With Krishnaveni Cinemas, an iconic Chennai landmark gets a much needed image makeover


In a labyrinth of narrowing streets in T Nagar populated with small vendors, budget-friendly stores and textile businesses, lay a small but self-sufficient pocket of land where cinema once thrived. For anyone driving past T Nagar or taking a bus at the depot, it was tough to overlook the tall, welcoming film posters on the sideways.

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Located in the heart of the city, Krishnaveni Theatre was not just another old theatre in the ever-changing landscape, but the last surviving remnant of a bygone era. It is where some of our biggest superstars’ films — MGR’s Aayirathil Oruvan (1965), Rajinikanth’s Adutha Varisu (1983), Amitabh Bachchan’s Deewar (1975), Kamal’s Avvai Shanmugi (1996), Ajith’s Amarkalam (1999) and Vikram’s Sethu (1999) — have had an enviable run at the box office. Actor Ramarajan-starrer Karakattakaran (1989) alone ran for 365 days, in addition to countless 100-day hits such as Surya Gandhi (1973), Manal Kayiru (1982), Nooravadhu Naal (1984) and Sindhu Bairavi (1985).

Yet, as they say in film lingo, the first half was good and the second half... not-so-much.

Poor maintenance and a lacklustre effort to rebuild and recoup contributed to the theatre going to ruins in what was a cut-throat business. It resulted in a wakeup call and three years of renovation, which began in 2018. Rebooted as Krishnaveni Cinemas, it was reopened for business on Deepavali with Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe.

The transformation of Krishnaveni Theatre to Krishnaveni Cinemas at a time when single-screen theatres across the country are closing operations is, of course, inspiring.

With Krishnaveni Cinemas, an iconic Chennai landmark gets a much needed image makeover

Says its current owner RM Somasundaram, “We have had this property for more than 50 years without proper maintenance. When we started the renovation process, we did not want to compromise on anything... we wanted to revive the business.”

Krishnaveni Cinemas now boasts a new facade. The auditorium has an upgraded projector and sound system, with a capacity of 490-seats.

With Krishnaveni Cinemas, an iconic Chennai landmark gets a much needed image makeover

We catch projectionist KM Kannan (who has worked with Krishnaveni for 32 years) at work during the interval of Sabhaapathy. Had we caught him a few decades ago, he would not have found time to chat; from setting up spools to changing film reels before and after the interval, his under-appreciated work was art itself. Thanks to today’s laser projection, all he needs to do is tap a button.

“In those days, we studied for a year to get a licence to operate a film projector. Can you imagine all this was done by one person, the projectionist?” he asks. As an operator with Krishnaveni for 32 years, Kannan observes that women-oriented movies were popular in Krishnaveni and the theatre had a steady inflow of women in the early 2000s until the arrival of TV serials.

“All of [director] Ramanarayanan’s films have done well here. In fact, there was a time when ladies outnumbered gents, for instance, for Va Arugil Vaa,” he says.

A colourful history

For a theatre to have survived the various socio-politico-cultural changes in T Nagar over 75 years, Krishnaveni and people like Kannan are embers of the past. However, little is known and documented about its origin. According to its current owner, the theatre was constructed in 1946 and was run by Andhra Pradesh-based Krishnaveni. In 1968, SM Ramanathan Chettiar purchased the property from Kamala Theatre owner VN Chidambaram Chettiar. Since then, it has been manned by Ramanathan and his sister’s family.

An old image of Krishnaveni Theatre

An old image of Krishnaveni Theatre   | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Coming from a family of yarn merchants, Ramanathan Chettiar was not a ‘movie’ person: he saw the theatre as an additional channel to monetise. Even at the height of business, profits were few, says Somasundaram. “Because my father didn’t come from a film background, he couldn’t adapt to the changes of the times. Plus, we didn’t put too much effort in providing theatrical experience then,” he says, adding, “Now is the time to see profits, now that we have renovated it.”

With an ageing building and fading paint, Krishnaveni Theatre was drifting away from collective memory. It hit a low point when the theatre started screening adult films and B-grade cinema. There were other complications as people began misusing the property. “I thought we shouldn’t encourage such behaviour, it was our name that was spoiled,” Somasundaram says. “There was a lot of interest in buying this property too. But we wanted to keep the family business afloat.”

After his father’s demise in 2013, Somasundaram, an Agriculture graduate who is in the synthetic yarn business, took over. The renovation is both an image turnover and an attempt to recover lost business; distributors were still wary until Somasundaram convinced them of the new look. While Annaatthe and Sabhaapathy may not have drawn eyeballs, film events such as the recent Maanaadu audio launch ensured visibility among the film circuit.

Somasundaram acknowledges the long road ahead. “The first step is to bring back the old charm. Right now, the goal is to make our presence be felt.”

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 8:22:14 PM |

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