The golden days of North Chennai’s Agastya Theatre, and why it had to come to an end

This Tondiarpet cinema hall could seat 1, 000 people, and has seen all landmark Tamil cinema releases over the last few decades

September 03, 2020 09:00 am | Updated 09:00 am IST

North Chennai’s iconic Agastya Theatre

North Chennai’s iconic Agastya Theatre

Agastya Theatre in Tondiarpet has seen it all. Since 1967, this cinema hall has been screening several MGR superhits, Sivaji Ganesan classics, Rajinikanth’s début outing Aboorva Raagangal and Vijay and Ajith releases.

But the last three years have not been kind to this North Chennai landmark. The past few months have been especially hard, following the Government’s decision to close theatres due to COVID-19. With an unclear road ahead, the owners of Agastya Theatre called it quits this week.

This 70 mm non-AC theatre, which could seat 1,004 people, was among the popular movie halls for residents of North Chennai, catering to both family audiences and the working class. “We could not keep up with current business trends and competition,” admits P Natarajan, who has been managing it since its inception, “We also did not get many new releases of late, and had to make do with old releases that did not make much money.”

A view of the theatre interiors

A view of the theatre interiors

Let’s go to the movies

The theatre was the brainchild of his uncle, K Nanjappa Chettiar, an advocate from Salem who was also passionate about engineering. His family was in the yarn business and set up the TNK Group, which was involved in the stainless steel and metals business.

They also ventured into the film industry under a production house named Devi Films; they produced the Gemini Ganesan-starrer Konjam Salangai, well-known for being the first Technicolor feature film of South India, besides films like Azhiyatha Kolangal and Suhasini's début flick, Nenjathai Killathe .

“Since we were into the production and distribution of films, we thought of venturing into theatres too,” he recalls. Agastya was thus constructed in 1967 on Tiruvottiyur High Road, on land that belonged to the family. A few years later, the family would set up another theatre on Mount Road; Devi, a cineplex that turned 50 recently and is still going strong.

Agastya opened with much fanfare in 1967, with the K Balachander-directed Bama Vijayam.

Since then, it has seen several cinematic blockbusters of all the leading heroes of Tamil cinema, among which Kaavalkaran remains memorable.

“It was MGR’s ‘comeback’ film after the well-known gunfire incident (referring to actor MR Radha shooting MGR). There was a lot of buzz surrounding it, and it was the first film that ran for 100 days at Agastya,” adds Natarajan.

Agastya ran to packed houses in the ‘90s and early 2000s too. Their golden period was when the Jayalalithaa-run Government once announced that theatres could fix their own rates of admission for a film’s initial two-week run (a rate that was not more than 75% of the prescribed ticket rate). “Thankfully, there was also a lot of good content coming in.”

The projection room in the theatre

The projection room in the theatre

Looking ahead

Agastya also advanced with the times — they went in for the Dolby Digital sound system and digital projection. But that they were still a non-AC theatre did not help things much.

“We explored the AC option at one point of time. But that would mean bringing down the height of the ceiling, thus ruining the beauty of the magnificent screen,” he explains.

The future of Agastya Theatre premises is still unclear, but it did have a good run in the five decades that it survived. Interestingly, the last film screened just before lockdown was an MGR film titled Ragasiya Police 115. When this film was first released on this very screen, way back in 1967, it ran for 100 days. In early 2020, during its re-release, about 30 people came for the shows. “Times have changed, and so have we,” signs off Natarajan.

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