The flavour of Kolkata

The flavour of Kolkata
The bridge, the river and kids' play. Brilliantly captured by Sujay Kumar Das.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Star.....finally in the right hands

While the last civic board led by Trinamool Congress (TMC) took over the closed Star Theatre (At Hatibagan, the heart of North Kolkata), a showcase landmark of old Kolkata, revamped with a massive outlay and re-inaugurated it amidst fanfare, the culture-conscious Kolkatans raised a toast. It was a pet project and proud achievement of Subrata Mukherjee, the then mayor. The curtains were up again and plays started being staged, thereby giving one reasonable hope that if not the golden days that were some decades back, at least happy days will be back again at Star Theatre. A board with eminent theatre personalities was formed to oversee the affairs.

Alas, soon people woke up to the reality that the going won't be that smooth. Among other things its acoustics was found to be below par, to the point that a play/ stage show at Star was largely avoidable by professionals who gave a thought about quality. I remember Sudipta Chakraborty, the well-known TV, film and theatre actress going on record in a Bengali newspaper expressing her dissatisfaction on the acoustics. But most importantly the TMC board seemed in no mood to care how such a large property was going to be run without digging holes in it's pocket every month. Such a large heritage property needed a large sum of money to remain operational and be decently maintained. The main source of revenue was the rent paid by theatre groups to stage plays. And as the reality is, the theatre audience is already an endangered specie in this city. Indeed, running a property like Star Theatre self-sufficiently based on just a single revenue source as weak as that made little sense. As a consequence the TMC board kept on meeting the huge running expenses while the place dried up with plays and stage shows. Altogether- a losing proposition.

After the left front led new civic board came in mid-2005, one of the steps the new mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya took was to find out non-development areas where Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) was spending huge sums on maintenance. Star Theatre came on radar and a roadmap for its future, that saves unproductive expenses and at the same time keep Star Theatre going in a feasible way started being worked on.

Last year KMC decided to get into a joint venture with a private company to run the property as it obviously lacked the business acumen to do the needful. The criteria for the private party was that it has to have proven experience in running auditorium/ similar properties. Post a bidding process Kolkata based Priya Entertainment owned by Arijit Dutta was selected. Arijit, who besides a well-run film distribution business owns a no. of movie theatres in Bengal incl. the popular Priya in South Kolkata and Globe in North Kolkata, looked a good choice. Even none of the celebrities in the cultural circuit of the city who frowned at KMC for handing over Star Theatre's operations to a private party had anything to say against Arijit.

Priya Entertainment had prepared a strategy which spelt a multiple-use of the property, including renting out commercial space for food, art exhibition, book launch etc and most importantly turn the auditorium into a place where regular film screening can go hand in hand with occasional plays. While 'Turning a prestige auditorium like Star' drew flak from celebrities and TMC, who staged a protest in front of it the day it was re-inaugurated after a restructure over a couple of months, the reality was clear. Running such a place profitably demands certain contemporary changes. Arijit maintained, he didn't have any plan to stop theatre, but film screening is a necessity from a business point of view. Strangely, as Anandabazar Patrika pointed out, film screening had a history in Star Theatre, and wasn't something 'radically' new being attempted.

Currently Star is running films regularly and has emerged at the best movie destination in North Kolkata. My own experience supports this view. A couple of months back it started a rooftop food court with a range from coffee shop to momo to Chinese and Mughlai cuisine to fast food (Rolls, fries). The idea was to create a hangout zone for the local youth, which this side of the city was lacking so far. For the record it is the first food court in proper North Kolkata. The forthcoming attractions are an art gallery, an indoor cafeteria, an AC banquet, an open-air theatre and a branch of Bhajahari Manna, the popular Bengali cuisine restaurant with two branches in South Kolkata. There are plans to organise various shows on rooftop to energise the food court crowd.

Arijit indeed has a mature and contemporary vision and he knows how to execute it. Looks like finally Star Theatre is on way to its lost days of glory. Here's wishing it all the best in the journey.