'Luck and chance' keeps Liberty cinema afloat

By Sharon Lall
Guyana Chronicle
March 12, 2000

HE has been in the Hindi cinema business for 24 years. He has seen its ups and downs and might be around when the magic of the `silver screen' fizzles out completely.

"It's a business that has been losing (out) in the past seven years," says Liberty cinema proprietor, Mr Pradeep Samtani.

Recently, film distributors have been getting less cash because exhibitors (cinema owners) are barely able to pay them in full.

Rates and taxes for cinema owners have jumped from $70,000 to more than $700,000 annually.

The bottom line is that the Liberty cinema, a landmark in promoting Indian culture since 1964, is really up for sale.

It has been out on the market for almost one year.

"It's just by luck and chance (that we are still here). It (Liberty cinema) is in its dying stage now," Samtani acknowledged.

Business at the Liberty Cinema has gone down by 70 per cent and, as Samtani puts it, "only people in the cinema will know about it".

"No cinema owner would want the cinemas to be in the condition that they are in... We can hardly make ends meet to pay (our) bills. It is very difficult to plough anything into the cinema".

There was a time - long ago - when things were different, though; a time when one 16-year-old's "fascination with movies" made him spend a month of his summer holiday watching 47 movies.

During the course of one day, a young Samtani saw five movies, all of which were paid for, of course.

Then, he was back home in India.

From shoe to show
Samtani was born on November 2, 1953, in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, where most Indians in the West Indies have their roots.

He first ventured into the shoe business in Bombay in 1971, manufacturing `Elevator Shoes' which had a "concealed heel" to make short people look taller.

Samtani should have continued his family business in his own country. But, he had other plans.

When he finally "stepped out" in 1976 in his early twenties, he joined the cinema business and learned the trade.

"I just moved from shoe to show," Samtani said laughing.

His first port of arrival in the West Indies was Trinidad in 1976 and then Barbados, where relatives of his had an offshore company which bought Indian movies and distributed them all over the West Indies.

Samtani, in his capacity as a movie distributor, released Sholay in St. Lucia, where there is not much of an Indian population. The year was 1977, and the movie was a success.

He came to Guyana in 1978 with a Jackie Chan movie, `Eagle Claw, Snake's Fist, Cat's Paw', which was showing at the Globe, Metropole and Strand cinemas, in Georgetown.

In those days, the Liberty cinema was being managed by Samtani's late cousin, Harish Samtani, who left for Trinidad after Pradeep decided to run the business in 1980.

After some renovations, the cinema was reopened in 1981 with an Indian movie, `Kartaya' starring Dharmendra and Rekha.

Samtani says he had planned to remain here for only one year, but instead, he got married to a Guyanese girl, Sheila Kanhai, in 1983, and decided to settle here permanently.

People were `cinema crazy'
"We used to get big crowds (and) there was no competition from television...People were cinema crazy," he recalled.

Sometime in 1986, the businessman got a vision that the cinema business was going to change and he wrote a letter to the then Government and Information Minister, informing them about the incursion and effects of `bottom house' shows and video clubs on the local cinema business.

"The situation would spin out of control," he predicted as is the case now.

Samtani said he had requested a licence to operate a legitimate all-Indian television and radio station during that period, but was never given a feedback from the relevant authorities.

A lot has happened in films over the last decade.

"Movies have improved immensely in quality, sound (and) colour (but)...what has happened here in Guyana, especially, is that `pirates' are at work.

"Before the movies (are) censored in Guyana, they start showing it on television, which definitely affects the cinema industry.

"That is why most of the cinemas are actually closing down...These `pirates' show these movies for which they have no rights," Samtani argued.

Recovering the cost of a movie which makes its debut on television is difficult since a lot of finance has to be pumped into advertisement to actually make a movie "click" at its first showing at the cinema.

"The bulk of the money that you receive just sets off the cost of advertisement and various other costs. It is in the second run that the distributor starts making some money," Samtani explained.

"Nowadays in Guyana, you don't get a second run at all because even before the first run the movies are shown on television...and now with English subtitles.

"A lot of the people just stay at home," he said.

Films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Dilse, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, When Love Calls, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Baadshah might do well. But, the pressure is on at the Liberty cinema.

No good offers
"We have been making appeals (for) the Government to curtail the illegal broadcast of movies on television (and) drop our entertainment tax so that we get a chance to revive ourselves.

"A lot of the cinemas are for sale in Guyana, including the Liberty cinema".

"We have been getting some offers, but the bottom line is that the offers are not good. My first love is the cinema and I am trying to hold it as long as possible on the hope that things will change, taxes will be reduced, broadcasting act will take shape," Samtani said.

What about a hike in ticket sales at the cinema?

"We cannot increase the price..People cannot afford to come to the cinema.

"The people who frequent the cinema very often are (those) who cannot afford big bucks. It's an entertainment for the poor," Samtani pointed out.

Patrons pay $160 (House) and $300 (Balcony) to view a film at the Liberty cinema. The establishment has the capacity to accommodate 851 persons.

Samtani admits that the loss of the Liberty cinema might mean, to some degree, the loss of Indian culture.

He said he never thought that cinema played such a big role in promoting Indian culture.

Non-Indians make up 35 per cent of the audience at the Liberty cinema, according to him.

"When a movie has good music people do come for it... The song and dancing make the people learn a little bit of Hindi also," Samtani contends.

The Liberty Cinema has hosted personalities such as the late Indian President Shankar Dyal Sharma and former Guyanese Presidents Forbes Burnham, Desmond Hoyte, and Dr Cheddi Jagan, who came at the opening of the superhit Hum Aapke Hain Koun in the mid 1990s.

This movie, which featured Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan ran for five months at the Liberty cinema and raked in $7M - making it the highest grossing movie in Guyana, to date.

However, the fascination with cinema is slowly disappearing.

With television viewership on the increase and introductions like Direct TV and Cable TV fast becoming popular worldwide, the gap between cinema and television is widening.

The silver screen is losing its `magic' and it's a sad, sad loss.