Coimbatore's romance with cinema goes back a long, long time, writes K. JESHI

The love story Payanangal Mudivathillai created history. A silver jubilee hit starring Mohan and Poornima, it ran to packed houses in Coimbatore theatres for more than 300 days. Ilayaraaja's classic ‘Ilaya nila' in SPB's butter smooth voice became an evergreen hit.

And, the popular film was made by actor R. Sunderarjan, a Coimbatorean. The film director from Coimbatore gave a number of hits such as Kilinjalgal, Vaidehi Kathirunthaal, Mella Thirandhathu Kadhavu and Amman Kovil Kizhakaley.

Many directors, actors, and technicians from the region such as Jaishankar, Manivannan, Sivakumar, Satyaraj, Bhagyaraj, Manikandan and Krishnan Panju have contributed immensely to the growth of cinema.

Film lovers in Coimbatore get nostalgic about the days when watching films was the major entertainment. Present day Kannan Departmental Store on Trichy Road used to be Sreepathy Theatre. They screened European films here at a unique ‘inter' show at 8 p.m. “We have watched classics such as Christ Stopped at Eboli and the films of directors such as Zanussi, Fassbinder here,” says artist V. Jeevananthan.

Those were times when movie halls became a place for intellectual gatherings. The films screened between 8 p.m. and 9.30 p.m. with English subtitles, had a regular audience, some of them from even outside the city from as far afar as Chennai. Also on Trichy Road was the Rainbow Theatre (now the Rainbow Manor apartment). This hall along with Central, Sreepathy and Sreenivasa on Brooke Bond Road would screen English films.

Jeevananthan remembers watching the James Bond series, and classics such as African Safari and Ten Commandments. “Sreenivasa theatre used to be a small square shaped theatre, located near the railway track. Whenever a train passed by, the wooden chairs would rattle, but still we enjoyed the films there,” he adds.

The movie halls were popular for the canteens too. Especially the keerai vadai and coffee served by Annapoorna at Central canteen. Also, Jaffar's ice cream. Thengai (coconut) biscuits, soda, coolers (cool drinks), murukku, samosa, tapioca chips and pori (puffed rice) were the other popular eatables at theatres.

If it was a MGR or a Sivaji Ganesan release, there would be ‘bicycle queues'. People lined up their bicycles to reserve a place in order to buy tickets.

The lines sometime ran to a few kms, especially in Royal, Raja and Central theatres. Theatres decked up for new releases. It was a festive ambience at the halls with larger than life plywood cut-outs and cloth banners. “My father used to hand paint portraits of Rajinikanth and Sivaji Ganesan in giant 30 ft and 40 ft cut outs during the time of the film release,” Mr. Jeevananthan says.

Tiny booklets with lyrics of film songs used to be sold at the venue. “Cinema used to be the only recreation. Sadly, now there are no cut-outs and no crowds,” says Mr. Jeevanathan regretfully.

Sunday morning shows were another favourite family outing. Cineaste D. Anandan relives those days when, every movie goer was a regular at the theatre and they made many friends.

He has watched movies such as Poseiden Adventure, Abba and Apollo. “All that Jazz directed by Boss Fosskey ran for seven days at Central Theatre and I watched it on all the seven days to understand it better. Later, we learnt that it had one of the finest editing and also won an Oscar for best editing.”

In those days, Central was the first theatre after Chennai's Sathyam to introduce 70 mm screen and six track stereophonic sound system. The KG Theatre had four screens of which one was dedicated to English movies. There were many theatres in Town Hall. Delite screened the silver jubilee hit Sholay, Aradhana ran to packed houses in Raja and Qurbani enjoyed huge success in Naaz. Kennedy Theatre at R.S. Puram screened exclusive Hindi films. Mahendran's Uthiri Pookal ran for 25 weeks at Royal Theatre.

All Sivaji Ganesan films and Kamal Hassan's Thevar Magan had a good run. Carnatic screened many hits of director Sridhar. Annakili was yet another film which had a silver jubilee run at Irudaya Theatre, near Vincent Road.

Sadly, many old theatres such as Raja in Town Hall, unable to cope with the technological advances downed their shutters and were ultimately demolished.

Now, the city has just about 22 theatres, which includes six complexes, says G. Sivaraman, secretary of Coimbatore District Film distributors Association, a veteran in the field for 40 years. Now people watch films on Internet. However, quality films and films with good production values continue to draw the crowds.

He cites the success of small budget films such as Myna, Kalavaani as well as multi-crore ventures like Rajnikanth's Enthiran and Kamal Hassan's Dasavatharam.

AC halls, quality seats, neat and clean bathrooms, car parking facilities and food courts have become an indispensable part of the modern movie-going experience.

Six screen multiplex theatre complexes are expected to become operational in Brookefield Complex and also on prime locations such as Avinashi Road shortly.

Central, the oldest theatre operational from 1964, is on a renovation spree. The screens have been updated to 3D silver screen to ensure picture quality. Central has installed 3D projectors too. The seating capacity in Central has decreased to 1067 from about 1500 in order to accommodate broader seats. More leg space, LED lighting, and an improved food court (the popular keerai vadai has given way to burgers and pizzas) and online reservations (www.thecentralcinemas.com) are the other additions.

In the past, Central Theatre, has had successful runs of English movies such as Mackenna's Gold, The Great Escape, It's a Mad Mad Mad World, Sound of Music, Casablanca, Five Men Army and Fast Forward (199 days and it created the record as the second highest run in India). Hindi movies such as Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (302 days), Chandini (75 days), Kudha Gawah (95 days) and Tridev (100 days) have had great runs too.

“As the audience is split (with the same film being screened in 10 theatres), the crowd at theatres has come down. Still, our old customers keep coming with family," says Senthil of Central Theatre.

“In earlier days, though theatres had poor bathroom facilities and very basic seating without any AC system, people thronged the theatres to get their fix of entertainment. Now, they have many options,” G. Sivaraman adds. Rajnikanth's Batsha and Padyappa ran for 250 days in theatres here. “There is hope for revival. The best of directors, technicians and musicians are here in Tamil Nadu. We have A.R. Rahman, Ilayaraaja, Maniratnam, Shankar, Rajnikanth (Asia's highest paid actor) and many more. There is a growing audience for meaningful cinema across the globe. This should open up the doors for good films and uplift the industry and the theatres,” he adds.

Coimbatore's illustrious connection with cinema dates back to the 1917s. Samikannu Vincent, a South Indian Railways employee, relayed movies through Touring Talkies. He built South India's first permanent cinema theatre ‘Variety Hall Cinema' at Town Hall. Even today, it functions as Delite Theatre on Vincent Road. Sadly, now there are no night shows because of lack of audience.

Coimbatore has a number of firsts in cinema — the Central Studios was the first film studio in Tamil Nadu set up in 1936 by Sriramulu Naidu, a pioneer in films. Later, he set up Pakshiraja Studios which produced a number of movies including the blockbuster Malai Kallan in six languages, including Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Sinhalese. The popular Thevar Films, which has produced several silver jubilee hits, had their offices in the city before moving to Chennai. Pakshiraja Studios and Central Studios were a hub around which cinema activity flourished. Personalities like MGR and Karunanidhi stayed in Coimbatore and made films.

The studios have since been converted into cinema halls and film shooting is active only on the outskirts in Pollachi and Udumalpet.

Old theatres such as Murugan have shut down. Royal barely survives. Carnatic is getting the crowds after it has been renovated.