NOSTALGIA Kinema Central – Sri Murugan Talkies, a landmark in North Chennai, enters the pages of history

Residents of Xavier Street in Mint woke up last week to find one of the iconic structures in their vicinity being brought down — the Sri Murugan Talkies. With this demolition, one more cinema hall has been removed from the city map. “We've demolished it not because the theatre was doing badly — we were screening B-Grade dubbed films that drew a fair crowd — but to effectively utilise the land and create better facilities,” said Balasubramanian, grandson of the founder of the theatre. The proposed construction plans to include a mini theatre so that the over-a-century-old tradition started by his grandfather continues.

In 1895, Murugesa Mudaliar, a rich landlord from Ponneri came to Madras to start some business. He acquired 10 grounds, surrounded by streets on all four sides, and built a market. Sadly it did not flourish as expected. During his frequent travels to Bombay, he had noticed the many halls built for staging plays. In 1910, he converted the market into Majestic Theatre. Many popular theatre personalities such as the TKS Brothers, Kali N. Rathinam, S. G. Kittappa and M. R. Radha staged their plays here. “Avvai” T. K. Shanmugam, in his autobiography, recalls that it was in Majestic Theatre he first performed under electric lights and it was also the first time he ate poori-potato.

According to the family, Murugesa Mudaliar went to Bombay in 1915 and purchased equipment to screen movies. A huge crowd gathered at the Central Station to welcome him on his arrival and have a glimpse of the equipment. He was taken in a procession led by a band and folk dancers to the theatre. He started screening silent films and business began to boom.

He built a second theatre in 1923 on the same plot and called it Prince to mark the visit of the Prince of Wales to India. The theatre ran into trouble with the licensing authorities and shows were suspended after a few months. Thus the first multi-theatre venture failed to take off.

In 1931, the name Majestic was changed to Kinema Central and the theatre screened “Alam Ara,” the first Indian talkie. Fascinated with the new audio-visual experience, people from all over the State flocked to the theatre. There were two shows every day and the highest class ticket was priced at just Re. 1. People used to carry food, snacks and even drinking water to the shows.

On October 31, 1931, the first Tamil-Telugu talkie “Kalidasa” was screened here. Soon followed the films of M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, P. U. Chinnappa, T. P. Rajalakshmi, K. B. Sundarambal and T. R. Mahalingam. For “Avvaiyar,” the theatre was made to look like a Siva temple. It attracted huge crowds that broke coconuts and lit camphor outside. The lobby had a huge collection of photographs, a film historian's delight.

MKT and Paramasiva Mudaliar

After Murugesa Mudaliar's demise in 1942, his son Paramasiva Mudaliar took charge. For over 60 years, he continued the practice of opening the counter and selling the first 11 tickets daily till he passed away in 2006. He changed the name of the theatre to Sri Murugan Talkies in 1948 in memory of his father. It was his passion for cinema that kept the theatre, with a capacity of 908 seats, going despite all odds.

Release of classics

Classics such as “Meera,” “Shakunthala,” “Uththama Puthiran” (Chinnappa), “Sathi Leelavathi” (MGR's first film) and “Thyagabhoomi” were all released here. MKT's “Ambikapathy,” “Thiruneelakantar” and “Ashokkumar” enjoyed a long run and “Chinthamani” ran for nearly three years in Kinema Central. Once when MKT wanted to watch the film along with the audience, a special box was built to accommodate him.

A private show for MGR

MGR was a close friend of Paramasiva Mudaliar. Mudaliar re-released “Maruthanaattu Ilavarasi” and gave it a lot of publicity to coincide with MGR's assuming office as the Chief Minister of the State. MGR wanted to watch this film and when Mudaliar offered to send the print over, MGR refused and said though the theatre did not have air conditioning he still wanted to watch the movie there. The usual shows were suspended and the Chief Minister and his brother, along with their friends, watched a private show, reliving memories of their youth when MGR used to stay near Wall Tax Road and watch movies here.

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