Guwahati: For the past eighteen years, Narayan Deka has made a living out of projecting cinema. His income never seemed enough, but at least it was timely and he never had to worry about his next paycheck. But life took a drastic turn for him and much of the staff engaged in the movie theatre business when work came to a screeching halt in March 2020 as Covid-19 swept across the country.
It has now been more than one-and-a-half years that Guwahati city’s big screens went dark, leaving hundreds of people like Deka jobless, and pushing them towards the edge of penury. Deka, who is a projectionist at the Anuradha Cineplex, tells EastMojo, “It has been a desperate attempt to make ends meet for the past few months.”
Furloughed, he is currently working as a daily wage labourer in Guwahati. “It’s mostly daily wage work, but even in that case, it is difficult to find work under the present circumstances,” he adds.
The same suffering echoes in the anguishes of another former employee of a now-defunct cinema hall of the city. “After the cinema hall closed down, I have been chasing down different jobs after delivering newspapers for a month and selling vegetables for another,” he says.
He blames no one but fate for what the pandemic brought upon him and others like him. “Nobody expected the situation to reach this stage; but ultimately, everything happens the way it is meant to happen,” he adds.
Bad 2020, worse 2021
Earlier, it was reported in December 2020 that six cinema halls in the state, including four in Guwahati, would shut down permanently as they were unable to meet the new terms of operation after incurring heavy losses during the lockdown. These were Apsara Cinema Hall, Meghdoot Picture Palace, Urvashi, and Vandana in Guwahati; Silver Screen in Bijoynagar, and Aditi in Nagaon. After a brief re-opening, the other halls were again shut down given the rise in Covid-19 cases in March and April 2021. The fallout has brought the cinema hall employees to their knees.
Himadri Das, who manages the accounts department of Anuradha Cineplex as part of the skeleton staff, says, “My savings helped me through the first lockdown. But now, I have to continue without any savings with day-to-day expenses rising every day”.
Das, who is currently working four days a week, has to think hard before incurring any expenses. “With financial restraints, the rising price of fuel and other essential commodities, our lives are surely more difficult now,” she adds.
Shortly after the second wave of Covid-19 started, the iconic Vandana cinema hall was demolished in June to make way for a shopping complex in its place. Owner D Singh spoke to the media last month. “It’s not possible to run a cinema hall in half capacity with lack of new films and increased expenses and also provide for salary of the staff,” he said.
Speaking to EastMojo, owner of Anuradha Cineplex, Chinmoy Sharma says, “We have around 25 staff members and we continue to pay them at least half of their salary.” When asked if he plans to re-employ everyone back without any layoffs when normalcy returns, he says “Yes, definitely.”
Sharma says he has asked the furloughed workers to stay in their hometown until the situation improves before being called back to their services.
With the shadow of multiplexes, single-screen cinemas in the city were already operating in a challenging climate even before the pandemic erupted and are now severely hurt after enduring months without any revenue. “We are spending 2-3 lakh a month on fixed expenses without any income,” says Sharma.
Along with maintenance costs, the biggest challenge for Guwahati cinema halls right now is the payment of fixed electricity charges and also a power factor penalty imposed against the non-usage of minimum units.
“While we were initially given a three-month relaxation collectively along with the other industries, the industries managed to sail through but we remain closed. That is why continuing the fixed electricity charges and penalty levied is a big cause of concern for us,” he adds.
The cinema hall owners of the state have also submitted a memorandum to the Government of Assam urging relaxations. Sharma, who is also the president of the All Assam Cinema Halls Owners’ Association, says, “We have requested the government to take separate note of our case.”
What does a cinema technician do when not working in a cinema?
The biggest hurdle for movie theatre workers like Narayan Deka, who had earlier worked at Urvashi cinema hall in the city, is ‘skill’. “All my life I have operated projectors. Now I don’t know any other work besides that,” he says. The token amount he receives as salary has helped him string together a lifeline, even though it is not sufficient to run a family.
“It is a worse situation to endure with rising prices and no work and having to pay rent when one is not making any money,” he adds.
K Deka, who guards the gate at Anuradha Cineplex, is receiving the full benefits of his terms of employment but is still affected by the closure of cinema halls. With decreased workforce, Deka has to now cover for five other security personnel at the cinema.
“There were six of us; but right now I am the only one looking after the affairs,” he says.
With the restrictions on inter-district movement, Deka is currently residing alone in Guwahati. “It’s been more than three months now that I visited my family,” says Deka, who is from Darrang district.
No cinema, no popcorn: Side businesses doomed
Cinema halls are large establishments that not only generate employment for the people working inside but also have an impact on the livelihood of those around them. A young Arjun Kumar, who runs a small eatery in front of Grande Cines in Paltan Bazaar, says the public that came to watch movies made up for most of his earnings.
The pandemic, together with the lockdowns, has severely affected the fate of these small setups that existed on the fringes of the exhibition business. “Now the customers are simply not high enough,” he added.
By the time the situation improves and officials declare it safe for the cinemas to re-open, many more owners will be forced to leave the business entirely and Assam might lose 12-15 cinema halls from its approximate overall tally of 80 cinema halls. “I won’t be surprised even if the number (of closures) goes up,” says Sharma, the proprietor of Anuradha Cineplex, which recently celebrated its 50th year of entertaining generations.
The laid-off and furloughed workers are likely to be left with no other option but to look for other ways to earn a living.
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