When I first came to Chennai in the mid-1980s, one of the attractions of the city was the drive-in theatre, called Prarthana. It was the only one, and for me having grown up and lived in what was then Calcutta (not Kolkata), Chennai's open-air cinema was fascinatingly novel. I remember driving there with family and friends carrying our picnic dinner and feasting on it while watching a variety of films that ranged from Rajinikanth's adventures to Tom Hanks' serious stuff. Since Prarthana was located on the East Coast Road -- which led to Pondicherry (now Puducherry) – that ran along the Bay of Bengal, the sea breeze which wafted in gave the cinema experience added comfort. With speakers strategically placed all around, sound was no problem. We could hear the dialogues all too clearly.
But I think very few of us went to Prarthana to watch a movie. We were there for a picnic, to have a good time.
In the course of time, Prarthana fell into a rut. An essentially weekend patronage made very little business sense. Also, the arrival of posh multiplexes with plush seats and air-conditioned comfort kept people away from Prarthana.
But now with the Coronavirus pandemic, Prarthana may rise much like the Phoenix from the ashes. After all, most people will be apprehensive about rubbing shoulders with strangers in darkened auditoriums.
The world over, this concept of drive-in theatres seems to be gaining ground. A media report says that “In the 1980s and 1990s, drive-in movie theatre Rex Cinema was a local favourite in Dubai. And in the UAE, they could be about to make a comeback, too. At least in the cooler months. As cinemas near two months of closure due to coronavirus regulations, movie releases have been delayed and Netflix subscriptions have soared, forcing cinema-owners to think seriously about how their operations might need to change, at least in the short to medium term."
Urban Entertainment Dubai has been considering drive-in cinemas in the UAE for years, even before the pandemic. And now, the company believes they could become a new normal for crowd-wary cinema-goers. "We are currently working on several projects across the UAE where we will be looking to implement drive-in cinemas," says Michael Hayes, the company's chief executive. He says the pandemic has made them a necessity.
So, whether it be Dubai or Germany or South Korea, drive-in cinemas appear to be a strong contender to streaming sites. Of course, weather is an important factor. One cannot possibly be outdoors during hot summer evenings in the Middle East. And one cannot be outdoors either in freezing European or North American winters.
This is where India scores, where the weather is never too harsh. When it is a bit too humid, one can always snuggle inside the airconditioned comfort of one's car.
So, Prarthana, what do you say?
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is author, commentator and movie critic)
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