to maintain the status-quo. Some manage and some fail. The list is endless and so is our yearning. Knowingly or unknowingly we come back to these magic-halls which take us back down memory lane. It has the power only we can decipher. The enchantment lying behind us needs a voice... and we surrender... as usual.

Leaving KAMAL gave me a sinking feeling. The entire years of my childhood stood in front of me. The ride was tough yet engaging and lively. The single screen culture was so much the part of my growing years. It made me whoever I am today. In opened the entire magical world of films to me. While I boarded the flight to come back to my life of Multiplexes and Malls, the depleted structure stood clear at the back of my mind. As I now enter the plush foray of six-screens Multiplex near my home in Mumbai, my eyes search of an elderly bearded staff who can come to me, smile and ask me KAISE HO BETA...

About Girish Wankhede

Girish WankhedeGirish Wankhede is Head of Marketing at Cinemax, a leading multiplex chain in India. He also looks after Film Promotions and Brand Alliances at Cinemax. Girish has been closely associated with the film industry for 15 years, including a stint in production and has unparalleled access to the people who create magic on screen, every Friday. A passionate movie lover and ardent music aficionado, Girish is someone who literally lives movies 24x7. He has pionered film special screenings in India and has been instrumental in hosting several film festivals of national and international repute, including MAMI during his tenure.

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