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Cinema at Round Tana

S. MUTHIAH

Madras's third oldest cinema theatre - and the oldest still in business - is to the rear of the Electric, located kitty-corner to it on Blacker's Road. The first Madrasi-owned theatre, the Gaiety was opened by the film pioneer Raghupathy Venkaiah in 1914.


I'LL GET to Round Tana, a near forgotten name, next week - and would welcome any recollections of that landmark site before then - but this week, though I'm a little ahead of my route, historically speaking, I take a look at Cinema which, starting from just a couple of buildings south of P.Orr's, kept Round Tana abuzz all afternoon and evening till the early 1960s. That cinema house which has started me on this journey was my - and many others' - favourite, the New Elphinstone theatre, now a shopping mall of tiny shops and services.

Sohrab Modi, the famed Bombay film-maker known as the `Cecil B. de Mille of Hindi Cinema' began his career in cinema by founding with his brothers `Western India Theatres', owners of a number of `tent' cinemas and permanent theatres. When he opened the New Elphinstone in 1932 as Madras's poshest cinema theatre to screen the best of Hollywood films, the habit of film-going as an outing became firmly established in the city. Apart from the plushness of its surroundings and the vaudeville offered during the intervals, the New Elphinstone had one other unforgettable attraction, for many of my age, which made it an outing to look forward to. And that had its roots in the site where the New Elphinstone came up.

Preceding the New Elphinstone on this site was the Lycaeum, vaudeville theatre, dance hall and `indoor stadium' for prize-fighting. A part of the Lycaeum's attractions was `Barney Dorai's' soda fountain, dating to around 1910. When the New Elphinstone came up, this became the Elphinstone Soda Foundation - a `must' for every film-goer here. When `Barney Dorai' left for England after Independence, Jafar, who had worked with him, took it over and made what he renamed Jafar's Icecream Parlour, a Round Tana landmark. Jafar's painstakingly made icecream confections, its huge icecream and jelly menu, the large jars of colourful sweets and marshmallows that lit up the place, and the gleaming soda fountain with its tall bar-style stools made it a social legend in mid-20th Century Madras. For old-timers, there's never been anything since, not like Jafar's 23 icecreams and even more numerous sundaes, despite the city now being an icecream parlour-coffee pub haven.

When the New Elphinstone gradually slipped into Malayalam sleaze in the late 1970s, the days of the Jafar legend were numbered. Soon, Jafar's moved to another location, The New Elphinstone was pulled down in 1979 and the Raheja Complex opened on the site in 1981... .but that's another story.

A New Elphinstone meant there had to be an old Elphinstone - and there was one, rooted in almost the beginnings of cinema-screening in Madras. The Elphinstone was located across Round Tana from the New Elphinstone on the site of Misquith Building, just west of the old Hindu building at the junction of Ellis Road and Wallajah Road. (Wallace) Misquith & Co., established in 1842 built itself a magnificent brick-exposed Indo-Saracenic building to house on the ground floor its showroom for musical instruments and, on the first floor, music salons which could be rented by the hour for anyone wanting to play any instrument. In time, Misquith's' became Musee Musicals and moved further down Mount Road, but in its heyday it housed the Lyric, a hall of entertainment that a man named Cohen established on the first floor when he took over Misquith's in 1907. In 1913, the Lyric began screening films, calling itself the Empire Cinema, but a fire in March 1914 closed it down. Later that year, J.F. Madan of Calcutta, owner of India's biggest cinema chain at the time, took over the Empire and renamed it with that of his flagship, the Elphinstone. In 1915, Madan bought the Misquith Building and made the Elphinstone a permanent cinema theatre, the biggest and the first with a balcony in Madras.

The Empire-Elphinstone, however, had been preceded by two other cinema theatres in Madras. The first was the Bioscope, opened on Popham's Broadway by a Mrs. Klug in 1911. It closed in a few months - and, as the second which opened survived for a few years, it's the latter, the Electric, that is described as Madras's first cinema theatre. The Electric, owned by Warwick Major and Reginald Eyre, built "a large corrugated iron shell with a brick façade" for itself and began screening silent films in it in 1913. The shed gradually developed into a more ornate building that still survives near Round Tana, adaptively re-used and brought into my narration today earlier that its location warrants because it really begins the story the New Elphinstone has got me started on. The Electric, bought by the Postal Department in 1915 for the Mount Road Main Post Office to be raised in its grounds, is still to be seen in that campus, but no longer reflecting its theatrical origins.

In the 1990s, a Postmaster General more concerned with heritage than most, restored a part of the building and, since 1998, the Electric functions as the Philatelic Bureau and the Philatelic Exhibition Hall, quite an active place, particularly when not infrequent stamp exhibitions are held in it. But while the front of the building has been restored - and catches the eye on Mount Road - its rear deserves better than being treated as storage space. In the Electric's heyday, the well-known hotelier of the time, d'Angeli, ran an open-air bar and café in its garden which adjoined his property.

Madras's third oldest cinema theatre - and the oldest still in business - is to the rear of the Electric, located kitty-corner to it on Blacker's Road. The first Madrasi-owned theatre, the Gaiety was opened by that film pioneer Raghupathy Venkaiah in 1914. He followed it up in 1916 with the Crown in Mint Street that's now the Crown Talkies and with the Globe in Purasawalkam the next year. Perhaps the most architecturally striking cinema in Madras, the Globe, under new ownership, became the Roxy - but today survives precariously as a hall for garment sales. The next cinema to open was back again not far from Round Tana; the Wellington, which opened in 1918. It is now a shopping plaza and office complex at the junction of Mount Road and General Patter's Road. The Wellington, built by R. Dorabjee, became the theatre most associated with S.S. Vasan's films. Then came the Paragon on Wallajah Road, the Casino on Blacker's Road and the newer Shanthi and Devi complex. Once, when they all ran to full-houses, Round Tana buzzed with life generated by the Cinema late into the night.

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