TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH K.C.N. MOHAN, PROPRIETOR OF NAVRANG THEATRE
Bangalore talkies was a response to the rampant onslaught on the cultural character of the city that has accompanied it’s march to support a burgeoning population.
Single screen movie theatres or ‘Talkies’ are symbolic of India’s changing urban landscape. Talkies are vulnerable to gentrification and their loss is a symptom of the larger problem where the social character of cities is becoming ever more inequitable. They are giving way to gated residential communities, shopping complexes or multiplexes at an unprecedented pace.
A combination of factors including skyrocketing real estate prices, decline in the regional film industry and digitisation of film projection has made talkies unprofitable enterprises. They lack the versatility of multiplexes, a fact movie distributors take advantage of while driving a hard bargain with them. Talkies often have huge seating capacities that are sparsely occupied - average ticket sales at most talkies is 15% of their seating capacity.
A vast disparity between the value of their assets (due to sky-rocketing real estate prices in Bangalore) and quantum of returns makes it hard for owners to resist the temptation of divesting their business. Most are continuing the legacy due to nostalgia related to a family enterprise. Those talkies that can afford to update facilities, inject capital only to realise that it’s a losing battle. Falling production budgets and a lack of patronage/viewership from the educated elite has meant that Kannada movies lack nuance and technical finesse. It’s a vicious cycle where the ageing infrastructure begins to mirror the quality of content being screened within.
It was hard not to succumb to nostalgia myself while shooting talkies. Their anachronism is a huge part of their charm with the uniquely Indian cocktail of architectural styles. While talkies are predominantly patronised by the working classes in urban Indian, the closure of Rex theatre, considered an iconic landmark of Bangalore, was an emotional moment that resonated with many across age and class barriers, many lamented the loss of a link to an old-world culture and a collective feeling of community that few edifices/institutions inspire.
Despite the obituaries, single screens are still critical to a movie’s success, especially in smaller towns and villages. A majority of screens in India are still housed in talkies and movie producers/distributors are mindful of this audience. Even urban single screen theatre owners are trying to find innovative ways to diversify their audience and pull in more numbers. While the prognosis is still dire, there is no cause to sound the death knell for talkies just yet.
An excerpt of this work was published in the Mint Lounge on 10th August, 2019. You can read the piece here
S : Could you introduce yourself ?
M : I am KCN Mohan, son of KCN Gowda –the founder of this theatre. My father was in the textile business. When he came across an ad that a civic site was for sale in Bangalore, he came and participated in the auction. At that time (1963) the entire Kannada film industry was controlled by Gujarati families and they were also participating in the auction. Ultimately, my father won the auction but the same night, the Gujaratis offered him double the price that he had bid earlier for the civic site. That got him thinking about the film field and he refused their offer.
He started constructing Navrang theatre after visiting a lot of theatres across India, he zeroed in on an architect called Mr. Vincent Isaac – the chief engineer of Tamil Nadu, originally from Australia. He gave us the design and my father started constructing around 1964. The theatre was complete in 2 years. He named the theatre ‘Navrang’ because he dreamt of screening color films in a black and white era – Navrang means nine colours.
In the beginning this neighbourhood – Rajaji nagar - was not very developed – my father struggled to feed the theatre. He became a distributor and started buying movies - particularly Tamil to screen in Navrang. At the time there was no transportation from Bangalore city bus stand on K.G road, Majestic to Rajaji Nagar so he would have a bus that was stationed in majestic circle and at the showtimes of Navrang theatre and he would offer transport, back and forth, free of cost to his patrons.
That was the base on which Navrang was built. It soon became a very popular theatre enabling my father to venture into movie distribution and production. The rest is history, it has now become one of the most iconic theatres in Karnataka. We used to be so popular that distributors often used to fight with each other to screen their movies in our theatre – often they would end up in the police station to mediate a settlement. This was the golden period of Navrang.
After T.V. and multiplexes people thought it would be the end of single screens but despite these developments single screens are still popular. There is no question of single screens getting wiped out, after all single screens have their own audience. Multiplexes cater to the so called ‘higher classes’ while we have our own ‘regular family’ people visiting single-screens even today.
Now, the theatre has crossed 50 years – we are planning to renovate the theatre. Earlier, it was a challenge to have more number of seats - now people care more about comforts, leisure and luxury. So we are doing up our seats to the standards of multiplexes and are also improving the A.C. , projection systems – 4k with atmos sound , acoustic walls and beautification of the entire theatre. We hope to complete in one or two months and Navrang will be ready to serve the people very shortly.
S : What are the changes you have observed in your 30 years in charge of Navrang ?
M : In the earlier days, making movies was a difficult and time intensive enterprise. Directors had to work with senior artists for almost 10 years and would venture into making movies. These days anyone with a bit of computer knowledge can make a movie.
Technology has made a difference. As a production assistant, I remember standing outside holding reflectors and waiting for the sun. Now we can shoot on a cloudy day because of improvements in cameras. On the flip-side, the quality of movies has definitely come down. Production used to take time earlier and directors made good films that could be categorised into different genres - family, ladies, mass, comedy etc. These days there is no genre as there is a bit of everything in most movies.
Color film was not available so easily back then, it was actually rationed by the government since it was imported. We had to make an application for color film to the government stating the length of our film. Since it was strictly rationed and you almost never got as much as you asked for. If we asked for 15 rolls of film, they used to give us 10-12 rolls of film. That is why you would see black and white movies with only one song sequence in color.
S: You mentioned that your father also produced some movies, which is your favourite ?
M : One source of pride for me is that my father produced the movie Sharapanjara (1971) – it was one of the first Kannada color movie on social issues with a female protagonist. It was very successful, a super-hit movie. Kalpana was the heroine and the hero was a beginner - Mr. Gangadhar. It was directed by the legendary Puttana Kanakan.
S : How did things change for single screens after the industry shifted from film to digital ?
M : People embraced digital because it is cost effective. Every film print used to cost INR 70,000-80,000. They would release 12-13 prints for the whole state of Karnataka and the shelf – life of this film was 3 years. Each print weighed around 50 kilos and transportation would have to be arranged between theatres and towns. The films would be screened first in A centers then B centers and so on. With digital, the films release simultaneously in cities and villages. The distributors also rented out digital projectors to us at very attractive rates making it easy for us to make the switch.
S : Since you are renovating you are obviously hopeful but what is the long term future for single screen ?
M : Whichever the theatre – single screens are not economically viable. This theatre is standing on 30,000 sq ft of land – market value of INR 750,000,000. If I sell the theatre, I can comfortably live off the interest. While running the theatre, I am not even getting 10 % of my investment – there is big disparity between asset value and returns. But still I’m not keen on selling. This is my father’s first project and I don’t want to spoil it - atleast in my days.