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Exhibitors feel pain of the lockdown but understand producers’ decision to go online

Manoj Desai, executive director of the G7 multiplex and Maratha Mandir, and Mukta Arts shared their views on producers releasing their films directly on the internet.

Keyur Seta

Two months after a countrywide lockdown was imposed in what seems increasingly like a futile attempt to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty looms over how it will be lifted. Barring medical supplies and other essentials, most businesses have been hit hard. Worst hit, probably, are cinema halls, which have been shut for an indefinite period.

The uncertainty has prompted some producers to release their films directly on OTT (over-the-top) platforms. The producers of at least two major Hindi films, Gulabo Sitabo (2020) and Shakuntala Devi (2020), have announced the online release of their films. But doing so cuts theatre owners out of the business.

Row over digital releases: This too shall pass, say industry insiders

Manoj Desai, executive director of Mumbai’s G7 multiplex and the legendary Maratha Mandir cinema, said there is little they can do because cinema halls are not deemed an essential service. “What can we do? I guess the virus likes Mumbai and Maharashtra a lot. It’s just not going from here,” he remarked. “The lockdown will continue until things improve. As far as cinema theatres are concerned, it will be the last priority [of the government]. There is no other way and we can’t do anything.”

Interestingly, Desai had produced one film, which gives him a perspective on what producers are going through currently. “I understand their concerns because I, too, was a producer once when I made Khuda Gawah (1992). If I had been ready with that film today, I could not have afforded [to keep it lying there],” he said.

Producers' Guild calls for empathy, solidarity as fault lines between producers and exhibitors widen

Subhash Ghai's banner Mukta Arts, which is into production as well as exhibition, also supports the producers. “We understand the pressures of both businesses and the risks involved,” the company said in a statement. “This pandemic has thrown a lot of additional uncertainty into these businesses and this has led to some decisions being made by producers about the primacy of the cinema-going experience. We believe these decisions are temporary and under the strain of the prevailing environment.”

Mukta Arts also called for unity in the industry to fight such crises. “We believe that if the industry is to emerge from this pandemic stronger and more vibrant, then it needs to confront the issues together,” the statement said. “An ‘every man for himself' situation will only be detrimental.”

But Desai believes not all films can be released online. “Big screen is big screen,” he said. “For example, Akshayji [Akshay Kumar] will never let Sooryavanshi (2020) go digital. But he can take Laxmmi Bomb (2020) the digital way.”

Last month, Akshay Kumar had offered financial help to Desai after learning that the exhibitor was struggling to pay his staff because of the shutdown. But Desai politely turned down the offer, saying he might consider it in May. Asked about it, Desai said, “I haven’t thought about anything and I haven’t even spoken to him [after that]. I will continue the way I am as much as possible.”

In the latest update, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray had an online meeting with prominent personalities from Marathi cinema and said the reopening of theatres is likely to take time.

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