The magic of the arc lights

The Head Post Office area used to be full of tamarind trees. We played goli gundu on V.H. Road!

The Head Post Office area used to be full of tamarind trees. We played goli gundu on V.H. Road!  

T hose were the days when ‘Variety Hall Cinema' in Town Hall screened silent movies. As the scenes unfolded, a person with a microphone explained the sequences to an awe-struck audience. K. P. Shanmugam was one of them. “The narrator carried a long stick and pointed out the hero and heroine as he explained the plot. Even the costliest ticket cost just four annas,” he recalls. Later, when sound came into the picture, films such as “Minnal Kodi” and “Vana Mohini” filled his world.

Any discussion on Coimbatore's illustrious connection with cinema is incomplete without the mention of a popular shop on N.H. Road that provided a one-stop solution for film projectors — Electron Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, set up in 1957 by K.P. Shanmugam and his brother P. Sabapathy.

“We carried out repair works of projectors, right from the motors required for playing records, electrical coils , projector fixing stands and so on. We also rectified the bends in the spool that carried the film roll,” he mentions.

Movie magic

Coimbatore welcomed movies in a big way. Central Studios and Pakshiraja Studios were abuzz, and theatres flourished. The projectors were largely imported. Shanmugam rattles off the names of German makes such as Gamangalli, Super Simplex and Bauer, Victoria projectors (Italy) and Rose (London) that were in use. “RCA, the popular electronics company, supplied amplifiers. RCA's skilled sound and mechanical engineers came to the city from places such as Bangalore for servicing.”

Worn out projectors were set right at Electron Company. “We also repaired the LL2 pedestal, (originally made of brass) required for mounting the projector. Foundries in the region later manufactured them from castings.”

Shamugam specialised in electrical, mechanical and rewinding work of rectifiers (which derive DC power from an AC supply) for film projection. In 1964, the brothers split. P. Sabapathy mastered wet grinder manufacturing. People used to line the streets to catch a glimpse of wet grinders as they were loaded on to a truck to Chennai and Madurai and, sometimes, on bullock carts to Pollachi, he says.

Shanmugam teamed up with his friend S. K. Palaniswamy, a skilled sound engineer, visited cinema theatres in the entire Southern region, including Thrissur and Alathur in Kerala, and rectified projectors and sound systems. Touring theatres flourished in the outskirts — Vadavalli, Pollachi and in neighbouring Kerala. They ensured good business too.

He literally grew up on movies. “We stayed in a house behind Delite Theatre. ‘Sholay' ran for more than a year, and we knew every scene and dialogue by heart.” He frequented theatres such as Royal, Rainbow, V.H. Theatre (now Delite), Carnatic and Kennedy to get his fix of movies. Shanmuga Theatre in Sulur was a favourite haunt too.


He recalls a time when N.H. Road was dotted with a number of saw mills (a reason why it is called Marakkadai) and scrap material shops. Popular electric dealer Batliboi had a store too. “We could buy a motor pump with accessories for Rs. 800; now, it costs more than a lakh.” The Head Post Office area used to be full of tamarind trees. “Traffic was less. We played goli gundu on V.H. Road!” Renowned artists such as Harmonist Lingappa, C.K. Saraswathi, K. T. Rukmani and K. R. Chellam who made it big in cinema started out from Coimbatore. “N.S. Krishnan and his wife T.A. Mathuram stayed in Ramanathapuram and performed a number of plays. Artists such as T.S. Balaiah and Chinnappa Thevar also hail from here.”

Shanmugam remembers theatre artist and actor Angamuthu, a Coimbatorean. She visited the Head Post Office regularly to collect her pension, where Shanmugam's father K. Parashiya worked. “I have seen T.S. Balaiah flanked by MGR and M.N. Nambiar on a horse-drawn carriage, travelling from Ramanathapuram to the popular RHR hotel near Railway Station.”

Hailstorm in the city

He remembers the hailstorm that lashed the city during the funeral procession of Samikannu Vincent who introduced touring talkies. “As ice pellets rained down, we took shelter under the new bridge on Trichy Road. The city was much smaller then, and no one ventured beyond the bridge.”

The Koniamman temple festival was renowned even then. Popular names in classical music — from D. K. Pattammal and Dhandapani Desikar to Seerkazhi Govindarajan have performed there.

He remembers the film shoot of “Sakunthala”, starring M.S. Subbulakshmi and Y.V. Rao at various locations in V.O. Chidambaram Park. Also, “Krishna Leela”, where the actors stood in hip-level water at Vaalankulam, near the present CTC bus stop. “Town bus” was shot in Central Studios. “The artistes were multi-talented — they were good singers, looked beautiful, and rendered dialogues well,” he recalls.

This city was also a calm place where everyone lived in harmony. “A lot of our Muslim friends would stay in Marakkadai. We used to call them maaman and machan . Those were the days…”

(As told to K. JESHI)

I REMEMBER Actor M. R. Radha's wife passed away during the staging of his play “Raththa Kaneer” at Swami Theatre on V.H. Road. The thespian, professional that he was, took the body for burial only after completing the play

K. P. Shanmugam Born on August 20, 1930, he studied at Union High School (now called CSI). A self-taught technician, he started his career with UMS before setting up Electron Electrical and Mechanical Company on N. H. Road. He grew up on a diet of films and lists Raj Kapoor's “Barsaat”, Prithiviraj Kapoor's “Alexander” and Dilip Kumar's “Mela” as his favourites.

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