Who would have thought that the first cathedral for celluloid in the South was but a humble tent kottai in Tiruchi? From a home-sick Frenchman eager to rid himself of projectors and film spools and return to his country, Swamikannu Vincent helped foster a theatre culture in South India, where, even today, movies are followed like a religion, and the stars, worshipped like Gods.
Tiruchi’s tent foreshadowed Madras’ initiation with films, when Vincent, the man who first brought movies to Madras, set up Edison Bioscope in Esplanade. This was just the beginning of the rollercoaster ride for cinema in Madras.
On Sunday, as part of Madras Week celebrations, actor and film historian Mohan V. Raman, on the heritage walk titled ‘The vanished and surviving theatres of Mount Road’, brewed and served a journey that elaborated Madras’ ties with celluloid.
Equipped with an arsenal of facts, anecdotes and personal experiences, he summoned a paling memory for the nostalgic, while concocting a history lesson for those who have been around long enough to know just Sathyam and Inox.
Starting the walk at Sun Plaza on G.N. Chetty Road, Mr. Raman, with delightful additions from the chronicler of Chennai, Sriram V., guided the group to the now-demolished complex of Safire, Blue Diamond and Emerald Theatres. There was a visible vibration of nostalgia in the crowd as many joined in recalling memories from the yesteryears.
Sushila Ravindranath, a senior journalist and a participant in the walk, unleashed a string of flashbacks to the rest of the group. “Safire complex was the Sathyam of my days. We used to slip out during lunch hour and dance to The Beatles at Nine Gems, a disco in the complex,” she said.
Complete with a bubble elevator that helped teachers from Church Park School keep tab on truant students, Safire was the place to be for the young and the restless of the 70s. As Mr. Sriram put it, “It was a decadent age!”
While pointing out Anand Theatre, Little Anand TheatreAradhana, Wellington Theatre near LIC, the erstwhile Electric Theatre, Casino, Gaiety and Chitra Theatres, Mr. Raman turned the flashlight on the marketing techniques of theatres past.
“Eighty-foot cut-outs of Madras’ screen Gods were erected at each theatre. At Chitra Theatre, a tiger was caged at the entrance for the release of M.G. Ramachandran-starrer Vettai Karan.”
The feverish support for theatres from its frequenters went scarlet red when the revolutionary Thyaga Bhoomi received flak from the British as Way ahead of its time, said Mr. Raman, this 1936-film had the never-previously explored subject of a woman giving alimony to her husband. Additionally, it blended in ideas reflecting the Indian freedom movement. A liquid mass of bodies blocked the entrance to Gaiety Theatre, where it was running, not letting the police to wade through with the official ban on the film.
The Madras audience has been unwaveringly faithful in its colourful tryst with cinema from the days of Swamikannu’s tented establishment. If any movie of Shivaji Ganesan’s could run for three shows every day for 25 weeks at Shanthi Theatre, it was because of the movie buffs of Madras.
While the curtain of exhaustion has come down on many of the theatres peppering Mount Road, their legendary existence is remembered, by the old and the young, with a walk that helped jog memories and keep alive history.