The State government on Friday reversed its January 4 decision allowing 100% seating capacity in cinema halls. Instead, it has said that cinema halls can hold extra shows.
It allowed 100% seating after the Tamil Nadu Theatre Owners’ and Multiplex Association requested the government to increase occupancy limit, from the previously allowed 50%, for Pongal releases.
This has come as a blow to producers, who were hoping to draw movie fans, in large numbers, back to the theatres, for Pongal. Despite the State government allowing theatres to reopen in November, with 50% capacity, theatre owners were desperate to operate at full capacity, as big budget films such as actor Vijay’s Master and actor Silambarasan’s Easwaran were lined up for Pongal and producers did not want to release new films in theatres at 50% seating capacity.
In a G.O. issued on Friday, the government explained retrospectively that theatres had been allowed to operate with 100% seating capacity, keeping in mind the welfare of the workers in the cinema exhibition industry. However, a letter from the Union Home Ministry, to the Chief Secretary, urging the State to stick by the Union government’s recommendations, regarding the easing of lockdown norms, seems to have forced the State’s hand on the issue.
“Keeping in mind the Centre’s recent recommendation and that a case is pending regarding this issue in the Madras High court, single-screen theatres and multiplexes inside malls will be allowed to function with 50% seating capacity. Based on the orders of the Madras High Court, theatres can screen extra shows,” the G.O. said.
The G.O. further added that people frequenting theatres should adhere to precautions such as wearing face masks and adhering to distancing norms inside the halls.
R. Paneerselvam, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Film Exhibitors’ Association, said revenues would continue to go down, if theatres operate at 50% occupancy. “The permission to screen extra shows has come as a breather. This will help cover loses to an extent and will infuse confidence among families to walk in to watch films,” he said. Mr. Paneerselvam also pointed out that a representation would be made to the State government on Monday, requesting flexi-pricing on tickets.
Earlier in the day, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court directed that 50% seating occupancy should be maintained in theatres till January 11. The court had sought the State’s response in a batch of public interest litigation petitions challenging the G.O. [since withdrawn].
A Division Bench of Justices M.M. Sundresh and S. Ananthi had observed that the COVID-19 pandemic knows no borders or consequences and hoped that the State government would consider the issue in the right perspective.
During the course of the hearing, Assistant Solicitor General L. Victoria Gowri submitted that guidelines [permitting only 50% occupancy in theatres] have been issued by the Centre for States and Union Territories and the same cannot be diluted. The Union Home Ministry also communicated this to the State Chief Secretary.
Representing the State, Additional Advocate General Sricharan Rangarajan submitted that the State was considering it and sought time to get instructions in this regard on January 11.
On behalf of the Theatre and Multiplex Owners’ Association it was submitted that theatre owners suffered a lot in the last 10 months due to the pandemic. Theatre owners will follow guidelines and not bypass anything. Flight services have resumed and political parties are conducting meetings.
Counsels for petitioners argued that the government permitted 100% occupancy without proper consultation. Instead, the number of shows could be increased to protect the interest of the theatre owners.
The judges had said that the suggestion to increase the number of shows could be considered, with minimum time in between to sanitise the halls, and adjourned the case till January 11.
In the principal seat of the Madras High Court, Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy advised caution. While stating that it was heartening to note that the number of cases were on the decline, the judges, in an interim order, said it was advisable to err on the side of caution and avoid being complacent by allowing 100% occupancy in theatres. Senior counsel Satish Parasaran, arguing a PIL petition challenging the government’s decision, pointed out that it was in contravention of the Centre’s advisory. Advocate General Vijay Narayan contended that the decision to permit 100% occupancy was taken as the spread of COVID-19 was more or less under control.
Observing that it was a very encouraging sign to hear that the numbers were dropping, the Chief Justice said that, nevertheless, it would be better to wait until the situation improves further and allow the threat to subside further possibly after the administration of vaccines.
Since the case in the Madurai Bench was heard first, the Chief Justice directed the Registry to tag the case filed in Chennai, along with the one in Madurai and list them for joint hearing over there on Monday.