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Vol. XXX No. 19, February 1-15, 2021
During Bhogi, old and worn out things, ranging from torn clothes to termite-eaten furniture are discarded. But this year’s Bhogi saw something different. COVID-19 precautions were discarded in the cinema halls of Madras, to catch the ‘first-day-first-show’ (FDFS) of the film, Master on January 13, 2021. “People huddled together, foregoing social distancing. There was a huge crowd near the ticket counter. People were pushing each other in a frenzy, to get the ticket and catch the show on time,” said S. Mahizhan, 21 who watched Master on January 14, 2021 in a theatre in Porur. He saw many spectators without masks, shouting and whistling constantly in the cinema hall. They were dancing and jumping in hysteria on the entry of the hero in the film. It was utter pandemonium, with just 50 per cent occupancy allowed inside cinema screens.
Initially 100 percent theatre occupancy was permitted by the Tamil Nadu government on January 4, 2021. This move came after actor Vijay reportedly met the Chief Minister to request full occupancy in theatres, because there would likely not be much profit for big-budget movies, if screened at a half-filled theatre. “Fantastic to see theatres get 100 per cent occupancy permission from the Tamil Nadu government. Great to see cinema industry getting its foothold back,” tweeted actress Radhika Sarathkumar supporting this move.
“The pandemic isn’t over, and we have people dying till today to the disease. A hundred per cent theatre occupancy is a suicide attempt. Rather homicide, for none of the policy makers, or the so-called heroes are going to put themselves under the pump, to watch the movie amidst the crowd. This is a blatant barter system, trading lives for money,” read the Facebook post of Aravinth Srinivas resident doctor at JIPMER and this went viral on social media. But the 100 per cent theatre occupancy decision was slammed by the Union Home Ministry and Madras High Court and so the state government had to dial the full theatre occupancy down to 50 per cent two days later. Master has managed to reach Rs 100 crore at the box-office in Tamil Nadu within a week of its release, beating the records of actors Rajinikanth and Ajith, as reported by india.com on January 22, 2021. This was the film’s accomplishment even without total theatre occupancy.
It boils down to the question of how many theatres followed the COVID-19 protocols. Some Madras theatres took the 50 per cent occupancy as a mandate, and some took it as an option. Twenty five theatres across the city have been booked for exceeding 50 per cent occupancy with a fine of Rs 5,000, as of January 16, 2021. With many theatres allegedly pricing the FDFS tickets at Rs. 1,000 each, the fine amount is just peanuts. The City Police Commissioner warned that on repeated violations of the protocols including maintenance of 50 per cent occupancy – the theatre licenses would be cancelled. Deputy Commissioners of Police have been conducting surprise visits to theatres, to check if they are following the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) laid down by the government.
This process would have gone swifter and in a more efficient way if the law enforcers of the city had got the citizens to report the violations in theatres. In other words, the police could have given a phone number or a social media handle for the people to inform the instances of violations inside the theatre premises. This would have phenomenally decreased the cavalier attitude displayed by the theatre managements towards mandating the safety precautions.
Not only the theatre managements, some spectators must also be held accountable for violating safety guidelines. According to the Tamil Nadu Public Health Act, 1939 (Second Amendment) Ordinance 2020, individuals not wearing a mask that covers both mouth and nose will be fined Rs 200, while spitting and not following social distancing can yield a fine of Rs 500. If public places and commercial establishments violate the standard operating procedures, a fine of Rs 5,000 can be levied. Theatres come under the last category. It is high time that the rules are modified, and fines are levied proportional to the turnover of the commercial establishments, for their total compliance to the COVID-19 guidelines.
We cannot afford to be complacent about the declining rate of the positive cases of coronavirus in the city. “You never know if the person sitting next to you is asymptomatically affected by the virus. He/she can easily transmit the disease to you if you are close to that person for more than 15 minutes. Masks can protect you to a certain extent, but not completely. Also, vaccination can reduce fatality, but it cannot prevent the virus transmission” warns a doctor based in Mylapore.
Not following the safety guidelines, especially when the coronavirus cases are falling, is an attempt at reopening a healing wound. “Nobody follows social distancing and other precautions inside buses, trains and shopping areas. I do not understand why theatres alone are given the flak for not following the norms,” remarks Adhiban Joe from Tambaram. A theatre is a closed space with very low ventilation, where people are cooped up inside for more than two hours, which makes it a hotspot for the spread of the virus, elucidates the Mylapore-based doctor.
Public health must be the priority over upliftment of the economy. The police should increase vigil, and involve citizens to enforce the COVID-19 precautions at the grassroots, to keep the retreating pandemic at bay.