Sushant Singh Rajput's last theatrical release 'Chhichhore' is among the films that will get a big screen re-release on Thursday as cinemas in several parts of the country ready to open after seven months in the shadow of a pandemic.
While theatres and multiplexes will remain closed in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Chhattisgarh, they will open this week in several places, including Delhi and parts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, with stringent dos and don'ts in keeping with the new COVID-19 normal.
Ushering in a new era of movie watching, the Union government allowed multiplexes, cinema halls and theatres to reopen from Thursday within the framework of a set of standard operating procedures. The ministry of home affairs left it to states to take a final call on the matter.
PVR Cinemas, India's largest film exhibitor with 845 screens in 176 properties across 71 cities, on Wednesday said 10 states and four union territories have given their go-ahead for the reopening of cinemas.
Accordingly, PVR will start operations in 487 screens from Thursday and hope that other states will soon give their green signal too.
The SOPs mandated by the Union government include one seat distance in halls, 50 per cent capacity, masks at all time, proper ventilation and air conditioner temperature settings at above 23 degree Celsius.
The multiplex chain said it hopes to build customer confidence with an "Evangelism" phase which will give people a chance to experience its enhanced safety features first-hand. This phase will involve goodwill screenings for the company's employees, health workers and the police force and their children.
The movie screenings will begin from Friday, October 16, and tickets will go live on their website as well as other ticketing platforms from midnight.
Like the others in the business, INOX Leisure Ltd said it has introduced security checks like mandatory masks and temperature checks besides staggered entries, intermissions and exits.
The theatre chain will completely rely on e-tickets instead of paper tickets and an all-in-one SMS with links for the QR code, auditoriums seat chart and access to F&B menu.
"We are also looking to innovate with private screenings, where families or smaller groups of guests can book the entire auditorium and enjoy the content of their choice," its CEO Alok Tandon said in a statement.
Cinemas have to deal with the double whammy of COVID fears and old content and have their fingers crossed as they prepare to rollout a different kind of movie going experience.
As theatres managements scrupulously sanitise their premises in preparation for the big day and hope for audiences to warily trickle back in, the fare is likely to be a mix of international, Hindi and regional language cinema but basically old titles.
It will take a while before new content returns. The release of two major Bollywood movies -- '83', about India's cricket world cup victory, and 'Sooryavanshi' starring Akshay Kumar -- has been pushed to Christmas and next year, respectively.
So, if PVR will screen earlier hits such as Keanu Reeves' 'John Wick 3', Ajay Devgn's 'Tanhaji' and Tapsee Pannu starrer 'Thappad', Bihar-based exhibitor Vishek Chauhan, who runs the Roopbani Cinema in Purnea will play Rajput-starrer 'Chhichhore'. The hope is perhaps that audiences will return to theatres to watch Rajput, the Bihar-born actor whose death in June has the nation agog.
"Even before we had shut down, the business was skewed towards big films... We will be back only when we get a 'Sooryavanshi', '83', or 'Radhe'. Till then, it's all about getting our act together," Chauhan said.
PVR Cinemas CEO Gautam Dutta was optimistic the industry will emerge stronger and more robust.
Cinepolis India CEO Devang Sampat said they had lined up an exciting bouquet of Hollywood and Bollywood hits of the past.
"(We have) '1917', 'Bala', 'Malang', 'Shivaji Surathakal' and 'Thappad' to name a few. We are communicating our safety protocols to patrons through multiple media channels to address the hesitation of the people," Sampat said.
According to industry insiders, India has around 8,750 screens -- 3,100 in multiplexes and 5,650 single screens operating mostly in Tier 2 and 3 cities.
Many cinema halls shut down even before the nationwide lockdown came into effect from March 25 and managements are hoping desperately to get back to work.
In Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called a meeting of theatre owners to discuss the last minute details before they open their doors to the public.
However, several key states such as Maharashtra have not yet taken a decision.
"Maharashtra is an extremely important market for us, occupying the largest percentage of our screen share," said PVR's Dutta.
Nitin Dattar, owner of a theatre in Karad in the state and president of the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India, said it will be difficult for owners to stay in business if cinema halls do not open in Maharashtra soon.
"Our losses are huge. (Hindi cinema) producers will be reluctant to release their new films if theatres don't open in Maharashtra," Dattar said.
Stakeholders are also fine-tuning details in various states.
In Gujarat, for instance, cinema halls are likely to reopen from Saturday because theatre owners have not been able to reach an agreement with distributors on re-running old films.
"We (multiplexes in Gujarat) are not starting from tomorrow, as we have not been able to decide the terms of re-running old movies with distributors in Mumbai," said Gujarat Multiplex Owners' Association member said Neeraj Ahuja.
In Chhattisgarh and in Punjab, the respective state governments have not yet given their permission for halls to reopen.
Central Circuit Cine Association member Labhansh Tiwari said they will have to retrench their staff members if the shutdown continues to be in force.
"Because we have a higher case fatality ratio, we are not opening cinemas in Punjab," a senior official of the Punjab home department said on Wednesday.
Theatre owners in Karnataka said they are sceptical about the success of their operations as the movie buffs have already watched all the latest movies on OTT platforms.
"Multiplexes and theatre owners are ready to start their business by following the standard operating procedure laid down by the Central government but they are facing the challenge of lack of content," said Uday Garudachar, BJP MLA from Chickpet in Bengaluru and owner of the Garuda Mall.
Film exhibitors in Andhra Pradesh have decided not to reopen from Thursday despite the Centre's nod. Besides the financial burden, exhibitors are reluctant to resume business because of the lack of new titles.
It's likely to be all quiet in Assam and the rest of the northeast too.
"We have not received any notification or confirmation from the government in this regard. We have also not received any programmes from anywhere. As far as we know, the cinema halls will not open tomorrow anywhere in the entire region," said Siddharth Goenka of Goenka Enterprises, North East's biggest film distributor.
In Kolkata, multiplex chains are ready to open some of their theatres from Thursday but several single screens will take one more week before opening their doors for cinegoers.
In Madhya Pradesh, however, a few theatres are readying to open their doors.
Bhopal Cine Owners Associations secretary Aizazuddin said that "except a multiplex, no other cinema hall will reopen in the state capital on October 15 because of unavailability of the audience".
In Indore, Central Circuit Cine Association director O P Goyal said two multiplexes and two single-screen cinema halls will reopen.
Theatres will open in several parts of Uttar Pradesh too, but possibly start screening films from Friday.
Novelty cinema manager Rajesh Tandon said the company's employees were tested for COVID-19 on Wednesday.
The results will come on Thursday and the hall will be opened to the public on Friday.