One of the finest examples of art deco architecture in Chennai, the Casino theatre is getting a facelift, and will be spruced up and renovated to host the Chennai International Film Festival, which begins later this month.
Casino’s lovely staircase wall is being repainted in an art deco dark blue, its seats are being re-cushioned and a state-of-the-art 2K projector is replacing the old 35 mm film projector. The sound system has also been revamped and a new air-conditioning system has replaced the old one. All this will not only provide the best viewing experience and comfort to the film-going public, it will also bring to life a bygone era.
Many of my generation and the one before it will be happy to know that the weighing scale in the lobby, whose fortune-telling ability was more dependable than its weighing ability, with its blinking lights and spinning wheel, has also been repaired.
I remember in the early 70s, trying to sneak in to view an adults-only James Bond film, only to be caught by the usher and sent out. This, despite my liberal use of an eyebrow pencil to darken my sparse moustache.
To fully appreciate Casino, we need to go back about 70 years and imagine Mount Road as it was known then. Mount Road was originally a cart track leading from Fort St. George to St. Thomas Mount. It was given its present contours by Thomas de Havilland in the early 1800s. By the 1940s, Mount Road had two distinct areas. The Fort to the present Vivanta by Taj Connemara Hotel, was mainly business houses, shops, hotels, restaurants and cinema theatres. Thereafter, there were spacious bungalows. This was the original downtown Madras.
The first Indian-owned theatre was Gaiety on Blackers Road, just a few feet off Mount Road. This was built in 1914. The Elphinstone re-opened in 1916 (it was originally on the opposite side of its location as part of Misquith and Co.) and Wellington in 1917. Paragon too, had opened in 1934 and Chitra was completed before independence, but began to function only from August 15, 1948. Globe, adjacent to the present LIC building, came up in 1938. All these theatres made Mount Road a haven for film buffs. Everything that we find in a modern mall was available within a kilometre’s radius of the Mount Road Roundtana (the present Anna Statue).
Adjacent to Gaiety, came Casino. It was inaugurated on Saturday, December 13, 1941 and the first film to be screened was the British comedy ‘It turned out nice again’. The theatre was owned by the J.H. Irani family. They were originally from Poona. One family member had come to Madras in the early 1930s, and had found it very difficult to get some ice. He went back to Poona and convinced the family to start an ice factory in Madras. They set it up on General Patters Road. A theatre owner then arrived, and set up another ice factory, thus giving the Iranis competition. In order to return the compliment, they wanted to enter the theatre business and leased Star Talkies in Triplicane. They found it to be quite profitable and amusing.
A few years later, the task of building their own theatre was given to the eldest son Phiroze J. Irani, a civil engineering graduate from the Guindy Engineering College. Phiroze drew up the plans for Casino while he was still a student.
In its first decade, Casino screened only English films but by the mid-1950s it started to screen Tamil films as well. They went back to screening only English films in 1971. It was managed by Phiroze and his younger brothers Minoo and Farrokh. The youngest brother got the theatre when the family decided to partition their business and properties.
The 1941 edition of the magazine Torch (mainly devoted to the Parsee community) describes Casino thus: “The whole idea of the theatre has been very well conceived…It is the tallest Cinema House in the City and in the Province…Its simplicity is its ornamentation, its naturalness its majesty. The interior walls whose plastering has been done with a novel cement combination are embellished with friezes and mural paintings. The floors are made of fine Cement brightened lavishly with Mysindia Coloured patterns”
On December 15, two days after its 71 birthday, Casino will once again open its doors to entertain us. Hopefully for another 70 years.
(Mohan V. Raman is an actor and a film historian)