South India’s first permanent theatre, Variety Hall Talkies, turns 100 this year. K. Jeshi takes you on a flashback

The year was 1914. And, Coimbatore got South India’s first permanent cinema theatre called Variety Hall. The man responsible for it was Samikannu Vincent, a draftsman-clerk in South Indian Railways, Tiruchi. Later, when talkies arrived, it became Variety Hall Talkies. This institution turns 100 this year, and it still functions as a movie hall, now called Delite Theatre.

Winfred Paul, Samikannu’s grandson, who spent close to 10 years with him says how Variety Hall Theatre inially screened only Tamil films. The audience sat on a sand floor. Chairs were put up only for important people. As the silent film unfolded on the screen, a person with a microphone stood in front and explained the sequences. “When talkie films came, two floors — a floor for benches and another one for back benches were added. Then came the balcony with chairs. And the chairs then gave way to sofas.” The hall could hold 700 people. The ceilings were arched and were fitted with fans. Paul remembers how zamindars from the neighbouring Uthukuli Zamin came in their plush cars to watch the films.

“Originally, it was a cultural hub for films, dance, and drama,” says filmmaker S. Kamalakannan from Coimbatore Cinema Club. “There was a dance floor for the British to host parties and a number of Tamil plays were also staged there.”

People in his Samikannu’s home town, Coimbatore, got a taste of cinema much before anyone else. Before setting up the theatre, he has already introduced Touring Talkies where he travelled with a projector showing movies across Asia to places as far as Lahore and Peshawar, Myanmar (Burma then) and Afghanistan before setting up permanent theatres in Coimbatore, Ernakulum, Erode and a couple of places in Chennai. “His role in popularising cinema to a larger group of people needs to be celebrated and honoured,” says Kamalakannan.

Artist V. Jeeva Nanthan, whose father was a cinema banner artist, stayed close to the theatres. He has watched Sholay, Enter the Dragon, Aradhana, Yaadon Ki Baarat… “As my father painted the banners of new films, I learnt about cinema. Ram Swaroop, who was running the theatre, lent me song books of Hindi films. Shyam Benegal’s Ankur was released here. Rajinigandha ran to packed houses, and so did a number of James Bond movies. I remember watching Sholay on the first day, 50th day, 100th day and 150th day!”

T. R. Elangovan who has come out with a book Kovaiyum Cinemavum says the starting point for the book is Samikannu Vincent. Samikannu also brought electricity to the city in 1922 and lighted up V.H. Road. He started Electric Printing Works to print quality handbills using the cinema houses’s electric power plant. “Not just cinema, his contributions to the progress of the city is immense. Sadly, we have no documentation. Coimbatore is known for its risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit. He was one of the forefathers who set that trend. He resigned his job and popularised cinema.”

Still, there is no memorial for Samikannu Vincent in the city. There was a statue of his at V.H. Palace, but that was removed when the theatre changed hands.

Blockbusters at Variety Hall Talkies

Valli Thirumanam

Janak Janak Paayal Bhaje

Do aankhen barah haath

Aradhana

Sholay

A number of Raj Kapoor films

HONOURS

To honour Samikannu Vincent , Onbathu Kuzhi Sampath, a team from Chennai are documenting his contributions to cinema. They have taken videos at the theatre venue, recorded memories of people who have watched films there and collected rare photos from his family.

Winfred Paul says people from the film industry have plans to declare April 18 the birth anniversary of Samikannu Vincent as Cinema Day. They want to initiate an award in his name.