In 1964 the country saw the birth of the first multi-screen theatre in Madras. From Safire to Sathyam, Nitya Menon looks at how the city’s multiplexes have evolved with time
Multiplexes have become the most common and preferred theatre space for viewing films, but about four decades ago it was unheard of. The credit for introducing multiplex viewing in India goes to Chennai or Madras as it was earlier known. On December 17, 1964 the country saw the birth of its first multi-screen theatre in Madras with the grand opening of Safire cineplex (Blue Diamond and Emerald) screening Cleopatra in deluxe colour. Safire screened English films exclusively, while Blue Diamond fashioned as an ‘art theatre’ presented movies of quality otherwise not shown in the city. Emerald on the other hand ran popular films in Hindi and Tamil.
A fully air-conditioned 70mm picture house, Safire boasted of Bauer U2 projectors fitted to a 62’x 29’ screen, the largest ever in the country, and a seating capacity of an impressive 909 people in cushion chairs. Continuous shows, a feature popular in the West, was a practice the cineplex brought in vogue. This allowed one to walk in and out of the theatre at any time between 1 p.m. and 1.30 a.m. and watch the same film as many times as one wanted to. A hit among young students and couples, many are known to have spent entire days within the cineplex! The canteens, Nine Gems and Navaratna famous for their North Indian snacks were an added attraction drawing in crowds. Hailed as the ‘showpiece of the motion picture exhibition world’, the cineplex changed the experience of consuming cinema in the country.
As the city hurled its way into the 21st Century, so did its cinema houses. Devi and Sathyam, landmark cineplexes of the city opened in the early 70s, have stood the test of time and function till date. Devi and Devi Paradise were launched in May 1970 as a multi-level air-conditioned twin theatre. With an ambitious 1,200 seating capacity, Devi brought forth the deeply curved wall and floor-to-ceiling screen, which virtually enveloped the audience. The theatre was the first to pay keen attention to acoustics. The famous Voice of the Theatre speakers and Audi installed units fixed in the main ceiling provided an engulfing field of sound. These efforts paid off with Devi winning the Madras Film Goer’s Association award in 1971. It was also the first in the State (third in the country) to install the Dolby digital stereo system for the screening of Speed in January 1995.
While Devi seems to have lost out in the race to remain relevant in the current context, Sathyam did well considering it opened closely after Devi in April 1974. The Sathyam Cineplex — Sree, Satyam, Sivam, Sundaram — was designed by K.N. Srinivasan incidentally the architect of Devi cinemas as well. The theatres equipped with projection apparatus from the famed Nestrex introduced push-back cushioned seats for all classes and a spacious waiting area with sofas including a well-stocked snack bar managed by the Bangalore-based Mir Syed Abbas caterers. With a 1,255 audience member capacity, it stood as the largest cinema house in Madras.
The cineplex improved with the times. It added a mini theatre, introduced personalised seat servicing through the movie, imported vending machines, cup holders in armrests, seating for couples — redefining the pleasures of the screen. In 2005, Sathyam adopted Digital Light Processing (DLP) cinema technology with the world premiere of Star Wars III replacing the electronic cinema format used so far.
Abhirami in Purasaiwalkam and Rohini in Koyambedu brought in the next wave of multiplexes in the city.
The legacy of cinema, once distinctively plebian, has transformed into a culture of aspirational exclusivity.