CITYSCAPE It was once Asia's largest cinema theatre, but eventually its size went against it. S.S KAVITHA and A. SHRIKUMAR look under the rubble of what used to be the city's most famous landmark

R s. 3.75, says a painted signage on the side wall of the ticket counter, the only remnant at the site where once stood what used to be Asia's largest cinema theatre. Towering hotels, quaint inns, humble houses, petty shops, loaded trucks and chirpy people – everything typical of the buzzing West Perumal Maistry Street remains except for its lost pride, the Thangam theatre. Debris is what one gets to see on this more than an acre of land where once people flocked in hundreds to watch movies.

Belonging to an era when dhoti was considered fashionable, when bicycle was a luxury, when every anna counted and when horse-drawn carts dotted the dusty streets of Madurai, the memories of Thangam theatre may not strike a chord with the younger generation, but it continues to live in the minds of old-time movie buffs. Until a few months back, though the theatre had become defunct, it remained Madurai's pride.

“Apart from business, to own a theatre was a status symbol in those days. Thangam theatre was built by two partners, Pitchaimuthu Konar and Thangamani Nadar. It took two years to build it,” says Palanikumarasamy, the grandson of Pitchaimuthu Konar and chairman, KSM College of Education for Women, “The two men were partners in Central Cinema in 1939 and later they came out of it in 1949 and started Thangam theatre.”

According to Palanikumarasamy, Thangamani Nadar was the mentor of Pitchaimuthu Konar and he died even before the inauguration of the theatre in 1952. “The licence was hence obtained in the names of Pitchaimuthu and Sundarapandia Nadar, one of the sons of Thangamani,” he says. The theatre was named Thangam in memory of Thangamani Nadar.

And how it became the Continent's largest is a sheer coincidence! “A huge iron truss (hangar) was brought from the port trust and installed in the land. Later the building was built according to that size. The then municipal corporation engineer Jayaraj made the plan and the width was fixed first and the length was planned accordingly,” says Palanikumarasamy.

“It was in October 1952 that the hall was thrown open on the Diwali day, with the release of Sivaji's much-acclaimed ‘Parasakthi',” he says. “The top class ticket was made with golden paper to match the name ‘Thangam' (gold). Likewise, it was probably the only theatre to have ample parking space, where thousands of cycles used to be parked,” recalls Palanikumarasamy.

“Pitchaimuthu Konar was a shrewd businessman and he built the theatre with much care. Lime mortar, sea shells and palm sugar was used to bring sheen on the walls and the theatre resembled Chettinad palaces from the inside,” recalls RM. M.Annamalai, state president of Tamil Nadu Theatre Owners' Association. He recalls one of his visits to the theatre: “I went to watch ‘Adimai Penn' with my friends after my final exams in school. It was a lifetime experience, where you forgot yourself among the large audience. If a film ran for 50 days at Thangam, it was equal to 500 days in other cinema halls.”

Speaking of his first experience in Thangam Theatre, R. Shivakumar, a film enthusiast and a journalist says, “As a kid I watched ‘Iyarkayin Athisayangal' along with my school friends. The theatre accommodated our entire school and it felt as though we were watching the film sitting inside an elephant's belly. Every time I watched a movie in Thangam, I felt proud to be inside the continent's largest cinema hall.”

He adds, “We were sure of getting a ticket at Thangam given its size and the movie craze was such that people used to run on other's heads to grab tickets. Thangam's uniqueness was the sheer height of its ceiling that allowed people to do this at the counter.”

B. Rajaraman, Programme Executive, All India Radio, known as ‘Savitraa' says, “Thangam theatre was a major landmark. With all its pillars, it induced a feeling of being inside a palace.” Though many claimed they were sure of getting a ticket at Thangam, Rajaraman shares, “I only got a ticket on my third attempt for the film ‘The Spy who loved me' that ran for 51 days. While watching the film ‘The Deep', I felt as though I was inside the sea. Such advanced was the acoustics and ambience of the theatre even in those days.”

Nafisa Beevi, who has been running a petty shop adjacent to the theatre for the past 50 years, says she has witnessed the rise and fall of Thangam. “Though the theatre was known for its huge capacity, the sale of tickets in black was rampant. I have hardly missed any film but I used to go only for the last day's screening.” Many people like Nafisa did brisk business around Thangam. “Buttermilk and fruit juices from my shop were most sought-after items during the mornings and matinee shows, and in the evenings I sold mutton soup,” says Nafisa.

Autodriver N. Pandian remembers, “Apart from MGR and Sivaji blockbusters, English movies like ‘Return of the Dragon' ran for seven packed shows per day. ‘Malayur Mampattiyan' and ‘Karimettu Karuvayan' are also some of the movies that ran for a very long time.”

Other than the movies it screened and its unique features, the theatre also attracted crowds for the delicacies it offered. “Thangam was the only place that sold fresh grape juice and a murruku variety which came to be called the ‘TVS Murukku', though it had nothing to do with the TVS firm,” says Palanikumarasamy, “Sometimes, the intermission used to be extended as people would still be thronging the grape juice stall.” Many old-time filmgoers still remember the mouth-watering ‘muttabonda' that was introduced in Thangam.

With so many distinct elements, the Thangam theatre rose to its glory all through the 60's and 70's only to fall at the hands of TV invasion and business disputes. “The downfall of Thangam began with the death of Pitchaimuthu Konar in 1986. Coincidently, that was also the time when there was a major change in trend of cinema-goers. The number of people coming to theatres dropped due to TV and video cassettes” says Palanikumarasamy, “Both the partner families weren't much interested in reviving the theatre as everyone had other businesses and no one was financially dependent on Thangam.”

The extraordinary size of Thangam, once hailed as its unique feature, eventually went against it. The sale of tickets gradually dwindled and shows ran on nearly empty halls. “Following litigation, Thangam was run on temporary licenses from 1986. And finally it was closed down in 1992,” says Palanikumarasamy. After being defunct for almost two decades, the mammoth structure was razed down recently. A chapter from the cinema history of Madurai was erased.

(To be continued)

(This is first of the two articles on the death of cine theatres in Madurai, a city that is said to decide the success of a Tamil film).

Total area is around 54,000 sq. ft. First 49000 sq.ft was bought from Bodi Zamindar and 3850 sq.ft was added later.

The theatre had two emergency exits on Kakathoppu Street and West Masi Street through the then Suryanarayan Shastri School apart from the main gate on West Perumal Maistry Street

Construction started in 1950 and completed in 1952. The cost of construction was Rs. 8.75 lakhs. It was inaugurated by Gnanavolivu, the then Madurai Municipality Commissioner.

Initial tickets rates were 4.5 , 7.5 and 12.5 Annas and Rs. 1.25 and Rs. 2 for various classes. The total capacity was 2563 including thousand cushioned seats in the balcony.

The theatre accommodated 70 mm pictures and used Westex machine, an American make and hi-tech projector. Later the acoustics was upgraded with the help of Sound Engineers.

The main gate of Thangam Theatre on West Perumal Maistry Street