Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The dying of the light

In December 2015, critic and film-maker Khalid Mohamed wrote a short piece for The Quint on the steady decline of DVD rentals in Mumbai. He mentioned the closing down of the long-running Shemaroo library on Napean Sea Road in 2014, and of the Teenage Library in Colaba, and the general lack of “romance” associated with DVDs in India. “Only a scant few dial-a-DVD outlets plod on,” Mohamed wrote. “But for how long?”

Ask the remaining outlets and they’ll tell you, not long at all. Everyone seems to agree that streaming services and downloads—legal and otherwise—have effectively ended the rental business. “On Hotstar and Netflix, you can get the films almost for free,” B.K. Ramesha of Movie Empire says. “Even the downloaded prints have become better. I don’t think DVDs have any future beyond two-three years.” “It won’t be that long,” the store’s other manager, Izaz Sheikh, chimes in. “This will be the last year.” As if to confirm this, during the 40-odd minutes I spent at Movie Empire, the phone rang only once, and there were no walk-ins.

Movie Empire was started in 2003 by Arun Goenka. Over the years the ownership has changed, as has the location; after eight years on Carter Road, it moved to Pali Naka in 2011, and to its present location on 16th Road, Bandra-West, four months ago. The day-to-day management, though, has remained in the hands of Sheikh and Ramesha since the start. Ramesha speaks often and with authority; Sheikh is more circumspect. Sheikh’s preference runs to classic Hindi and English films; Ramesha drops auteur names like Roman Polanski and Yasujirō Ozu and confides towards the end of our chat that he’s trying to make it as a director.

Though they have some 11,000 members in their database, Ramesha admits that the current numbers are “extremely down”. “With difficulty, we get about 100 customers a month,” he says. A decade ago, however, the library would receive around 200 calls and lend a hundred DVDs on average every day. Hollywood films comprised the bulk of their trade but what set them apart from all but a few rental stores was their world cinema collection. Even today, the selection is broad and eclectic, covering the familiar (Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Almodóvar) and the obscure (the short films of D.W. Griffith).

I should mention my own debt of gratitude to Movie Empire. Ten years ago, on a two-month training programme in Mumbai, I visited their store on Carter Road and fell in love, not just with world cinema (which I had recently started devouring) but with the beatific vision of shelves stacked with DVDs. For someone who had read of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir but had never seen them, as it were, in the flesh, this was close to a religious experience. Even today, I remember the titles I rented: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

Ten minutes from Movie Empire, the Sarvodaya Video Centre is an even more venerated haunt for foreign film fans. It opened in the pre-DVD era, when Manish Chandaria, after converting part of his father’s general store, began renting out VHS tapes in 1982 (his younger brother, Bakul, managed the business with him from 1990 to 2015). Today, the store sells phones and electronics in addition to lending DVDs and Blu-rays. The ground floor has mostly English and Hindi films and TV series, but go up a winding staircase and you’ll find yourself in a low-roofed attic chock full of world cinema.

Chandaria sources all the DVDs himself. He estimates that there are some 12,000 titles now. Each DVD has an old-fashioned library card at the back. “The aim is to have each one borrowed 20 times,” he says. “If it goes 20 times then I’ve made back my money.”

He runs me through some of the titles in the attic. “There are such amazing films here,” he murmurs. “Makes me feel proud.” He looks at a pile of Tartan releases of Ingmar Bergman films, calls them zabardast. Also zabardast are the Artificial Eye DVDs on the nearby shelf. I notice a copy of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff and mention that the film’s lead actor, Jerzy Stuhr, had been at the Pune International Film Festival a week ago. “Really?” he asks, face creasing into a smile. “This man? And where did you find the DVD?”

