Karthik Subramanian discovers the hoary past of Batcha theatre once popular as Minerva

It is tough to close your eyes when you are in Davidson Street in Broadway even if to just imagine how the place would have been a century ago. The dust hits your face as you step out of your vehicle, the noise aggravates your senses and as you walk there is a good chance that you might just step on something.

This oldest part of the city, like a good flea market, hides small treasures in the midst of filth. Batcha theatre is hardly the place anyone would associate history and heritage with. A thoroughly run-down building on the narrow lane filled with godowns and workshops, this theatre is nearing its centenary year. It screens re-runs of old Tamil films for a very average admission rate, one that should just about make back whatever little its owner Batcha spends on buying film reels and maintaining the theatre with a limited staff.

Most of the seats are broken and the doors remain open even when the film plays. The audience is mostly a mix of daily wagers from near abouts. The walls bear a million spit marks.

Ironically, the British patron, W.H. Murch, who established it, took pride nearly a century ago when he described the hall in an advertisement dated July 12, 1916 in The Hindu as “The most up-to-date, coolest and comfortable Theatre in the Presidency”. In his researched article for The Hindu last year, British historian Stephen Putnam Hughes wrote that Murch’s theatre was originally named The National and interpreted it as possibly a political message to the British rulers as being open to all classes of people.

Actor and chronicler Mohan V. Raman, who is currently writing a book on the legendary film studios of Madras, has gathered some information on the Dandekar family that inherited the theatre in the mid-1930s and renamed it Minerva that became famous for screening English feature films. “It was earlier a drama theatre before the Dandeker family took over the place on a long-term lease around 1936,” he notes. “The theatre was the only one of its kind being located on the first floor of a building. There were other theatres nearby such as the Select Talkies, Prabhat and Broadway. Most of them screened Tamil and other regional language films.”

Minerva had an exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures for several years running, making it the number one destination in the city for those who wanted to watch English feature films. Also it was the first to run ‘Adults Only’ features, strictly enforcing the age code. But its glorious reign came to an end in the mid-1970s.

New developments

New theatres started cropping up on Mount Road, there was growing congestion in Broadway and there were some legislations in force — including one to compulsorily screen Tamil movies for 12 weeks in a year. Paramount Pictures also signed up the Casino theatre for releasing their movies from the 1970s. In their interaction with Raman, the Dandekar family who ran the theatre said they tried screening Hindi films for a few years with moderate success.

But the building structure was not able to meet the requirements of licensing authorities and was in need of massive repairs. Past its pinnacle, the theatre was dying a slow death.

The cinema’s present proprietor S.M. Batcha acquired the theatre less than a decade ago, and is unaware of its heritage. He renamed the theatre to bear his name, in order to avoid some legal tangles and debt traps the previous proprietors of Minerva left it with. And he plans to some day try and restore the theatre to its glorious past. But with tickets priced at Rs. 15 and Rs. 12, it seems to be a near-impossible dream to fulfill. The kind of dream that comes true only on celluloid.

Factfile

The theatre is located on the first floor, with a rice warehouse on the ground floor.

For the screening of War and Peace, Paramount asked Minerva theatre to maintain the auditorium at lowest temperatures possible to ensure the audience felt the Russian winter they were seeing on screen.

The theatre has 294 seats.

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