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They form backbone of every movie hall at work

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Film projector operators at the Kamala Theatre in Vadapalani.
Film projector operators at the Kamala Theatre in Vadapalani.

Deepa H. Ramakrishnan

CHENNAI: These men have the best view in cinema theatres. They get to watch the first day, first show, of practically every film. They are film projector operators, who sit up in the cabin and watch the stars on the big screen.

The backbone of every theatre, they know the pulse of the audience.

“There are films that go back into the box on day three. If they don’t have the right mix of romance, songs and good fights fans just walk out,” says T. Natarajan, a film operator who has been working for over 23 years. Many old timers have watched the tinsel world undergo change, stars growing or fading into oblivion and the coming of new technology.

Earlier, films used to come in eight reels of 2,000 feet each. Now, they come in two spools of 8,000 feet each. The spools each weigh 8 to 10 kg and there are two machines that are worked alternatively. Earlier, operators had to watch the machines continuously and stand by them for the entire three hours. Now, though they have to keep constant watch, there is not as much work.

K. Jeevarathnam, who joined as an apprentice in the black and white era, says, “We had the opportunity of serving milk and biscuits to MGR. He came to our theatre for the release of ‘Raman Thediya Seethai’ (1972). Fans just carried him off the balcony.”

Though he is very happy with his job and pay, he has only one grouse – their clan does not get any recognition. “Everyone involved in the production and running of a film gets awards. But, we don’t.”

Most theatres have four operators – two men working two shifts each – and they are paid salaries fixed by the government with DA, ESI and PF. Their salaries are quite low and they get around Rs.5,000 a month plus an allowance per show (if they are above retirement age they work for even less on consolidated pay).

Though some theatres close down, projectionists manage to get jobs quickly. N. Vairakannu, who lost his job when the theatre in which he was working folded up, joined a new one in just three days. “I joined A.P. Nagarajan sir’s company as an office boy and worked with him for 30 years, after which I worked in a couple of theatres. Though I am nearly 60, I have to work as long as I can because I still have to get my youngest daughter married off,” he says.

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