“I as a manager had to lock myself inside the room, because I had been told that the people outside who do not have tickets want to get one by hook or crook,” recalls Rafi Ahmad Khan, the 60 year old manager of Prem Talkies.

One of the oldest single screen cinema halls in Gaya city, founded by Prem Kumar Khandelwal and carried forward by his son Sandeep, Prem Talkies is now a dilapidated and tumbledown cinema, but it survives. Like Devdas in Paro’s lap, it may be taking its last breath as the countrywide economic distress worsens.

Khan, who has 45 years’ experience in the cinema business, says mobile phones are the real enemy of cinema halls, and have played a major role in the destruction of single screen cinemas.

“People like you are not coming to cinemas because all they need is available on mobile phones,” he tells The Citizen.

Covid-19 has crippled cinema halls in Bihar: one estimate says that only 45 of 200 theatres in the state have resumed operations since the government permits came in. Many are planning to shut shop permanently.

In these difficult circumstances, Prem Talkies still manages three shows a day.

These old single screen halls in Bihar generally release Bhojpuri movies instead of Bollywood blockbusters.

“If you want to release Bollywood’s latest movie, you will have to buy the licence which will be distributed according to some parameters of the infrastructure of the cinema hall. If multiplexes are present, they will acquire the licence first, and here we failed,” Khan explains.

“We are old cinemas, we do not have big screens, larger parking areas, multiple screens. There was a time when filmgoers were not choosy about the amenities on offer. People would flock to the nearest theatre irrespective of the facilities.”

These days Prem Talkies gets 15-20 viewers for a single show. It has a capacity of 460. The most expensive ticket here costs Rs40, the equivalent of a plate of samosas at the average multiplex.

Rafi Ahmad remembers his heyday, when people were always ready to fight to get tickets.

“At present we are open for poor people, who do not have money to watch movies in multiplexes and big cinema halls. We welcome such people with grace,” he says.

It was 1947, and the country was being torn apart. One morning a 13 year old student was standing outside the cinema hall near his house staring at movie posters on the theatre wall.

All of a sudden the jingling sound of a coin came from somewhere and stopped near his feet. It was a chavanni, a four anna coin. He looked left and right, then picked up the coin and without wasting time bought a second-class movie ticket and moved quickly inside the auditorium.

Rajkapoor’s Jail Yatra, a super hit Hindi movie, had just been released. It was a dream come true for the young student. “That student was my father, and he is 86 years old now,” says Khan. The cinema hall was Bharat Talkies, probably the first cinema in Gaya district.

“It was owned by a public prosecutor, Balbeer Prasad. Bharat Talkies was maintained by his son after his death. Unfortunately it closed permanently 27 years ago.”

Gaya city saw its first multiplex in 2015, inside the APR City Centre, a shopping and entertainment centre. It gave residents a new taste of cinemas, and from then the old cinemas in the city like Paradise, Kiran, and of course Prem Talkies, started to fall down.

The lifestyle of middle-class people here has changed in the past six-seven years. People want sliding chairs in cinemas. They need good sound quality, air conditioned halls with an overall ambience in and around – and all of these need money.

Those who managed to strengthen themselves financially moved on to building multiplexes, but those who could not, collapsed.