Around 10,000 cinemas closed about seven months ago following India's Covid-19 outbreak. Seats will now be separated, show timings staggered and online payment encouraged.
Cinemas have reopened in several parts of India with a few older titles on the marquee and shows limited to half the capacity.
The reopening of cinemas after seven months of total blackout 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 US.
After the recent loss of several luminaries to coronavirus, cancer and even suicide –– as well as a Bollywood drugs scandal –– the industry is desperate for some good news.
But even if movies are reopening, filmmaking still hasn't rebounded. Reeling from zero box-office returns in this pandemic year, Indian filmmakers have so far not lined up any new big-ticket releases and have pushed any films they have made directly to online streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Every year, the $2.8 billion juggernaut produces more than 2,000 films that feature complex dance routines, singing and spectacularly large casts, serving to unite a diverse nation of 1.4 billion people. The industry’s success over the years has embedded moviegoing into India's contemporary culture and been a boon for the economy, which, since the pandemic began, has nosedived to its slowest growth on record.
Nearly 10,000 cinemas closed in mid-March following coronavirus restrictions. Now, they will become one of the last few public places to reopen outside high-risk areas.
But they still pose some of the biggest infection risks: the virus can spread easily in closed spaces.
To minimise 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.
PVR is India's largest operator and lost $30 million in the last quarter.
"Right now, what we are working on is getting the confidence of people back by letting them know that the cinemas are safe and secure," said Lalit Ojha, a regional director for INOX, the country's second-largest multiplex operator.
"We are hoping to have a blockbuster release at Diwali," Ojha said, referring to next month's Hindu festival that usually spells a bonanza for cinemas and retail businesses.
Bollywood home hard hit
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 percent of the country’s Covid-19 fatalities.
The reopening of cinemas elsewhere, however, comes as trends suggest a decline in new infections.
Today, I presided over a meeting with the Heads of all #AIIMS & Central Govt Hospitals on #COVID appropriate behaviour.— Dr Harsh Vardhan (@drharshvardhan) October 14, 2020
The meeting was held via virtual conference.@MoHFW_INDIA @PMOIndia #Unite2FightCorona pic.twitter.com/6SlVlzHakc
Lack of health infrastructure
India saw a surge in infections in July and added more than 2 million in August and another 3 million in September. But it is has been seeing a slower pace of 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.
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 two-and-a-half 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 the responsibility of every citizen to not let our guard down and follow Covid-19 appropriate behaviour to curb spread of the infection.”