Bhutanese love watching movies. And it all began in the mid sixties when the first movie theatres in the country opened in Phuentsholing.
Entire families, senior government officials, students on their way to school, cash crop farmers from the hills and tea garden workers from across the border in India filled the movie halls to amuse themselves with Bollywood melodrama.
In another few years movie theatres opened in capital, and in the growing towns of Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar, Gomtu and Samtse. The “mass experience” of going to a theatre spread fast.
Not getting a ticket for a popular movie meant a major disappointment. Knowing someone who could sell you a ticket in black could brighten the day. The pushing and pulling and fighting at the pigeonhole ticket counter was a “prelude to the swelling act”.
The theatre was the place to meet and see people. In Thimphu the Lugar theatre began screening old English movies that everyone enjoyed and no one complained about.
The theatres flourished through the 70s and by 80s. Then it began to change when the video cassette recorder came in. It immediately became a status symbol. Everyone wanted one.
Meanwhile, the movie halls began to deteriorate. The toilets began to smell, the paint peeled off of the walls, the seats began to tear, the curtains jammed.
By the mid 90s as home entertainment technology shifted to video compact disc (VCD) and satellite television signals could be caught if one had an antennae, the theatres faded further in the background.
Today movie theatres across the country appear to be struggling and look dilapidated and run down. The aura of excitement that flowed from the curtains of the big screen and pervaded the vicinity of the theatre halls has been replaced by one of apathy.
The only thing keeping theatres going is the local movie productions. Without them most of the movie halls in the country would be dead by now. Thimphu’s Lugar theatre is riding on the rush of local screenings that partially fill the big screen and draw the crowds.
Phuentsholing’s Mig and Norgay cinemas today run to vacant seats. Posters of a brooding long-haired Bollywood heartthrob, Salman Khan, barely draws more than a dozen people.
Theatre employees attribute the dwindling business to piracy of newly released movies and the advent of cable television.
But movie buffs maintain that it is more to do with the run down state of the theatres that are keeping viewers away.
“Since movies came to Bhutan in the 60s the Bhutanese viewer has changed but the theatres have not,” said a Phuentsholing resident. “Today people want a theatre to offer that ambience of an amusement centre.”
The movie theatre business seems to be caught in a vicious cycle. With dwindling viewership it does not make enough to get new releases which cost about Nu.100,000 a week according to Rajiv of Mig cinema. Movies, which are a month old, cost about 50 percent less. “But by that time pirated CDs and DVDs are already out in the market,” said Rajiv. A pirated movie CD can be bought for about Nu. 20 in Phuentsholing and the bordering town of Jaigaon.
In the border towns tight security measures have cut into the viewership where a majority of the viewers are from across the border.
Theatre business in Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar suffered the most because of the security situation in the neighbouring Indian state of Assam. Night shows were completely stopped and viewers from across the border restricted. The Gelephu’s Losal cinema shut for several years in the mid 90s partially killing the town.
Samdrup Jongkhar’s Bhutan Talkies came to a standstill as the Bhutan gate was “sealed” in an effort to further beef up security within Bhutan. “Our main customers were our Indian friends from across the border,” said Chandi Das Saha, 45, who managed Bhutan Talkies for 10 years.
Chandi Das Saha remembers those days when scores of packed buses from India brought in hundreds of people into Bhutan with a dual purpose of picnicking in Samdrup Jongkhar and watching a movie.
Bhutan Talkies also saw customers from all eastern dzongkhags. Rural folks went to Gudama (old name for Samdrup Jongkhar) bursting with excitement to watch the big screen.
“Dara Singh was so popular people addressed him Dasho Dara Singh,” recollects a Trashigang resident, Tshering Dorji.
For the last couple of years Bhutan Talkies has been screening only Bhutanese films. Bhutanese producers screen the films and pay Bhutan Talkies the rental fees for the shows.
Today the average Bhutanese home in the urban areas own a VCD player and a television set to watch movies but people still long for the magic of the big screen. “Watching King Kong on video and on the silver screen are two different things,” says a Thimphu movie buff.
Which explains why many Bhutanese, when out of the country, make sure they watch a movie on the big screen.
Kesang, a corporate employee, on the third day of her first visit to Singapore, rushed off to see the recently released Da Vinci Code based on Dan Brown’s bestseller in the ambience of an air-conditioned hall with reclining seats and digital sound.
From Kuenselonline, Kinley Wangmo and Gopilal Acharya