Indian cinemas reboot after months of blackout from virus


After seven months of total blackout, cinemas reopened Thursday in several parts of India with few older titles on the marquee and shows limited to half the capacity.

The reopening of movie theatres comes at a time when India’s confirmed coronavirus tally surpassed 7.3 million. The country is registering the highest number of daily cases globally, and is expected to become the pandemic’s worst-hit country in the coming weeks, surpassing the U.S.

Nearly 10,000 theatres closed in mid-March following coronavirus restrictions. Now, they will become one of the last few public places to reopen outside high-risk areas as India further opens its economy. But they still pose some of the biggest infection risks: the virus can spread easily in closed spaces.

To minimize the danger, seats are separated. Show timings will be staggered and digital payment encouraged. Masks and temperature checks are mandatory.

“We have put everything into place, maybe more than what has been prescribed. The entire cinema touch points have been provided with anti-microbial films,” said Gagan Kapur, regional head of the PVR Cinemas in New Delhi.

Some Indian states have been cautious.

Authorities in Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, put off reopening cinemas for the time being. The southern Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, is the worst-hit state with nearly 37 per cent of the country’s COVID-19 fatalities.

Every year, Bollywood produces more than 2,000 films that feature complex dance routines, singing and a spectacularly large and lavish cast. It unites a diverse nation and is India’s best-known brand globally. The industry’s success over the years is also a boon for the economy, which, since the pandemic began, has nosedived to its slowest growth on record.

As theatres reopen to an audience that has embraced moviegoing as part of its contemporary culture, it’s seen as a step toward kickstarting an industry that boasts of being the world’s largest producer of films.

No big releases

But Indian filmmakers, reeling from zero box-office returns in this pandemic year, have so far not lined up any new big-ticket releases and have pushed their films directly to online streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

On Thursday, many theatres across the country re-released earlier hits.

Films like Tanhaji, a historical epic about a Hindu warrior who rises against the Mughals, Thappad, a social drama on domestic violence, and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, a rom-com featuring a gay couple, were played across multiple screens. PM Narendra Modi, an unabashed hagiography of the Indian prime minister that was released last year, also ran on some screens.

The reopening of cinemas comes as trends suggest a decline in new infections.

India saw a surge in July and added more than 2 million in August and another 3 million in September. But it is seeing a slower pace of coronavirus spread since mid-September, when the daily infections touched a record of 97,894. It is averaging a little more than 70,000 cases daily so far this month.

Tally questioned

But some experts say that India’s tally may not be reliable because of poor reporting and inadequate health infrastructure. India is also relying heavily on antigen tests, which are faster but less accurate than traditional RT-PCR tests.

Health officials have warned about the potential for the virus to spread during the religious festival season beginning later this month.

“The next 2½ months are going to be very crucial for us in our fight against corona because of the winter season and the festival season,” Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said Wednesday. “It becomes responsibility of every citizen to not let our guard down and follow COVID-19 appropriate behaviour to curb spread of the infection.”

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