This year’s Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) had a new experience for its attendees called Picture Time. Marketed as India’s pioneering ‘digiplex’, Picture Time is a travelling cinema chain that screens films in inflatable enclosures.
Audiences are offered the pleasures of an urban multiplex—including air-conditioning, digital projection and 5.1 Dolby surround sound—at a price range of `30 to `80. After DIFF, Picture Time will travel to the Delhi International Film Festival in December. They will also tour cities in Vietnam, France and Germany and are in talks with a South Korean gaming company to install mythology-inspired interactive arcades.
It isn’t a new concept, though. Canopy theatres have a long history in India. Before movie halls came up in the early 1900s, films were screened in ticketed roadshows. In 1905, Samikannu Vincent, a draftsman in the South India Railway, quit his job to become a film exhibitor.
He bought a projector from a Frenchman named DuPont and started tent screenings in Tiruchi. The film Life of Jesus became a huge hit wherever he travelled, and Samikannu soon established his first tent cinema in Madras, named Edison’s Grand Cinemamegaphone. The idea spread. ‘Tambu’ (tent) talkies became a big draw in Maharashtra. In Kolkata, Jamshedji Madan’s Elphistone Bioscope Company was already doing tent shows.
Over the next four decades, itinerant cinemas grew in rural India, often accompanied by religious festivals and fairs.
During the silent era, live orchestras would perk up the screenings, a tradition that eclipsed with the arrival of sound and the advent of the digital era. Founder of Picture Time, Sushil Chaudhary, started out as a tech entrepreneur in South America.
In 2014, he returned to India and was struck by the shifting dynamics in the film industry.
New-age multiplexes started charging more to meet high real-estate prices. “Footfalls were decreasing while revenue was increasing.
The balance was skewed,” Sushil notes. He was inspired to create an affordable cinema model for Tier-III and Tier-IV cities. “Eighty percent of our population lives in interiors, where films are the only mode of entertainment. It’s impossible for them to shell out 700-800 bucks on a movie outing and strain their monthly budget.” The prototype of Picture Time was created in 2015 at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa and caught the attention of SS Rajamouli. The next year, pilot screenings of Baahubali: The Beginning were conducted in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh.
“My favourite case study was Jashpur district in Chhattisgarh. We got a phenomenal response. Another stopover was Assam, which has many talented filmmakers but minimal exhibition space. We also got encouraging reactions in Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha,” says Sushil. A Picture Time theatre can seat up to 120-150 people. The enclosure is fire-resistant and can be erected in two hours. Electricity is a concern—so trucks are equipped with power backup.
The walls of the tent are made up of soundproofing material which are separated by air to cut out noise. “We had complaints with past models. The 2020 model has improved soundproofing. Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty endorsed our product.” But seating can be an issue since the chairs don’t have an incline. Viewing films with tiny subtitles can also be a problem. Despite all this, Picture Time has raised `80 crore in the last two years. At present, it has 37 setups in 14 states. Sushil has worked with state governments to amend the Indian Cinematograph Act, recognising ‘digiplexes’ as a commercial medium. There are festival tie-ups, but the main revenue comes from film releases.
They will present KGF: Chapter 2 in 2020. Picture Time was approached for a campaign for Dabangg 3. While commercial avenues are opening up, Sushil is committed to promoting regional and independent cinema. Satish Kaushik’s Haryanvi film, Choriya Choro Se Kam Nahi Hoti, was released on the platform, so was Brahmanand S Siingh’s child-trafficking drama Jhalki.