Filmy Ripples : Cinema Halls of old Madras – An Anthology (Part 2)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan
The movies always began after ‘The News Reel’ of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry of the government.
Whenever a song sequence came in the movie the audience fled out to have a soda or smoke or to relieve themselves!
In the very few theatres that were air conditioned in those days, after the first reel was screened, the operator used to quietly switch off the a/c. In those times the word consumerism was unknown and none batted an eyelid at such practice!
On the metal backs of the seats you would find creative engravings by the ‘learned’ audience. In some seats the sponge was found scooped out by some disgruntled theatre goers. The washrooms had a mixed stink of phenyl and human fluids while their walls bore unsharable graffitis.
But the audience inside these halls, with high ceilings sporting sporadic ceiling fans, lived the movies with their favourite chocolate faced Heroes and buxom Heroines.
When Srinivasa Kalyanam was released in Maharani Theatre, in the front foyer a Tirupathi Balaji was installed. On the release of Marma Manithan, cycle rikshaw men were dressed like that character a la style Mr.X, as they distributed fliers about the movie.
maharani

Maharani still standing. PC: V.Harihara Subramanian, Feb 2017

One of the oldest theatres of Madras was Murugan Talkies. It was originally started in 1910 by one Murugesa Mudaliyar as Majestic Theatre where Tamil Plays happened.
This was later converted to a cinema hall. In 1931, Majestic’s name was changed to “Kinema Central” ,  where the first Indian talkie film “Alam Ara” was screened, with People coming by road and rail, packing food,  to watch the first talkie. This theatre also saw the screening of the first “Tamil-Telugu” Talkie ‘Kalidasa’. Classics like Meera, Shakunthala , Avvaiyaar , Uththama Puthiran, Sathi Leelavathi , Thyagabhoomi, Ambikapathy , Thiruneelakantar, Ashokkumar ran at  Kinema Central.The theatre’s name was changed as Murugan Talkies in 1942.This iconic cinema hall was pulled down a couple of years ago, after 80 years.
murugan-talkies

An unimpressive shopping complex stands in the place of Murugan Talkies.                          PC: V.Harihara Subramanian

Then the new air-conditioned cinemas such as Safire & Anand came right on Mount Road.
Safire was a pioneer featuring multiscreen complex. It had screens named Safire, Emerald & Blue Diamond. Its Blue Diamond cinema ran continuous shows, where one could buy a ticket and enter the theatre in the middle of a screening and continue to stay as long as one wanted, as the movie was screened non stop, back to back. Safire complex opened with the iconic 70MM movie ‘Cleopatra’, followed by Battle of the Bulge, Mutiny on the Bounty, South Pacific – all in mammoth 70MM. The Safire Complex also had the first ever Disco of Madras, named Nine Gems. It even had a restaurant serving Rajasthani culinary. When ever I pass by, these days, the bush grown compound where once Safire complex stood proudly on the Mount Road, I feel both melancholic & nostalgic.The Anand Theatre owned by an influential Congressman Umapathi had its mammoth electric screen raise before each movie projection started, revealing the silver screen, to the accompaniment of Spanish Gypsy tune, which, by the by, also inspired MSV to compose ‘Thulluvatho Ilamai’.

 

imgp2471

The projectionist with his projector at the erstwhile Anand theatre.                                            PC: Sruti Harihara Subramanian

Then came the Pilot Theatre in late sixties at Royapettah, started by Mr. Sanjeevi of Pilot Pen Company, with Cine Rama technology.

pilot-theater

Pilot theatre in the process of being demolished on Feb 9th 2017 PC: Srinivasa Ramanujam

This is the anthology to the current generation of cinema halls, which are cartelised screens in corporate run set-ups, such as PVR & Inox, with plush seatings, comfy air-conditioning with snacks served at your seat, if you had pre booked them.
PVR which spearheaded multiplexes across India was a JV by the Indian film distributor Priya Exhibitors and Australian Media company Village Roadshow, from which first letters P-V-R, their multiplexes are known now.
Movies are an experience, indeed, whether in sixties or now.
Advertisements

Filmy Ripples : Cinema Halls of old Madras – An Anthology (Part 1)

