‘We are hoping that the cinemas come alive by end-June’

Going to the movies is like a mini-vacation. The Daily Guardian chats with Sanjeev Bijli, Joint Managing Director, PVR Cinemas, to discuss the road ahead for multiplexes, especially in the post-Covid era.

The big screen cinematic experience is a real thrill. The treat of lying back on a plush, padded recliner, enjoying a Japanese Bento Box, served up by an attentive steward is irreplaceable. Gone are the days of crawling into a nondescript, dark and dank smelling theatre, wolfing down a greasy alu tikki burger with onion and tomato along with pumpkin ketchup! Only to watch Mithun doing his greasy swagger and running around trees with a buxom Ranjeeta. Instead, now when you walk in to watch a thriller like Andhadhun at PVR Luxe, you are assured a few hours of pulsating excitement.

The credits roll in and the movie begins. The film script has very dark and grey undercurrents, with hints of the paranormal. The audience is on edge, watching Tabu smashing the glass table in an underground basement, ready to kill her prey, Ayushmann Khurrana. Only the whirring sound of the air conditioning can be heard, and an earth-shattering scream rips across the theatre. Hackles rise, as Tabu whips out a knife. The high voltage, acutely-engineered sound system accentuates the smell of danger.

An exciting two hours later, you leave the theatre relieved and happy. Now forced into the world of streaming OTT cinema, people are missing this high that PVR is known for. With impressive tableaux of 800 screens, across 170 locations, PVR sets the tone of modern-day cinema viewing. Are we going to be denied this pleasure and for how long? Sanjeev Bijli, Joint Managing Director, PVR Cinemas, talks to The Daily Guardian about his journey so far and what got the brothers—Ajay and Sanjeev—to build the brand PVR. Excerpts:

Q. Tell us how you began the journey with PVR.

A. It all began in the 1990s with Priya Cinema that was a family asset portfolio. Scenario then was of single-screen cinemas, old, dilapidated, infested by rats, with movies like Ganga Jamuna Saraswati playing! I had just finished my undergrad at Manchester where I first experienced watching films at a multiplex theatre and saw an opportunity there.

My elder brother Ajay Bijli and I decided to get into a joint venture with The Village Road Show, an entertainment company based in Australia. I moved to Tasmania for three months where I got trained in the entire gamut of multiple screen cinema management, the scheduling of the films, the decor, the staff management, branding. I even learnt to work the popcorn machine.

Q. Was it tough to convert the Indian audience from the antiquated cinema hall experience to this slick multiplex thrill?

A. Not really. The ancient theatres were dying institutions. Seats were uncomfortable, canteens were badly run, the theatres themselves were ramshackle. Whereas the multiplex promised to bring in a new avatar of cinema, well run, slick. Our first screens were at Anupam that opened in 1997. The first day itself we were overwhelmed with the response. God was kind.

It’s not as if the multiplex cinemas had not already launched in the UK and the US. In a matter of time, they would have come to India as well. We just happen to be the first one to bring it to India. As luck would have it, even the movies started getting better. There was a revival of Hindi cinema. We as youngsters looked down upon Hindi films. Suddenly it became fashionable to watch Shah Rukh Khan do his jig on the silver screen with A.R. Rahman rendering music for films.

Q. How did you judge which film to invest in and which not?

A. We run all films on revenue share and have a complete programming team sit out of Mumbai and work closely with the producers to decide how many shows to select, how many screens. And that is how programming and scheduling of movies works. We follow a few principles. For instance, a movie like Padmaavat will herald 3,000 shows while a smaller movie much lesser. We know the pulse of the people and try and give the viewers enough choice to watch a movie that is bound to be a hit. It’s like carpet warming.

Q. Many impatient filmmakers are releasing their movies on NetFlix and Amazon Prime Video. What is your take on that?

A. This period is unprecedented. We are living in historic times. Even Partition was not that bad because the enemy is invisible. There is so much talk of business and the economy collapsing. My take on that is the world has lost 300,000. What can be worse? If producers have sold their film to an OTT platform, they must have had a massive compulsion.

Otherwise actors, directors, producers do want to see their movies on the silver screen. We cannot stop them; it’s their livelihood and we are all in a pickle. Besides, as Ajay says, you can’t compare a retired player to an active one. We will be back in the reckoning. So many people are living in cramped, living spaces. They want to get out. I am sick of my couch. That is the first thing I will change once the lockdown ends!

Q. Even the Oscars are considering awarding online originals? Do you think this will affect movie theatres?

A. That is nothing new. Last year three online films were nominated. In Hollywood there is a very strong opposition by directors like Steven Spielberg and Cristopher Nolan. India is divided. I see it as yet another platform to watch films. Cinemas have survived many technological invasions. We will continue to coexist. Movies like Avengers can only be seen on the large screen.

Q. Will the audience return to a centrally air-conditioned cinema hall?

A. I think we all have to be smart enough to differentiate facts from myths. This fear-mongering, paranoia does not help the economy. It is the worst pandemic. Who will you believe: The scientists or a WhatsApp from your neighbour? By now we all know the rules: Wear an N95mask, wash your hands often, maintain social distancing, look after your elders, shower once you get home and you will be safe from the virus.

Globally, so many surveys have proved that cinema is one of the few places where you are safer with a mask on, looking straight in front at the screen. The transmission is not as much as when you are face to face in close quarters to someone at a beach or at a party drinking, smoking without your mask on.

Q. What are the measures you will take to keep your audience Covid-safe?

A. We are hoping that the cinemas come alive by end-June. Lockdown 4.0 is almost over. Only malls, hotels and restaurants remain closed. We are members of Global Cinema Federation and we are hoping to relaunch by end-June and gear up for the release of Tenet by 17 July. We have submitted all the safety and precaution protocols to the Ministry of Home Affairs and await its instructions.

Q. How will you ensure the audience is safe from Covid-19?

A. There is a whole protocol in place. We are looking at cashless transactions. The masses must download the PVR app to book their ticket and meals-beverages online. They should download the Aarogya Setu app for their own safety. Thermal temperature screening will be undertaken at the entry point. Cleaning-sanitising of the halls will be ramped up to three times more.

We have brought in a new UV Laser technology that kills bacteria and virus. Doctor-driven physical check-ups of our employees will be done weekly. Sneeze shields will be worn by all the staff. Hand sanitisers that are pedal-based will be deployed everywhere. There will be two set of hygiene protocol maintained at the cinemas: one at the entrance and one before you enter the auditorium.

Q. Your one message to movie buffs.

A. Take care, don’t believe in myths, believe in facts, be safe. We are ready to bounce back and have taken the safest and best steps to welcome you back to the world of experiences, PVR. Let the good times roll. Caption: Sanjeev Bijli, Joint Managing Director of PVR Cinemas.