Cinemas in several parts of the country opened after seven months on Thursday with a few film enthusiasts venturing warily into movie watching in a COVID-19 'contactless' era of alternate seating, 50 per cent capacity and packaged snacks.
While theatres and multiplexes remain closed in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Chhattisgarh, they opened in several places, including Delhi and parts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, with stringent dos and don'ts in keeping with the new normal.
Pointing out that they were the first to close and among the last sectors to open as India 'unlocks', theatre establishments were optimistic about the first step towards normalcy.
But it was a quiet reopening with just a scattered few overcoming their COVID fears to trickle in to watch a mix of regional and Hindi reruns such as Chhichhore, Thappad and Tanhaji besides the new English release The Spy.
PVR, India's largest film exhibitor with 845 screens in 176 properties across 71 cities, said 10 states and four union territories had given their go-ahead. Accordingly, PVR started operations in 487 screens.
While they will resume commercial screenings on Friday, Cinepolis and INOX, the other big players in the business, started showing films from Thursday with an emphasis on safety measures, including stringent sanitising and social distancing.
PVR Ltd Joint Managing Director Sanjeev Bijli said the next two weeks will be a trial run for the theatre chain but the cinema business will bounce back.
"By the time we hit November, pre-Diwali, we hope to have some big films come out. Again not massive like Sooryavanshi or 83, which I believe are now going to come during Christmas, but even now we have new releases like Bunty Aur Babli and Sandeep Aur Pinky Farrar, Tenet, David Copperfield, lots of Tamil films, Bengali and Punjabi movies, so there is new content," he told PTI.
Devang Sampat, CEO of Cinepolis India, said the company as well as its employees were excited about reopening their doors for the public.
"As we all know, the lockdown came suddenly and brought various challenges, like finding a way to keep a good communication with team members and customers.
"Over time, we developed robust processes and discovered that teams can interact remotely and still keep a high level of productivity," he told PTI.
Alok Tandon, CEO of INOX Leisure Ltd, said cinema aficionados were waiting for theatres to reopen.
"We are certain the SOPs prescribed by the I&B Ministry, clubbed with some of our exciting technology-driven measures and concepts like private screenings, will help us welcome back our guests in our own unique style," he added.
In the national capital, most cinema halls remained closed and a few that reopened attracted very few audience members. Some of them held special screenings for COVID-19 warriors or staff members and their families.
PVR Naraina's first show was a special screening of Thappad for 40 coronavirus warriors, including doctors and civil defence volunteers, while staff members and their families watched Tanhaji at PVR Cinema's at 3C's Mall in Lajpat Nagar.
At Cinepolis cinema in Greater Kailash, only five tickets were sold for the 11.30 am show.
The SOPs mandated by the Union government include one seat distance in halls, masks at all time, proper ventilation and air conditioner temperature settings at above 23 degrees Celsius.
Besides mandatory temperature checks, masks and touch-free hand sanitisers, multiplexes have gone digital with e-tickets instead of traditional paper tickets, self-check in with QR codes, sharing of the auditorium's seat chart and location of the seat and online ordering of food and beverages.
Though the ministry of home affairs has given its go-ahead to resuming cinema and theatre activities under Unlock 5.0, it has left it to individual states to take a final call.
With producers reluctant to release new films, it will take a while before new content returns to theatres as producers have deferred the release of major Bollywood movies.
Cinephiles who want to re-watch or catch up on movies they missed watching on the big screen can enjoy Sushant Singh Rajput's Kedarnath, Ayushmann Khurrana's Shubh Mangal Zyaada Savdhan and Dream Girl; Malang and 2019 space drama Mission Mangal, besides Hollywood hits Bloodshot, Lion King, Ford vs Ferrari and Knives Out.
In Kolkata, theatre owners are looking forward to the Durga Puja week for new Bengali movies to release. They hope to open screens from October 21-22.
12 Bengali films, including some re-releases, have been lined up for screening during Durga Puja.
Sourav Bose, the owner of Basusree Cinema in Kalighat area, said Kedarnath will be screened from Friday.
"During Durga Puja, we will screen new Bengali film SOS Kolkata," Bose said.
Satadeep Saha, a prominent film distributor, said 22 single-screen theatres across the state are screening Kedarnath from Thursday.
SVF cinemas, which owns 13 multiplexes in Kolkata, will open its doors from Friday with all the standard protocols, a spokesperson said.
In Bengaluru, most theatres will open from Friday in anticipation of the weekend crowd.
In Puducherry, only one theatre was running shows while a mall in the city would resume screening in two of its theatres on Friday. Lack of new releases and the closure of halls in neighbouring Tamil Nadu was also a reason.
In Andhra Pradesh, theatres remained shut on Friday despite the go-ahead from the government with film exhibitors citing various constraints, primarily steep maintenance costs.
India has a around 8,750 screens. Of these, 3,100 are in multiplexes and 5,650 are single screens operating mostly in small tier II, III and below cities.
Many cinema halls closed even before the lockdown started.
Several states, including Delhi, Kerala and Maharastra, directed cinema halls to close between March 11 to 16 till March 31, 2020.
The Central government later directed a nationwide lockdown from March 25.