TCRC is very happy to introduce our latest contributor Mr.P.V Gopalakrishnan who will be writing the series Filmy Ripples. The series promises to be very different from our earlier ones. Filmy Ripples hopes to share with you stories on Cinema over the last 60 years from the eyes of an avid Tamil film and music aficionado.  – Editor
At the outset, you may wonder why I chose to christen this new Blog with this Title. Well, I am going to share with you Film related subjects, which may be like ripples, forming waves of circles, even as you develop to visualise it in your minds through your own extended thoughts, whilst the ripple itself waning away to merge with the stillness of water!Having said that, we will dwell on the period things relating to films from the bygone era as I have seen, experienced, read about and so on!
In this very debut blog under this fancy title, lets time travel back to sixties and before, to see how people of Madras City saw movies.
In the past, a variety of venues let people witness cinemas. These included touring cinemas, thatched halls, single screen cinema theatres, Multiplex as the movies played there made people dance, clap, shed tears, as they watched the larger than life stars on the big screens, in awe!
The first film I ever watched as a child was in a thatched ‘cinema kottaai’ some where in a desolate village in Kerala, where I was born. (By the by, I am not a mallu!). And the movie was the Thespian Nagaiah starred ‘Chakradhari’ (1948). While Nagaiah played the protagonist Gora Kumbhar, Pushpavalli, mother of yesteryears’ Hindi siren Rekha acted as his wife.
 
Any new film release in these ‘kottais‘ were publicised by a bullock cart borne person throwing colourful hand notices around. Often such carts had huge cone speakers blaring cine music with intermittent vernacular announcements. Occasionally a drummer aboard the cart invited the attention of folks around.There used to be hand pushed carts with pneumatic wheels and slanting banners on either side, publicising the films.
I have experienced a tent cinema too in my younger days. I recollect, the film was  ‘Naya Daur’ (Hindi) starring Dilip Kumar & Vyjayanthimala. Typically tent cinemas had just a couple of rows of chairs in the rear of the ‘auditorium’ , with the forefront seating the cinema goers right on the mother earth. These guys stretched their legs and scribbled on the sandy surface with their fingers. The hall’s sides used to be thatchings spun of dried coconut leaves, with liberal holes through which anyone could have a peep show. The vendors used to crisscross hawking the likes of murukku & groundnuts.
Then there were these stand alone theatres, which have been since giving way to wedding halls, shopping arcades & car showrooms.
Paragon, Roxy, Sri Krishna, Prabhat, Broadway, Gaiety, Casino, Chithra, Brighton, Maharani, Thangam, Kamadhenu, Eros, Kapali, Rajakumari, Bharath, Ashok, Plaza, New Globe, Sayani, Star, Wellington, Odeon, Midland, Krishnaveni, Shanthi, New Elphinstone, Sun were all well known stand alone theatres of the old Madras.
These theatres displayed on them huge banners & cutouts of the sequences from the movie being shown, drawn in bright colours, by renowned Banner Artistes such as Ayakan, Balu Brothers, G.H.Rao etc.
dpa-huge-cinema-posters-advertise-a-tamil-movie-in-a-street-in-chennai-d3b7hn

Star Theatre with a film’s banner at its entrance

Some of these halls used to be of very huge capacity, with those in balcony sporting an air about them.
The doorman, often in soiled lungis, at these cinemas used a vertically held torch to see your seat number and usher you in, sliding the blue curtains, at the door, that went to laundry ages ago!
Besides selling ‘soda, colour’, the vendors inside the hall used to hawk handy booklets, printed on poorest quality paper, containing the songs of the film. They used to print even the synopsis of the film being shown in such ‘paattu pusthakam‘ (song books), withholding as to how the film ended. ‘Matravai Velli thiraiyil‘(The rest on silverscreen)  was the last line, in print!
 Song Book of the Tamil film ‘Rambayin Kadal'(1956) PC: TCRC Archives
The lowest tickets were at four and three quarter Annas, before the advent of Naiya Paisa. The premium balcony seats costed a whopping Two and a half Rupees.
The tickets were issued out of a small window opening and there would be a winding high walled passage, that could choke you for lack of fresh air. As the tickets were often sold to black marketeers in bulk by the malicious counter staff, you could get tickets in grey market just about near the official counter! Booking tickets was a nightmare. After all, Bookmyshow was not around in those times!

(To be continued)

India’s first indigenously-made feature film in colour: “Kisan Kanya” (Hindi, 1937)

In our post about Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director, we had mentioned Ardeshir Irani as the father of Indian talkie films, as he was involved with the making of both “Alam Ara” (the first Indian talkie) and “Kalidas” (the first Tamil talkie), both of which were released in 1931. In fact, “Kalidas” was made on the sets of “Alam Ara” by Ardeshir Irani’s former assistant HM Reddy.

