The curtains are down: Chennai’s AVM Rajeswari’s rich cinematic heritage, and why it had to end 

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has forced several theatre owners to consider reinvention, or closure.

However the recent closure of Chennai’s popular theatre AVM Rajeswari has nothing to do with the troubled times we are in. “We decided it a few months ago, and insiders in the trade knew already. It just so happened that Covid-19 and lockdown hit us around the same time,” says AVM K Shanmugam, who jointly managed the theatre along with his father AVM Kumaran.

Curtains coming down at this Vadapalani cinema hall is sad news for cinema fans: this was one of the most reasonably-priced theatres in the city. This was also where assistant directors and acting aspirants would throng, given its proximity to studios and production houses. “Our ticket rates were among the lowest in the city. My father (Kumaran) was very clear that it needs to be a budget-friendly theatre to which an entire family could come,” says Shanmugam.

When the theatre was started in 1979, a ticket cost Rs 2.50. In early 2020, it was less than Rs 70.

The magic of movies

The theatre was the brainchild of Shanmugam’s grandfather and movie moghul, AV Meiyappan, widely regarded as one of the pioneers of Tamil cinema and the man who founded AVM Productions.It was also among the last businesses he launched before he passed on. “He was very keen on buying Odeon (which became Melody Theatre later), but the owners sold it to a group from Bangalore. Then, his focus shifted to Pilot Theatre, which he felt was very promising, but even those negotiations fell through.” That’s when AV Meiyappan decided to create a cinema hall of his own, and thus was born ‘AVM Rajeswari’, founded at the premises of the Vadapalani Press, a company that manufactured and traded packaging boxes.

The curtains are down: Chennai’s AVM Rajeswari’s rich cinematic heritage, and why it had to end 

Meiyappan was personally involved with the construction of the cinema hall. “We had a six-month holiday then, and my cousin Karthik and me saw it being built from scratch,” says Shanmugam. That was a time when the entire family were living in the AVM houses in Mylapore. “One day, I was called for...with my geometry box. I was good at geometry and he (Meiyappan) gave me some measurements to draw a circle, with lines running in between. Once done, it assumed the shape of a star inside a circle. He took that sketch to the workers, and wanted them to design the lights on the side of the cinema hall in that shape.” Unfortunately, those stars did not feature in the final design of the theatre, for Meiyappan passed away, and the hall was completed by his brothers.

All set for the show
  • Established in 1979, it is popular for catering to family audiences and being budget-friendly. It is also well known for playing the national anthem before very show.
  • Among the first theatres in Chennai to go in for Dolby sound system.
  • Titanic was the biggest grosser here; it ran for nine months.

The theatre opened on Vinayaka Chaturthi day of 1979: the film screened to a select few was Sri Valli, a 1945 film that Meiyappan had produced and co-directed. “I remember being excited when the sequences featuring an elephant came up on the big screen; he (Meiyappan) had actually dubbed for the elephant as well,” recalls Shanmugam.

The first movie released was American crime film Scorchy. “It was a relatively unknown film, but it was a superhit here and ran for over 100 days,” he says. Regular screenings of Tamil films followed; AVM Rajeswari has seen the release of every big Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan film ever since. Other language film releases too were held here, Mr India did well, for instance. However, the biggest blockbuster at Rajeswari till date remains the 1997 English flick Titanic.

That sinking feeling

Shanmugam narrates the tale of Titanic’s release like it was yesterday. “One morning, I was asked to keep the theatre free, and a film was played to a select few of us. Mind you, this was in December, a few months before the film’s theatrical release in India. We watched it, and were blown away. I remember calling Kamal Haasan after that, and requesting him to come to the theatre...and we watched it again.”

Kamal Haasan stood up and applauded during the end credits, recalls Shanmugam, who knew that he had a winner on his hands. “Titanic ran for nine months. We even had telephone bookings for the film. We employed boys who would deliver the tickets at home, and for that, we had requests coming in from as far as Kilpauk and George Town. People from all over Madras came here to watch Titanic.”

Over time, especially in the last few years, there was a steady decline in audiences to the hall. “We couldn’t pump back a lot of money into the theatre because of our low-cost approach. The trade was going okay till a few years ago when we had a regular set of directors. Today, to run over a week is a big challenge, and the films are no longer wholesome, family entertainers. Directors are trying to seclude it for a particular segment of people... I call them 'segmented films' that do not appeal to everyone in the family.”

Rajeswari was losing out on revenue week after week. “Earlier, a KS Ravikumar film used to bring in five members of the family. Even recently, a Pandiraj film does that. But that is not the case with other filmmakers,” adds Shanmugam.

Dwindling audiences meant that the inevitable decision to shut shop had to be taken earlier this year, just before the pandemic hit the world. The future of the premises is unclear at the moment, but Shanmugham believes that the hall has “led a full, complete life.” “The theatre business has become more like a weekend business. When that’s the case, it’s difficult to sustain things and still run the show.”

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2020 7:28:29 PM |

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