This might be the greatest contribution of these rental libraries—making a broad selection of foreign-language films available to cinephiles (variable quality notwithstanding, pirated DVD sellers might have had an even more profound effect). Unsurprisingly, both the Bandra-Khar outlets have well-known directors, producers, writers and actors among their clientele. Ramesha mentioned Sujoy Ghosh, Anurag Kashyap, Amole Gupte and Siddharth Roy Kapur, while Chandaria listed Ranbir Kapoor, David Dhawan and Aamir Khan as old customers, and spoke of his friendships with Ram Gopal Varma and A.R. Rahman.

It wasn’t just the films. Libraries such as these were places to browse and unwind, to talk cinema with like-minded people. Over the phone, Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh recalled how he started off borrowing laserdiscs from Sarvodaya in 1998. “Even if wasn’t a filmmaker I would still visit both Sarvodaya and Movie Empire with equal enthusiasm,” he said. “It’s the pleasure of shopping. You flick through the DVDs, read the back covers, discover so many things you didn’t know.”    

Sarvodaya is marginally better off than Movie Empire—Chandaria owns the store and thus saves on rent. Yet, he too admits that the era of the DVD, and of DVD rentals, is almost over. “Everything has its time,” he says, fatalistically. Barring a major crackdown on illegal downloading, he sees little chance of the business recovering. He has no immediate plans to close down, though; he feels an obligation to his old clients, some of whom have been coming in since they were children, or have brought their own children in.

“Across Bombay you see that it’s shut down—DVD sales, rentals,” Sheikh says. “Everyone’s changing their business. No one wants to take the risk.” I ask what they’ll do with their stock if they have to close down. “Who knows?” Ramesha says, “It’ll end up in personal collections. Or we’ll keep it in a flat somewhere...”

With the closing of Shemaroo and Teenage libraries, Casablanca, on Carmichael Road, is the only significant rental store supplying the southern parts of south Mumbai. It was started in 1999 by Kalpesh Kerawala, who had joined Shemaroo as a 17-year-old and worked there for five years. Casablanca initially operated out of a bungalow on Altamount Road belonging to Kerawala’s friend and then-partner Nikhil Gupta. Kerawala claims they were the “first exclusive DVD library in Mumbai, maybe in India”—other stores were still selling VHS tapes and laser-discs when he decided to concentrate only on DVDs, he says.

Most of Casablanca’s customers live in the arc from Shivaji Park to Cuffe Parade, and from Bombay Central to Agripada. There are still a few drop-ins every day—a 60-something woman comes in looking for new releases, and is recommended Akan Satayev’s Anonymous by Kerawala—but the business runs primarily on deliveries. The store differs from its Bandra counterparts in that there’s a predominance of Hollywood films, old and new, and little foreign-language cinema. Kerawala is well aware of this, explaining that the clientele for world cinema consists of “filmi people”, who live mostly in Bandra and Andheri (“They want to watch all these foreign films, basically, to get ideas,” he says).

Casablanca has some 3,000 customers in its database, but Kerawala says only a couple of hundred are still active. He remembers how, at their peak, they would average 150 rentals a day. Now, he says, it’s a struggle to break even every month. There are customers who have stuck with him from the beginning, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to convince people to continue their memberships, he says. “Customers ask me, why should I renew?”

Casablanca, like Movie Empire, is a rented property, and the high cost of keeping a business running on Carmichael Road is forcing Kerawala to consider closing down the store and operating out of a garage. Like everyone else, he speaks of the near-impossibility of running a DVD rental business in the age of streaming services and illegal downloads. His few remaining regulars are mostly over the age of 50: the sort who couldn’t be bothered to get a Netflix account or learn how to work a torrent.

Our conversation seemingly over, I reach to switch off the recorder. At this point, Kerawala, under the misconception that I am a screenwriter, mentions that he had always hoped to write a movie himself. I ask if he has any unpublished drafts lying around. “There used to be,” he replies, speaking very softly, as if trying not to wake slumbering memories. “I didn’t write down stuff, but I had a voice recorder, which had short stories, many things. And one day, I left the recorder in a cab. So it’s all gone.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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