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The cinema capital

The city is perhaps the only place in the State that has 16 theatres spread across a radius of three km, writes sangeeta


The cinemas in the city are an indispensable feature of the city’s culturescape. There are 16 theatres across a radius of three km, which are happening centres of entertainment.

From monochrome talkies to technicolour extravaganzas, from Henry the Eighth to Harry Potter, from ‘Vigathakumaran’ to ‘Meesa Madhavan’ ... all of them cast a spell on the city audience.

Five of the predominant cinemas belonged to veteran director-producer Merryland P. Subramaniam. The twin complex of Sreekumar-Sreevisakh, Sree Padmanabha, New Theatre and erstwhile Karthikeya at Pettah, were formed as an extension of their business interests in the industry.

“Theatres were my father’s first love,” recalls S. Murugan, son of P. Subramaniam, and managing director of City Theatres.

“Merryland Studio was built in 1951, but New Theatre, the first of our theatre chain, was built in 1936. Sreekumar, intended as a cinema exclusively devoted to English films, followed in 1950,” explains Murugan.

The theatres were the obvious choice for weekend entertainment, reminisces Mani Krishanan Nair, proprietor of Krishnan Nair and Sons Jewellers.

“Outing, those days, meant watching movies at Srikumar. Our friends – Dr. Pai, Ravindran Nair and Salu of Malaya Cottage, and dentist Peter Christian, were the regulars there.”

What New and Sreekumar were to English Films, Central, Chitra and Siva were to Tamil Films. These theatres, in their heyday, screened Tamil movies to packed houses. Chitra also staged Tamil dramas by T.S. Rajamanikam, R.S. Manohar, Lankeswaran and Thangavelu. Chitra and Siva were eventually closed down. Shakthi, rechristened Kripa, survived the changing cultural resonances primarily because of its locational advantage. Parthas, a comparative newcomer, went through a renovation that kept the theatre dysfunctional for over 10 years, but it is now in action.



Flashback Sree Padmanabha belonged to veteran director-producer Merryland P. Subramaniam, left; members of the royal family of erstwhile Travancore pay a visit to one of his theatres

The theatre quartet of S.L. Theatres also had its share of ups and downs. “It needed family entertainers to break the jinx attached to our complex. It is very important to the keep the status and profile of the theatre as a place for family entertainment,” feels Joy M. Pillai, director of S.L. Theatres.

While theatres depend on stars for their fortunes, stars have their preferences too. Mammooty films invariably go to Ajantha, while Mohanlal and Dilip hold Srikumar as their lucky charm. “It is not because of any superstition but good business. Lal is a friend, so we take his films. Kala Sanghom is also a promising brand to invest on,” says Murugan. But Mammootty, or rather his fans, seem to believe in luck.

“All of Mammookka’s films released at Ajantha did very well – starting from ‘Thuruppu Gulan,’ ‘Mayavi,’ ‘Pothen Vava’ and ‘Big B.’ His Onam flick ‘Nasrani,’ is scheduled at Ajantha,” says V. Bhaskar, president of All-Kerala Mammooty Fans and Welfare Association.

Arthouse

Like Nandan in Calcutta and Siri Fort in New Delhi, the city’s arthouse is Kalabhavan. “P.R.S. Pillai, then chairman of Kerala State Film Development Corporation, came up with the idea of a Government-sponsored theatre. That paved the way to Kairali, Sree and Chitranjali theatres in the State. Kalabhavan was meant for individual screenings, film societies and festivals. But Kalabhavan too got derailed into screening commercial cinema, mainly because of the financial problems encountered by KSFDC. But with a little vision, Kalabhavan can regain its past glory,” says D. Babu Paul, former Government Secretary for Information and Cultural Affairs.

The prime venue for film festivals and parallel cinema screenings, Kalabhavan is the theatre in Kerala where many world class filmmakers like Zanussi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Marta Meszaros, and Kohei Oguri have marked attendance.

Golden moments

Sreekumar, on a rare occasion, was rented out for a violin concert by Yehudi Menuhin.

“It was a grand occasion and the concert was attended by the royal family of erstwhile Travancore. The theatre was selected for its excellent acoustics. Although, there was a show then, we disrupted it for the concert. The theatre was designed by my father, P. Subramaniam, and his consultant for the sculptural work was Robert Fernando, a former superintendent of the Public Works Department,” remembers S. Chandran, director of City Theatres.

“Menuhin was accompanied by his sister Hephzibah on the piano. The concert was arranged by Swati Tirunal Sangeetha Sabha. It was a rainy evening in the early Fifties; all the doors were closed once he started performing, no amplification, fans were switched off and no member of the audience moved till the end of the performance,” recollects Anantha Padmanabha Iyer, who attended the concert. “I was not adept to gauge his mastery. But the decorum and response of the crowd was reflective of the genius on stage – for every five-minute piece he played, the applause lasted for 10 minutes...,” he adds. In the late Fifties, Sreekumar was the venue for a high-profile meeting of the Congress chaired by Indira Gandhi, recalls Chandran.

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