WAYANAD (Kerala): It's a theatre called Hope. Only, there isn't any left. "The last two years killed us," says Manager Babu Thomas in Padichira. "Before that it ran well for almost 20. We lost Rs.60,000 each year in 2002 and 2003. After that, it could not continue for long." It didn't. Prateeksha (`Hope' in Malayalam) lies locked and deserted. And has been that way for some months now. "The last movie was a new one at the time here," says Thomas. "A Mohan Lal film - Mister Brahmachari - it should have done well. But it did quite badly. There were no audiences."
Why? "The general disaster of this district reflects in our own. That's the main thing. The agrarian crisis has destroyed the spending power of our audiences. And it's not just us. Five theatres across Wayanad have closed down in 24 months. Another six or seven are facing closure."
The damage engulfing this once-rich cash-crop region now touches every sphere. "The collapse of the pepper price was a huge blow. Then the closure of so many plantations. With that, labour had no money to buy tickets," says Thomas. "Then the migrations, too, hit us."
Major tea and other plantations have shut down, throwing thousands out of work in the past two years. Besides, the Tamil migrant labourers that employment once drew in tens of thousands are far fewer now. Further, out-migration of local labour desperate for work also hit the cinema business. Prateeksha's 500 seats went empty some days.
"Often, towards the end, we just had to cancel some shows. Over two years ago, we sold 250 tickets or more daily and had three shows. Then agriculture failed and so did wages. Our sales fell to 100 tickets. (Upper class seats cost Rs.12 and lower Rs.10.) In the last months, we sometimes came down to only one show a day, selling just 20-25 tickets for it." Eight months ago, the staff - Thomas, the projectionist and the gatekeeper - brought down the curtains for the last time.
Theatre Swagat in Pulpally had closed down earlier. Fully dependent on migrant labourers, it showed only Tamil films. "When the plantation economy collapsed, so did we. Tamil workers stopped coming," says M. Jose, Swagat's owner. "Where is the money to go to the cinema," asks T. Rajan, a mason in Pulpally's Tamil colony, Meenankolly. "Our people are in fact leaving Wayanad in large numbers. There used to be 500 families here. Now, less than 100. There 's no work to be had at all."
"Before the trouble began, we used to pull in up to Rs.2,500 a day," says Jose. "We sold maybe 250 tickets (rates: Rs.13 and Rs.9) and ran three shows daily. With the crisis, this fell to two screenings. Then came days on which there were 10-15 people in the audience. I had to cancel such shows. Our running cost was Rs. 800 daily. And too many days we made less than half that."
Jose plans to build his residence where Swagat now stands. "Anyway, only the front façade and the projection room were pucca. The rest is just a shed."
Raman Kutty has no such options in Irulam. He spent a fortune building Ragini as a permanent cinema when Wayanad's economy was booming. "It's put me Rs.30 lakhs in debt," he says ruefully. "Today we have a new film, first show - and an audience of 11." (The film: Killukil Pambaram, Spinning Top.) "In 1988," says his son, E.R. Gopinathan, "we paid tax of Rs.10,000 to the panchayat each week. Now we are paying Rs. 300 a week. Things slowed down for us since 1991, but the past three years have been terrible. We would gladly sell this theatre, but there are no buyers."
Did the television/VCR revolution trigger the decline of cinema in Wayanad? After all, the richer locals live in what Kutty calls "the TV, video, CD / DVD age."
Babu Thomas is dismissive. "We went through that phase much earlier. The maximum impact of that was the loss of 20 per cent of our customers. We still did fairly well. Our main audience was poorer workers and migrants. They do not own TV sets, let alone VCRs. No, the agrarian distress finished us." "Television did cause us problems," says Raman Kutty. "But the past three years demolished us. Take the two large plantations near my theatre. Both are in collapse. The number of workers is down. The migrants are down. Wages are down. Pepper, coffee, everything is down. Only debt is up."
"My audiences had no television, cable or CDs. Only theatres," says Jose at Swagat. "They were almost entirely Tamil migrants." The destruction of their earnings killed his theatre. All the owners are clear that while several factors hurt them, "what destroyed us was "kaarshika prathisanthi" - the agrarian crisis.
Babu Thomas adds one bizarre reason to the rest. "The coming of the women's Self-Help Groups (SHGs) also undercut us," he says. When families went out to see films, he observes, women were the driving force. (The men would rather have hung out and had a drink.) "But poor workers have only one day off weekly. And once the ladies started holding their SHG meetings on their weekly holiday, it added to our decline."
One of the earliest theatres to close down was Jyothis in Vythiri. Owners T.J. Kurien and Mercy Verghese cite all the reasons the others do. But add that "audience tastes have also been corrupted by sexually-loaded films." They call these 'Shakila-trend' movies, after the famous actress of that genre. But other owners insist those films are not doing well either.
Mercy Verghese is retired headmistress of a Roman Catholic high school. "We had another theatre by the same name in Thariode," she says "That one too, we shut down. Where once we made Rs. 2,000 a day, we were getting less than Rs. 300. Honest people cannot run theatres profitably these days."
The devout owners of Jyothis have allowed the one in Vythiri to be converted into a church. Perhaps appropriate for a theatre whose name means Divine Light. Is God proving a better box office draw? It's hard to say. This structure, the St. Mary's church Vythiri, mainly functions once a week on Sundays. And you don't have to buy tickets, either. But it does have a captive audience. "We attend this church, too," says Mercy.