It turns out that Ardeshir Irani has been responsible for other landmarks as well in India’s cinematic history. His production company, Imperial Pictures, backed “Kisan Kanya”, India’s first indigenously-made feature film in colour. The movie, directed by Moti B Gidvani, was coloured using the Cinecolor process that was acquired from an American film by the producers Imperial Pictures. Given below is a still from the film:

"Kisan" | Hindi | 1937. Photo Courtesy: The Times of India

“Kisan Kanya” | Hindi | 1937. Photo Courtesy: The Times of India

The ‘indigenously-made’ tag comes into play thanks to other experiments with colour by pioneer V Shantaram, who co-founded the Prabhat Film Company. In 1933, he produced a Marathi film titled “Sairandhri,” which had some scenes shot in colour. But in the case of “Sairandhri,” the film was printed and processed in Germany, thereby allowing “Kisan Kanya” to be remembered as the first indigenously-made feature film in Hindi. “Kisan Kanya” is said to have had a run time of 137 minutes and its cast is reported to include actors such as Padmadevi, Jillo, Ghulam Mohammed, Nissar, Syed Ahmed, and Gani.

The story of Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director

While pulling out playback singer Shamshad Begum’s version of Katiya Karoon, we at TCRC realised that she was one of the earliest female playback singers in the Hindi film industry. This set us off on a search for India’s first woman film director and led us to this interesting piece on Fatma Begum, written by Rohit Vats for IBN Live as a part of their “100 years of Indian cinema” series. Here’s an excerpt from that piece (click here to read the entire story):

Born in an Urdu speaking family, Fatma Begum was related to Nawab Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad Yakut Khan III. She was the mother of Zubeida, Sultana and Shehzadi, who were popular actors of the silent era. She started working in films in 1922 after getting trained in plays. Fatma worked with filmmakers like Ardeshir Irani and Nanubhai Desai before founding her own production company Fatma Films which was later rechristened as Victoria-Fatma Films. ‘Bulbul-E-Paristan’ that released in 1926, became the first Indian film to be directed by a female director. However, acting remained on her wish list and she continued to act till late 1930s.”

Ardeshir Irani, who Fatma worked with as an actor, incidentally is the father of Indian talkie films, having made both “Alam Ara” (in Hindi) and “Kalidas” (in Tamil, with songs in Telugu).

We also tried to find an image of Fatma Begum on the web. While we did come across few images, we couldn’t confirm the veracity of any of them. The Whistling Woods (a film school in Mumbai) blog, for instance,  features this picture:

Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director.

Cineplot Enyclopedia, on the other hand, features this image:

Fatma Begum, India’s first woman film director.

Clearly different people, don’t you think? It is interesting (and worrisome) to note that the internet doesn’t  have a single undisputed image of the first woman director in one of the world’s largest film industries. On days like these, we at TCRC find renewed vigour in our attempt to archive cinema-related artifacts. Have you found other such examples with respect to information about the early days of cinema? Do share them with us by writing to tcrc.india[at]gmail[dot]com.

The incredible story of PK Nair, India’s most respected film archivist, has now been documented!

On the 3rd of May later this year, an anniversary of epic proportions will occur. For it was on that day in 1913, one hundred years ago, that “Raja Harishchandra”, the silent film produced and directed by Dadasaheb Phalke which is widely accepted as the first Indian full-length feature film, was released. In effect, the day marks the existence of one hundred years of Indian cinema. And what a glorious century it has been!

Of the many ways in which this anniversary is likely to be commemorated, we at TCRC are particularly excited about the release of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s National Award-winning documentary “Celluloid Man” on 3rd May 2013. The film showcases the life and work of legendary Indian archivist and founder of National Film Archive of India (NFAI), PK Nair.  Given below is an excerpt from the film:

The film is said to feature interviews with many leading film personalities including including Krzysztof Zanussi, Lester James Peries, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Gulzar, Basu Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah, Kamal Haasan, Girish Kasaravalli, Jahnu Barua, Jaya Bachchan, Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu, Sitara Devi, Santosh Sivan, Rajkumar Hirani, Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy and Mrinal Sen, all of whom share their reflections on the influence of PK Nair on the films that they watched and loved. In the 2012 National Film Awards, “Celluloid Man” won accolades for Best Editing and Best Biographical/Historical Reconstruction.

PK Nair, now 80 years old, has meanwhile spoken about how the prints of films such as “Raja Harishchandra,” “Alam Ara,” etc are not available at all and has lamented the loss of many important films made before the 1950s (click here to read that whole story).

We at TCRC salute PK Nair, or Nair Saab as he is known, for his commitment to archiving the early days of Indian cinema. May his tribe only grow.