A popular cinema hall and landmark on Anna Salai, Shanti, turned 50 on January 12, 2011

On January 12, Shanti Theatre turned 50. It probably remains one of the oldest and still functioning theatres on Anna Salai, what with older ones such as Gaiety, Wellington and New Elphinstone giving way to commercial complexes. Indeed, this stretch once used to boast many cinema halls. People never returned home without watching a film unless it was a Sunday or a festival day when “House Full” boards hung outside the gates of these theatres, and all one could do was grab some ice cream at Jaffer's or Buhari and walk down to the beach.

The century-old Warwick's Electric Theatre, Chennai's first, still stands in the Anna Road Post Office compound.

Back in time

The first of the cinemas were Midland and Odeon on General Patters Road and Wellington at the junction of Anna Salai. Globe, Plaza, Paragon, Chithra and Casino were the others, later followed by Safire (with two smaller screens Blue Diamond which had continuous shows and Emerald), Anand (and Little Anand), Devi Theatre Complex and Anna Theatre. There was also the Government-owned screen Kalaivanar Arangam (originally Children's Theatre).

Shanti Theatre was the result of G. Umapathy's dream — to build a a theatre that boasted the amenities and décor of Mumbai halls. It resulted in his teaming up with D. Shanmuga Raja, the erstwhile Raja of Sivaganga, and building the first fully air-conditioned 1,000-plus seater theatre in the city. The décor was modernwith plaster of Paris mouldings and mirrors.

Shanti Theatre was inaugurated on January 12, 1961, by the then Chief Minister K. Kamaraj and the function was presided over by C. Subramaniam, who was then the Finance Minister of the State. The opening show was a film on Lord Venkateshwara — “Srinivasa Kalyanam”. The first film to be released was the A. Nageshwara Rao-Savithri starrer “Thooya Ullam”. Then came the Ashok Kumar-starrer in Hindi — “Kalpana”. This was followed by the first of 82 films of Sivaji Ganesan to be released in the theatre —“Paava Mannippu” — on March 16, 1961.

When the promoters needed a fresh infusion of funds they approached the thespian Sivaji Ganesan to join them. He invested in the project and bought over the shares of the other promoters, thus his family came to own Shanti Theatre. Six of his films, besides “Paava Manippu”, ran for 25 weeks in this theatre. These were “Thiruvilayadal”, “Vasantha Maligai”, “Thanga Padhakkam”, “Thirusoolam” and “Mudhal Mariyadhai”, with 35 of them running for more than 100 days.

“Gone with the Wind”, “North by Northwest”, “Ivanhoe”, “Drums of Destiny”, “Guns of Navarone”, “Sangam” and “Kabhie Kabhie” are some of the other great films screened here. Later, Umapathy went on to build his own theatre — Anand, after he left Shanti Theatre.

In 2005, Shanti theatre was renovated and the Rajinikanth-starrer “Chandramukhi” was released. It ran for a record 888 days. At 50, Shanti continues to enthral film-goers.

(The writer is an actor/ management trainer)

Keywords: Shanti Theatre