Singeetham Srinivasa Rao on life with friends in Victoria Hostel, watching the West Indies play, and the charm of old theatres
As a child I often visited my uncle T. Bheema Rao, the Postmaster-General of Madras Presidency. I visited Madras during the Second World War and remember the legend of how palm trees were positioned as anti-aircraft guns.
I moved to Madras only in 1948. As a B.Sc. student of Presidency College, I joined Victoria Hostel. The two were divided by the Buckingham Canal on which boats plied. One of the finest things I remember about Triplicane was the early morning curd seller who used to wail ‘Thayiroooooooo'. It used to sound like a siren.
When I started working in the postal audit department, I shifted to a room in Singarachari Street, which was shared by two or three people. Different families lived in different portions of the same house with just a door between them for privacy. After 60 years, nothing has changed in Triplicane.
Adjacent to the Victoria Hostel was the Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital for Women and Children, but nobody knew it by this name. People simply called it Gosha Hospital.
One side of the hostel faced the maternity ward. One day, I remember a woman went into labour around 9 p.m. and we were disturbed by her screams that continued into the night. The entire hostel was awake and waited curiously. When we heard the sound of the newborn at 3.30 a.m., everyone in the hostel clapped and celebrated. ‘Congratulations,' we screamed.
Every time there was a cricket match at the M.A. Chidambaram stadium, we used to stand in queue from 3 a.m. to get a place in the gallery. Around 7.30 a.m., three people from the hostel came with the day's breakfast — hot poori with potato and coffee. We were all friends.
We loved to watch the West Indies play and saw the three Ws — Everton Weeks, Clyde Leopold Walcott and Frank Worrell — in action. There was a fast bowler called Prior Jones, a tall man who used to start his run-up from near the boundary line. Every time he bowled a bouncer, the crowd would gasp in excitement and the batsman ducked. Despite our appreciation for the three Ws, we wanted India to win.
Anything for cricket
Sometimes we used to watch the match from the hostel terrace but we couldn't follow what was going on. We had a hostel radio, so we sought permission and got the speakers beamed to the terrace.
The Wallajah Road junction on Mount Road was called ‘roundtana' back then (it was circular) and Elphinstone Theatre was just next to it. We assembled there to see Prime Minister Nehru when he visited Chennai. We had only one box camera that could take maybe eight black and white snaps. We entrusted one of our friends to take a photo of us with him and we joined hands to cordon off the crowd. But the minute he came, the crowd rushed towards him and our human chain broke. We ran along Nehru's car. The spirit of Independence was very much there and people braved policemen to reach out to him. But in the chaos that ensued, we could not get a good picture.
Casino played only English films at that time, and we were disappointed when they started screening regional films. The soda fountain at Elphinstone theatre was a popular spot to treat friends to Jaffer's special. Globe and Midlands were the other theatres we used to frequent.
But we used to love going to Minerva in Broadway — a small, beautiful theatre that screened some of the best films. We always walked back home after the late night show because there was no transport and by the end of the month, we didn't have the money.
In Pycrofts Road, there was a very small restaurant called Coimbatore Krishna Iyer with just four or five tables — he used to specialise in uthapam, medhu vada and dosa. The best part was the coconut chutney. Murugan Lodge, where we used to get excellent meals on plantain leaves for half-a- rupee, had a strange rule: you could not sip from the tumbler.
Films of all regional languages were patronised in the city because films of all languages used to be made here. Telugu films ran for 100 days. Vauhini Studios was the ‘biggest studio east of Suez', and I joined as an apprentice and became an assistant director with K.V. Reddy for “Maya Bazaar” in 1954.
The British Council Film Club organised by Normington used to screen films in 16mm. I watched Alec Guinness classics and I remember watching “Kind Hearts and Coronets” where he played eight roles including that of an old woman. I met Marie Seaton, famous historian and biographer of Sergie Eisenstein and she talked to me about an upcoming director called Satyajit Ray who had half-finished a film called “Pather Panchali.”
Once when we returned back to Victoria Hostel at midnight after from a the late late night show, around midnight, the sergeant asked told us to sign our names in the notebook because we had stayed out without permission. We got an idea. The monthly bills on the notice board always carried the signature of the warden. Since we knew his signature, we signed and went in. The next morning, the warden happened to inspect the book and asked: ‘Sergeant, did you see me last night? Half-a-dozen times?' That was the last day we had that book.
SINGEETHAM SRINIVASA RAO Born in 1931 in Nellore, he came to Madras in 1948 and began his filmmaking career with Vauhini Studios as an assistant director for “Maya Bazaar”. He went on to direct many successful films with Kamal Haasan including “Pushpak”, “Raja Paarvai”, “Apoorva Sahodargal”, “Michael Madana Kamarajan” and “Mumbai Express”.