TNM spoke to a few popular movie critics about their thoughts on returning to theaters to rewatch films and the precautions they will take to stay safe.
As we approach the end of 2020, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel, with positive updates on an effective COVID-19 vaccine. The Indian government began a phased reopening of businesses around August this year, after a strictly enforced lockdown that began in the last week of March. Movie theaters were allowed to reopen across the country in October. The dates were left to the discretion of the states. Among the southern Indian states, Karnataka was the first to take the plunge.
Choosing to watch a movie in a theater may be an option for most of us, but for movie critics it’s now a professional hazard. TNM spoke to a few popular movie critics about their thoughts on returning to theaters to rewatch films and the precautions they will take to stay safe.
Calling the experience of watching a movie in a cinema hall nerve-wracking, screenwriter Subha J Rao says, “Incidentally, cinemas reopened in Karnataka, but I didn’t make it out. I don’t think I’ll be near a theater anytime soon, because while I can be sure I’m going to mask up and be careful, I can’t expect or be certain that others in the room will will do. It’s too stressful an experience.
Explaining that she also has elderly people at home, she continues: “My parents, who are in their 80s and 70s, live with me, and I can’t risk bringing an infection back home. Moreover, watching a film under such stress, will we really be able to understand the film as it should be? I doubt.”
As if to echo these sentiments, some theater owners and film producers in Karnataka would have has decided to close shop until January next year. But their distress has more to do with the fact that the times are not right for a profitable business. “Yes, it’s a traumatic phase for those who make films, but you also have to decide whether to go to the theater or not based on the risk factors,” adds Subha.
In Tamil Nadu, after a long wait, theaters reopened on November 10, just before the Deepavali festival. The state is following Union Government protocols which only require 50% occupancy rates and regular disinfection, among other things. However, apart from Christopher Nolan Principle released in India on December 4, few new movies were released in theaters.
Baradwaj Rangan, film critic and editor of Film Companion South, who plans to watch Principle to the cinema, shares: “I would only go if the film is really worth it and if the cinema guarantees compliance with standards. I’ve heard that even in some of the high end theaters in town, people take off their face masks once inside the venue.
Subha recalls a dangerous experience that happened at the start of the pandemic. “My last film at the theater was Kannum Kannum Kollaiadithaal and it turned out to be more of a horror show than a thriller because someone two rows in front of me was coughing continuously, without a mask,” she recalled.
Now more than ever, it’s important to remain cautious, even as some people are seen outside without face masks in the belief that the pandemic is already a thing of the past. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) classifies movie theaters as high-risk spaces, primarily because their infrastructure is an air-conditioned, enclosed room.
While Baradwaj makes sure to wear a face mask at all times and keep sanitizer handy, the environment inside a movie theater, where stale air circulates, is of serious concern. “What is also very worrying is that everyone seems to think the coronavirus is gone. For me, going to the cinema is more of a professional risk. I also go to interviews sometimes. But with theaters, I limit myself to one or two places that I trust,” he adds.
The governments of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh are still considering giving the green light, but Telangana has become the third southern state to allow cinemas to reopen. As industry players encourage people to go and watch movies in cinemas, a Hyderabad-based critic told TNM that December will likely just be a testing ground for next year.
“They’re testing the waters this month to see how audiences warm up to the idea of returning to cinemas. Depending on this, they will see if they can plan medium or high budget releases for the Sankranthi festival in January. If the public reaction is not great and the fear persists, then most of the big movies will be pushed back to the summer,” he says.
However, he adds that he has no plans to go to the cinema in the near future. “I don’t plan to enter a movie theater or preview room at this time due to security concerns,” he says.
But are critics lacking the theatrical experience? “It’s a very mixed response,” Baradwaj replies. “The lifespan of a film in a theater is only about 3 weeks. After that, the film is watched only on the small screen. Also, I’ve never seen some of the greatest movies, like Citizen Kane Where 2001: A Space Odyssey, on the big screen. I’m sure today’s millennials would have watched some of Rajini and Kamal’s greatest hits just on the internet or on TV,” he adds.
Neelima Menon, a film critic from Kerala, adds, “Between theatrical release and OTT release, I would always go for the former but given the situation, I don’t really feel like going to the theater yet. Maybe after the vaccine comes, I’ll be brave enough to try. So at the moment, definitely not for theaters, although just scanning BookMyShow and such apps gives me strange joy.