MADRAS 373 History & Culture

Growing up with the talkies

Madras became the cinema capital of south India in the early twentieth century. My father late K. Viswanathan was a pioneer “exhibitor”, starting Chitra Talkies on Langs Garden Road in 1948. The theatre had an impressive art-deco facade, and over-looked the Cooum river across the bridge from Mount Road. The fifties saw the glory of the rise of great actors, and directors, not to mention new producers and distributors of Tamil cinema. I have wonderful memories of watching the big hits of that era. In those days the balcony seats cost a mere two and a half rupees. Our “theatre” had no air-conditioning as was the case with all others, but facing east with large doors and windows which were kept open once the sea-breeze set in, we had the pleasure of sitting in cushioned sofas and enjoying films in black and white.

Almost all of Sivaji Ganesan’s big hits were released in Chitra. Thus we children became his ardent fans and saw the films at least three or four times.

What is more we got to know all the dialogues by heart, and sang the hit songs too. Manohara, Uttamaputhran, Vanangamudi, Kathavarayan,Bhaga Pirivinai, Sampoorna Ramayanam, Padikkatha Medhai….. and then the magnum opus –Veera Pandiya Kattabomman. Chitra was lucky for Sivaji Ganesan and his producers! Looking at the first-day rush in the ladies’ queue, my father used to judge the film and pronounce with a smile: “this film will run for a hundred days”. And so they did!

Going to the talkies was much fun. We were indulged with Peach Melba catered by Jaffers ice-cream parlor which was just a stone’s throw away during the intermission. Relatives who visited us from out of town were taken to watch the latest hit. Judges, lawyers, doctors…. The elite of Madras came to Chitra and befriended my father who always greeted them with gentlemanly courtesy a broad smile!

Often we were asked for “passes” by the likes of traffic constables and others. For the common man in those days, taking his whole family to the cinema, free, was heaven! They never forgot those small gestures which made Madras a friendly city.

Chitra was a coveted place for a new release. Soon MGR too wanted his films released there. We children could not contain our excitement when the first colour film in Tamil - Ali Baba, with MGR and Bhanumathi was released in Chitra. We saw it again and again with the thrill that only children of those days could experience.Thevar’s Vettaikaran with MGR was launched with a mammoth publicity stunt .The entire façade of the theatre was built up by studio hands to look like a mountainous forest with MGR’s cut out perched on a peak. And down below a caged tiger was parked to create the right ambience for a “shoot”! What a rush that created!

My father was adventurous. He did path-breaking service to good cinema, even risking a loss. Thus a Tamil version of Mehboob Khan’s “Aan” was released in Chitra to much fan-fare. Opening night was followed by a gala reception at Vauhini Studios. Mehboob Khan and d his wife along with the ultimate matinee idol Dilip Kumar and the petite heroine, Nimmi,flew down from Bombay for the event. The high point for me was the fact that my parents organized a short Bharatanatyam performance by me and my sister Sujaya in honour of the star celebrities.

A crowd-puller

Chitra Talkies also drew a different crowd for a week in the fifties. After seeing Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, my father decided that Madras should see this awesome, moving ,film by an unknown genius. He released it in Chitra, with some publicity and people flocked to see it. Years later when I met Ray in London I told him this story, much to his surprise and delight.

My bother Krishnaswamy (Thambi) was a life-long buddy of Sivaji Ganesan.He took charge of Chitra after my father and worked hard to keep pace with changing Madras. Films by great directors like A.P. Nagarajan, Sreedhar and others with music by Viswanthan-Ramurthy and comedy by Nagesh had us enthralled to a new wave in Tamil cinema. Hundred-day films were fewer but Thambi drew in the big names and helped in their success.

We grew up to the magic of the “talkies”. We hummed the tunes of G.Ramanathan, and craved to dance like Padmini. For me, memories of growing up with Chitra Talkies brings a flood of wistful nostalgia about old Madras.

(Lakshmi Viswanathan is a dancer and writer).

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Printable version | Jul 19, 2021 8:40:57 AM |

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