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India cinemas reopen to small audiences after months in dark

NEW DELHI – Seven months after screens went dark, cinemas reopened Thursday in much of India with mostly old titles on the marquee — a sign of the country’s efforts to return to normal as the pace of coronavirus infections slows but also of the roadblocks that remain.

The return to movie theaters comes as India is registering the highest number of daily cases globally and is expected to soon top the list worldwide in terms of total number of reported infections, passing the United States. But trends also suggest the spread is beginning to slow.

Nearly 10,000 theaters closed in mid-March when the government imposed restrictions to fight the virus, which has torn through India and is blamed for more than 110,000 deaths. Cinemas are among the last public places to reopen — a hugely symbolic move in a country known the world over for the lavish productions pumped out by its Bollywood film industry.

On Thursday, however, movie theatres struggled to lure the public back. Many ran shows for small audiences.

In the capital of New Delhi, one cinema attracted a little more than two dozen people for its late afternoon show. Most of the moviegoers included guards and the housekeeping staff of the shopping mall that houses the theater.

Every year, the $2.8 billion industry produces more than 2,000 films that feature complex dance routines, singing and spectacularly large casts, serving to unite a diverse nation of 1.4 billion people. The industry’s success over the years has embedded moviegoing into India's contemporary culture and been a boon for the economy, which, since the pandemic began, has nosedived to its slowest growth on record.

But even if theaters are reopening, filmmaking hasn't rebounded. Reeling from zero box-office returns in this pandemic year, Indian filmmakers have so far not lined up any new big-ticket releases and have pushed any films they have made directly to online streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Such struggles can be seen the world over as the pandemic has devastated the entertainment industry. Earlier this month, a major American movie theater chain said it would temporarily shutter hundreds of locations in the U.S. and the U.K.

Movie theaters pose some of the biggest infection risks since they put people in a closed space, where the virus can spread easily, for an extended period of time.

To minimize the danger, Indian cinemas have separated seats, staggered show times and are encouraging digital payments. Masks and temperature checks are mandatory.

“We have put everything into place, maybe more than what has been prescribed,” said Gagan Kapur, regional head of the PVR Cinemas in New Delhi.

Still, some Indian states have been cautious.

Authorities in Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, put off reopening cinemas for the time being. The southern state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, is the worst-hit in India, with more nearly 37% of the country’s COVID-19 fatalities.

With few new films coming out of Bollywood, theaters on Thursday mostly re-released earlier hits, though one new film, “Khaali Peeli,” a typical Bollywood potboiler, came out.

Older films like “Tanhaji,” a historical epic about a Hindu warrior who rises against the Mughals, “Thappad,” a social drama on domestic violence, and “Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan,” a rom-com featuring a gay couple, were played across multiple screens. “PM Narendra Modi,” an unabashed hagiography of the Indian prime minister that was released last year, also ran in some places.

The reopening of cinemas comes as trends suggest a decline in new infections.

India saw a surge in July and added more than 2 million in August and another 3 million in September. But it is seeing a slower pace of coronavirus spread since mid-September, when the daily infections touched a record of 97,894. It is recording an average of just over 70,000 cases daily so far this month.

But some experts say that India's tally of more than 7.3 million total infections may not be reliable because of poor reporting and inadequate health infrastructure. India is also relying heavily on antigen tests, which are faster but less accurate than traditional RT-PCR tests.

Health officials have also warned about the potential for the virus to spread during the religious festival season beginning later this month.

“The next two and a half months are going to be very crucial for us in our fight against corona because of the winter season and the festival season," Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said Wednesday. "It becomes responsibility of every citizen to not let our guard down and follow COVID-19 appropriate behavior to curb spread of the infection.”

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Associated Press video journalist Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.