It's a treacherous ride to Hathras down the Bulandshahr-Aligarh highway. Narrow roads that barely allow two cars to squeeze past, pools of rainwater desperately hoping to evaporate, potholes that make you jump two feet up even as you barely move an inch forward and deceptive bends that seem made for disastrous climaxes. Hathras is a place that must have forgotten to play in civilisation's lap, the least likely milestone in Bollywood's road to the future. But this innocuous hometown of the late Hindi haasya kavi Kaka Hathrasi is living a new dream that Bollywood's just begun chasing—a dream called e-cinema.
The fantasy is unfolding almost invisibly in Prakash Talkies, a decrepit theatre with shocking pistachio green walls. On any given day, it's peopled as much by stray cows as film junkies. A poky stall outside briskly sells oil-laden bread pakoras and privileged street dogs move in and out of the hall. Without ticket. The few good men who decide to pay for some of those not-yet-broken chairs spew betel juice along with wolf-whistles. Prakash Talkies is like thousands of other Indian Cinema Paradisos but one of the handful where a film is shown, without the film.
In its handkerchief-small projection room, the giant 35mm Zenith projector almost looks like a relic. Its carbon arclamp doesn't shoot light through film strips to create the illusion of movement. Instead, a small laptop stores images as files and pops them on to a dirty, dusty screen, desperately in need of a wash. Outside, the posters scream: Nayi computer machine dwara dekhiye Gangaajal (See Gangaajal through new computer machine). "We thought we'll start off with this film. Yeh naam bahut shubh hai (it's a holy title)," says theatre owner Giriraj. It's Day One of the new technology and the photos of Shankar and Hanuman are showering their blessings on everyone; the tilak and flower garlands adorn the computer server.
Equipment that your neighbourhood geek may see as mundane is being regarded by many as the biggest landmark yet in the march of cinema. Some have even called it "the biggest revolution since sound"! "E-cinema is the way to go in India," claims Adlabs MD Manmohan Shetty. The company, known for its motion pictures processing lab, has signed an MoU with Subhash Ghai's Mukta Arts to retrofit 400 cinemas by April 2004 and 1,500 cinemas by 2007 with digital projectors.
Music companies Tips, Time and Venus have also got together along with financiers Bharat Shah and Govardhan Tanwani, Prachaar Communications and distributors Tilak Enterprises. They have introduced it in 35 theatres in Maharashtra and have now tied up with distributor Ponty Chaddha to tap the northern market. Last heard, Shringar Films was also finalising its digital dreams.
While Hollywood itself has been hesitant about adopting the technology, Bollywood seems to be going full blast. On April 18 this year Mukta-Adlabs installed digital projection equipment in Trimurti theatre in Sangola and Bharat in Mangalwedha, both in Maharashtra's Solapur district. Since then, more than 30 theatres in the state have been upgraded. Two months ago they brought the technology to Guna in MP, and in Purulia and Haldia in West Bengal. In UP, the first theatre to go digital was Capital in Rae Bareilly on August 8, followed by Swarn Talkies in Auraiya on August 15. After Prakash Talkies on September 9, it's now the turn of Banda and Azamgarh. "We intend installing the system in 150-200 towns in Punjab and UP in six months," claims Sanjay Ghai of Mukta-Adlabs.
They are calling it a solution, not a mere experiment. Those for it claim it addresses industry problems by saving costs and opening up new ways of making money. No longer do you need to transport 50 kg of film reels in canisters.Instead, the movie will be stored in a high-capacity disc drive about double the size of a cigarette pack which will be couriered to the hall where the film can be downloaded to the server. Also, it'll be a digitally encrypted signal with an access password. This, to keep the pirates at bay. While a conventional print costs Rs 60,000-80,000, digital images come at only about 10 per cent of the expense, at Rs 3,000-8,000 for a disc.
The technology reinvents the conventional distribution-exhibition model in India. Traditionally, after doing the rounds of metros and big cities, the same prints are passed on to the B- and C-grade centres. It reaches there after a gap of five-six weeks. Says Raju Hingorani, ceo of Tips: "There are about 8,500 registered cinema halls in the country but the biggest films are released with not more than 400-500 prints." Hollywood, in contrast, reaches 75 per cent of its market in the opening week itself.
With discs, the films will now arrive much quicker in small towns, enabling faster recovery of money. For example, The Hero opened with digital prints in Sangola and Mangalwedha a week after its release in the metros, and made Rs 16,000 and Rs 12,000 respectively on the opening day itself. Earlier, the entire week's collection would have been in the range of Rs 15,000-20,000. "Now the film will make as much money in the first week as it would have in 10 weeks," says Komal Nahata of Film Information. "Earlier, a distributor would make about Rs 25,000-30,000 from a small centre, now he can make almost a lakh," says Ghai.
But the effort is largely aimed at getting the better of a menace called piracy. Pirates have been cashing in on the time lag in the film's release by showing illegal copies of the movies in small towns. With deadly effect. An average Bollywood film today loses an estimated 40 per cent of its revenue to piracy. "Since the state is doing precious little to curb piracy, the industry has decided to help itself," says Nahata.
But the businessmen aren't the only ones smiling. Ashrafi Lal, who has been the head operator at Prakash Talkies for 18 years, looks happy at his imminent obsolescence. No painstaking, time-consuming rolling and rerolling of reels, and assembling it on a platter, no splicing, gluing or taping it, no change of reels after every 20 minutes. All he has to do now is click the mouse and keep a watch. Besides, he now also has an AC in his projection room.
There's even more the technology promises to offer: the songs and scenes can now be replayed on public demand. Owners would have the flexibility and freedom in programming because two films can be stored simultaneously. Digital images are also known to have less chances of wear and tear as opposed to celluloid strips that get scratched easily.
However, what the audience will now miss are the advertisements and trailers which will eventually need to be pre-programmed. Also, the system is still on a testing mode. The picture quality is not supposed to be as good as a print and there are fears that the technology may turn obsolete sooner than expected. Moreover, the installation costs are huge. With Rs 10-15 lakh required for fitting in the system, the digital revolution could run out of money soon. But for the downbeat trade in B, C centres, it's almost like the last kiss of life. Says Anil Kumar Gupta, the partner at Prakash Talkies: "We are not able to meet our costs. We rarely get to see a housefull." On top of it, there's the huge 60 per cent tax to pay off to the state government. The last big hit in Hathras was Raja Hindustani, in 1996.
So will the laptop revive the eastmancolor dreams? "If the films do well, more funds will flow in, it'll also help in improving the infrastructure and facilities," says GhaiAt Prakash Talkies, they are already celebrating. They plan to instal fancy new gates at the entrance and spruce up the open space into a public garden. They will also wash the dirty, dusty screen, soon.
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