When Sunil Movies is pulled down in a few months’ time, an era of film projection in Ernakulam will come to an end

Tucked away in a dusty little room at Sunil Movies, near Vyttila Junction, is Ernakulam’s last analogue film projector. When the theatre is pulled down in a few months’ time, an era of film projection in the district will come to an end.

With the bits and bytes of the digital format replacing celluloid as the mainstream form of movie making and projection, the end was always on the cards. Today, 59 of the 60 theatres in the district have upgraded to digital technology. The rapid transition over a few years has left behind memories of a glorious past and has raised concerns about the future.

Eighteen years ago, when Biju from Palluruthy decided to eke out a living by sticking movie posters on the walls of Kochi, becoming a projectionist was the last thing on his mind.

However, he ended up being an apprentice to the projectionist at Palamuttam theatre at Edakochi, after the proprietor asked him to do so to offset the shortage of staff.

Today as he stands in front of Sunil Movies recalling the years of glory and gloom, the last film projectionist of Kochi knows he is standing at the crossroads of history.

“I don’t know how to operate a digital movie projector,” says Biju, who earns Rs.200 a day for handling a projector prone to human and mechanical error. Though Biju realises he is part of a dwindling tribe, he is confident of making it into one of the multiplexes in the city where there is a growing demand for projectionists. “Now, groups like PVR Cinemas are flocking to the city. I am waiting for a chance to learn digital technology,” he says.

George Augustine Akkara, regional head of UFO digital cinema, one of the leading digital cinema solution providers in Kerala, says the operator’s job has become much easier with the digitisation of theatres.

“Earlier, they had to manually mount the reels of the release print (copy of a film provided to a theatre for exhibition) on the projectors. Now, they can sit in air-conditioned rooms and operate digital projectors with the push of a button. The salary is also reasonable,” he says.

Now, all major films are digital — they are shot on high-end cameras, made into digital prints, sent out as files on USB sticks, played back from a server or a DVD at a theatre, and projected on 2K or 4K digital screens.

Vinod, a former projectionist at Sunil Movies, who works at a multiplex for a salary of Rs.10,000 per month, says the work is not physically taxing.

“You have to work from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day. But here, it’s more about being alert. You just have to keep an eye on technical glitches.”

Kerala’s experiment with digital cinema began in 2005. Director Santhosh Sivan converted his movie Ananthabhadram into the digital format and screened it at Seethas theatre in Alappuzha. In October the following year, Thrissur-based Emil and Eric Private Ltd., released the first ever Malayalam digital movie, Moonnamathoral, directed by V.K. Prakash. Shot entirely on High Definition camera, the film showed that expensive film rolls and high production costs could be obviated by going digital. With the format also promising a superior movie watching experience, wider release for films, higher revenues for theatres and curbs on piracy, the industry soon lapped it up.

“Ninety per cent of theatres in Kerala are digitised today. Soon it will be 100 per cent,” says Mr. George.

According to FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry report 2013, the film industry has achieved 77 per cent digitisation of screens in India. “These developments have resulted in increased ability to invest in differentiated content, marketing and wider releases — all contributing to greater audience engagement and unprecedented box office success across big and small budget movies alike,” says the report.

However, the going got tough for theatres that could not afford the switchover. Film prints for the latest movies were no longer available in Ernakulam. “We had to get the prints from Kottayam and Kozhikode. The widespread circulation of pirated CDs and television premiers also affected us,” says Biju.

“There was a time when movies were running to jam-packed houses at the theatre,” adds Vinod. “In fact, we once asked the distributors not to bring prints of Tamil movies starring Vijay, because of the overwhelming response.”

Then came the period of recession in the cinema industry in Kerala. After the year 2000, the continuous failure of superstar movies and the unexpected success of soft-core films made theatre owners think different. They screened soft-core movies throughout the day to get over the losses. As a result, families stopped visiting theatres. But when the trend changed, the theatre failed to take the new route, which eventually resulted in a dip in footfalls.

Despite his long association with it, Biju keeps a safe distance from the world of cinema saying it’s only a means of livelihood for him. So, there are no favourites for him among the actors or the movies. “I am my own favourite actor,” asserts the sole film projector operator in Ernakulam district with a wide angle smile on his face.