Twilight Zone for Maha Cinema Ushers; Over 75,000 Jobless

Even while there has been much yes-yes and no-no about allowing “outside food” at the multiplexes in Maharashtra, at a modest estimate, over 75,000 employees of the state’s single-screen cinemas - 20,000 of them from Mumbai - have been rendered jobless.

“The numbers could be way higher,” admits a cinema exhibitor. “After all, cinemas are being continuously sold off for their real estate value and out of differences arising among joint families of the owners.”

Imperial Cinema in Mumbai. 

The lights have gone down steadily at the grand Mumbai single screens, notably Eros, New Empire, Naaz, Apsara, Minerva, Shalimar, Swastik and Novelty. The cheek-by-jowl Ganga-Jamuna have been shuttered for years. Satyam-Shivam is defunct. Badal-Bijli are no more. Reportedly, Lotus cinema was to re-open over a decade-and-a-half ago. It didn’t.

The number of stand-alone cinemas which once existed have not been tabulated on civic records. Nostalgicphiles today can at best cite their personal childhood favourites.

Approximately 40 single screen cinemas are on their last breath and barely functional. The 85-year-old family-owned Regal and the 71-year-old Liberty, still impeccably maintained, are fighting for survival even as footfalls are reduced to a trickle.

A ticket seller at the counter of one of Mumbai’s old cinema halls. 

Unequipped to change their professions, a majority of the unemployed – including ushers, projectionists, box office clerks -- is in a state of abject poverty.

Among the survivors, there’s the near-celebrity Naveen Rathod, a look-alike of Anil Kapoor. A bit role player, a stand-in for the jhakaas actor, and one of the leads in the spoofy Ramgarh ke Sholay (1991), he continues ushering at the G-7 complex. He’s frequently accosted for autographs which he signs with a straight face.

Naveen Rathod is an Anil Kapoor look-alike. 

By contrast, take the case of Deepak S. Javadekar, who three years ago used to head the ushering team at a multiplex in south Mumbai. Out of a job, he tried to make ends meet by working as a salesman at the counter of a snack shop. The wages, he states, were barely sufficient for him to look after the medical expenses of his ailing mother. He’s back in the league of the unemployed in the city.

Indirectly, the closures have also impacted the luxury-centric multiplexes. The audience is expected to locate their own seats, never mind if the lights have gone down.

The remains of the ticket counter of Shalimar Cinema. 

The scant lot of ushers at the ‘plexes is expected to multi-task by serving as ticket window clerks, attend to snack counters and clean auditoria after the end of shows. Responsibility of recruiting and invigilating the staffers are outsourced to private labour firms.

For the lack of any union or association – but for a fringe group which has occasionally protested against the treatment of cinema employees – there is no recourse for the once-large community of cinema staffers but to fade out, just like the single-screeners on their last lap in the city.

Alfred Cinema in Mumbai. 

The age-group which has been left out in the cold is largely between 45 and 60. Minimum wages for the skilled and unskilled cinema workforce were decreed for cinema staffers during the 1970s following the efforts of the late trade unionist George Fernandes. No retirement age was set.

Eros cinema is fighting for survival. 

Against all odds, a few septuagenarians, who can be counted on one’s fingers, are hanging on at the old-wordly cinemas in Mumbai. That they are paid a pittance, and retained solely for what the exhibitors describe as “compassionate reasons”, is another story altogether.

On the condition of anonymity, a veteran theatre manager – besuited and bow-tied – says candidly that the situation is more dire than imaginable.

If some vintage cinemas have retained staffers, it’s on tenuous terms and conditions – payable when able.

However, he adds belligerently, “Don’t just see it from one point of view. Most of the staffers who had to go were given full and final payment. ”

Doesn’t this mean retrenchment? To that, he shrugs, “They have been given golden, silver or copper handshakes, whatever. The amounts may not be great but you have to consider the fact that the staff had become redundant. The cinema watching scene is altering fast. Who knows about the future of even the multiplexes? Increasingly, the youth segment especially, is opting for streaming channels and watching entertainment on cellphones. The screen size no longer matters.”

At a low-ticket cinema in the heart of Mumbai, which essentially screens dubbed sex flicks and re-runs, the ushers and security guards can do precious little but tolerate the fact that it has become a pick-up joint.

The entrance of Novelty Cinema. 

A website details the ideal show timings at this cinema for ‘hitting’ on cinemagoers, who patronise the cinema for sex partners. The toilets and the stage behind the screen are spots where a blind eye has to be turned to the ‘sexual activity’.

The police has raided the premises occasionally. Yet the cinema, where some of Bollywood’s most successful blockbusters were premiered right down to the 1970s and ‘80s, has gone to seed, to put it politely.

A post by one JustAnotherGuy states, “The watchman was there but he appears to be friendly and told the guys not to hover around the area as the management has strict guidelines. He told them to just go back-screen and do whatever they want... the watchman doesn’t mind the activities... he just wants people to keep it discrete and low-key.”

To wrap, prominent distributor Shyam Shroff of Shringar Films comments, “What do you expect? The state of things is the way it is because of the advance of technology. The now jobless ushers and staffers at cinemas didn’t quite ever understand the importance of education. They may have loved the movies and their jobs but aren’t qualified to do anything else.”

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