In Malegaon, a city in the Nashik district of Maharashtra, a quaint single-screen cinema hall has attracted national attention.
It has become the epicentre of an extraordinary and hazardous trend: the igniting of firecrackers, including rockets, inside its auditorium.
This theatre, once just an inexpensive entertainment hub, has now captured national headlines, thanks to viral videos depicting this dangerous practice during screenings of big-budget Bollywood films like ‘Pathaan’ and ‘Tiger 3’.
The local Chhavani police, spurred by the outcry on social media and the inherent risks of this behaviour, recently took cognisance and filed charges under sections 112 and 117 of the Maharashtra Police Act against anonymous individuals linked to these firecracker incidents.
The audacity of these acts even prompted Salman Khan, who was the lead actor in Tiger 3, to say that his fans should enjoy his films without endangering their lives by use of fireworks in such a confined and inappropriate setting.
Seeking to delve deeper into this story, a correspondent from Swarajya visited the theatre last week, choosing Friday — the week's peak day for moviegoers.
To prevent a recurrence of the previous weeks’ events, the police were strategically positioned outside at various points around the theatre.
Established as the first of its kind in Malegaon, Mohan Theatre is a landmark with a capacity to host 500 guests.
It enjoys a central location in the city, a stone's throw from key civic institutions like the main police station, the main court of Malegaon, and the tehsil office.
However, when approached, the theatre staff remained tight-lipped. A worker revealed that it was a directive from the owner, a Hindu, who was wary of stoking any controversy in a city where the Muslim population predominates.
More than 80 per cent of Malegaon’s population is Muslim and the community members form the majority of the theatre's patrons. Any negative statements regarding those responsible for the firecracker incidents could potentially provoke community-wide anger and lead to a boycott of the business, he said.
Mohan Theatre, while modest in its amenities, offers three categories of seating, with the cheapest tickets priced at Rs 80, and the more exclusive balcony and special balcony seats going for Rs 100 and Rs 120, respectively. The featured movie at the time of the visit was Tiger 3.
One of the theatre's quirks is the lack of assigned seating across all three sections. Patrons choose their seats on a first-come, first-serve basis.
This leads to a frenzied rush for seats upon the door’s opening. This correspondent patiently took a seat in the back row.
Inside, the ambience was marred by tobacco use and stained walls. Many visitors were observed using tobacco products like gutkha, cigarettes, and beedis inside the theatre.
The walls and the seats bore stains from gutkha, and despite the ban on smoking in public places, the theatre was filled with smoke.
Contrary to the standard practice in Indian cinemas, the playing of the Indian national anthem before the start of the film was notably absent here.
As the film rolled, the theatre was filled with shouts and whistles from the audience. At times, the film's audio was drowned out by this cacophony. The correspondent chose to leave the theatre after enduring approximately an hour of this overwhelming smoke and noise.
In this duration, use of firecrackers was not witnessed, attributed to the heavy checking by police.
After the movie was over, the correspondent conversed with several individuals outside the theatre.
Mohammed Sohail, a plumber by profession, said that visiting the theatre was a weekly ritual for him. He observes Friday as his day off from work. In the morning, he receives his weekly pay. Then he shops for grocery and clothes, offers Juhr namaz and eats at a restaurant. He culminates his day with a 10 pm movie at Mohan Theatre.
Sohail said that although there were other theatres in Malegaon closer to his home, he preferred this place as “the vibrant atmosphere” enhances his movie-watching experience. It provided a respite from his otherwise mundane routine, he said.
Mohammed Khaliq, a labourer at a textile powerloom, for which Malegaon is known for, expressed his displeasure with the police presence. He said it lent the place the feeling of a political event rather than a movie screening.
Khaliq however acknowledged the disturbances caused by firecrackers. He said it was routine for guests to stealthily take firecrackers inside, burn them and throw at other seats.
“Most of us are labourers seeking a brief escape from the stresses of our daily lives. While some of the fun is good, it is increasingly becoming too much,” he said.
Sandeep Chavhan, a homeguard, shared his experiences with the theatre. He described it as a convenient and affordable option for watching movies, though its lack of security measures occasionally led to disruptive incidents, like the igniting of firecrackers.
Chavhan recounted a particular incident where an individual set off firecrackers during a hero's entry in a film, causing chaos and alarm among the audience.
Mahendra Teesge, a long-time patron who resides nearby, observed that the current ticket price of Rs 80 is double of what it was before Covid-related lockdown, but the hall continued to be popular.
Contrary to the theatre’s current reputation of being a site for hooligans, Teesge called it a symbol of communal harmony an interdependence.
He said that despite the theatre’s unique location in a Hindu locality, it drew most of its audience from the Muslim community, primarily labourers and loom workers who take Fridays off.
He said the viral videos of the theatre were recorded on Fridays.
Asked about firecracker use, Teesge said the practice wasn’t about to die anytime soon, given the delicate nature of operating a business in a sensitive environment.
(Note: The ground visit was made by Mayur Bhosale. The report was written by Swati Goel Sharma based on his inputs).
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