Yes, you read it right. Akshay Kumar and Disney’s Laxmii has released in single-screen cinemas in different parts of the country. However, rather than cause for rejoicing, this would prompt many in the film industry to hang their heads in shame. For, the release is not official. Rather, cinemas are screening the pirated version of the film! Desperate times call for desperate measures. This, of course, is beyond desperate!

Cinemas in small centres, starved of playing programmes, have copied the Akshay Kumar starrer, produced by the actor himself with Fox Star Studios (now merged into Disney), on pen drive and are screening the film. Patrons, unaware that the film’s theatrical rights are unsold, are actually buying tickets of the ‘pirated’ film and watching it on the big screen. Since there is no distributor of the film, the entire ticket monies (after paying the GST) is being pocketed by the cinemas concerned. These are the same cinemas which even in normal times did not blink an eyelid before screening films illegally. Explained a distributor, “These are regular cinemas who come to us for buying the screening rights of films distributed by us and by the other distributors like us. If the terms demanded by us don’t suit them, they go away without striking deals but they then screen the film illegally and pocket the collections cent per cent.” The distributor continues, “However, there are some basic differences between the illegal screening in the pre-COVID days and this particular case of Laxmii. Before the lockdown, such exhibitors did come into our net sooner or later because we had business relations with them. We used to adjust our share of the illegally screened film when they came for the legal rights of the next film distributed by us. But in this case, we, or for that matter, no distributor will be able to adjust our/their share of Laxmii because nobody holds the distribution rights of the film. The other difference is that in the case of other films, around 2-3% of the screenings used to be illegal but in the case of Laxmii, every screening is illegal.”

It may be recalled that your editor had on 1st November written an open letter to Akshay Kumar, requesting him to come to the rescue of single-screen cinemas and release his Laxmii theatrically as single-screen cinemas across the country were ready to release the film in spite of the fact that it was to be premiered on Disney+ Hotstar. In other words, while the Multiplex Association of India had made its stand clear that its members (the multiplexes) would not screen any film which had been premiered on a streaming platform or had been committed for premiere on such a platform, single-screen cinemas were more accommodative and had made it amply clear that they would happily screen Laxmii alongside the OTT platform. However, Akshay reportedly did not use his veto power. Insiders reveal that had Akshay agreed to forgo part of his remuneration (or profit), simultaneous release in single-screen cinemas and the OTT platform would have been possible. “I know, the trade people were issuing statements that the deal for an OTT premiere with Disney+ Hotstar had been signed, sealed and delivered and hence the Akshay Kumar film could not release in single-screen cinemas, but the fact is that if Akshay wanted, he could’ve prevailed upon the platform to alter the deal,” lamented a single-screen owner of Bihar circuit, adding, “However, he didn’t come to our rescue in spite of having the ability to do so.” Remarked a cinema owner in C.I. circuit, “Had Akshay Kumar followed your suggestion, we would have got a breather on Diwali and would not have continued to be starved of playing programmes. In such a scenario, what were we to do? We had no money for even basic necessities, we also have families to support. We have a right to live, don’t we? But nobody is thinking about us. I would never have indulged in this kind of illegal screening but I had no option.”

It may be pointed out that the film finally premiered on 9th November, only on Disney+ Hotstar, much to the heartburn of single-screen cinemas which were actually looking forward to Akshay’s intervention so that it would have been possible for them to screen the film. While exhibitors of cinemas in ‘A’ class centres reconciled themselves to the fact that their first hope of seeing major footfalls had gone down the drain, owners and controllers of many single-screen cinemas in ‘B’ and ‘C’ class centres did not want to let the film go without being able to release it in their cinemas. They did the unthinkable. They pirated the film and are now screening the pirated copy in their cinema halls. While the cinemas are using the equipment of digital projection system companies like UFO Moviez, Qube or Real Image, even these companies may be unaware that the cinemas have screened Laxmii or are still screening it.

The irony is that for the last more than 30 years, the film industry has been crying hoarse about piracy eating into their revenues but now, the complainants have themselves become the criminals. Yes, the cinemas which are showing Laxmii are doing so without having the legal right to do so because the theatrical rights of the film have not been sold by Disney or Akshay Kumar. It would be interesting to watch what action the OTT platform (Disney+ Hotstar) or the producers (Disney and Akshay Kumar) or all of them together would take against the exhibitors who are indulging in daylight theft of their copyright. Or maybe, they shall let this too pass! Other than the producers or the OTT platform, nobody else can initiate any action because there is no distributor (for theatrical rights) for the film.

P.S.: Frankly, one doesn’t know whom to blame more — the owners of the cinemas which illegally screened Laxmii or the people who could’ve made it possible for Laxmii to be screened legally in those cinemas.