“Wait a minute! All this serious stuff is fine. But you have also had some incredible fun at the movies. Why not write about that too?” That’s what I said to myself last week, a few days after I published my post on Iruvar. As I gratefully accepted all the positive feedback on that write-up, I also felt the urge to revisit another set of my memory cells, related to my decade-long memories, starting from the late 80s, of Madras’ cinema theaters. I first need to provide some context. I lived in Madras – yes, good ol’ Madras, not the C word that it got transformed into – for 17 years from 1981, when I was welcomed into this world by the same maternity ward nurses that rejected Raja Paarvai and celebrated Murattu KaaLai! As I took baby steps in my house, so did Kamal, in Bollywood with Ek Duje Ke Liye. By the time I was six, two things happened –my family felt comfortable taking me to the movies that they wanted to watch. And, alarm bells went off in Kamal’s head to wake him up from his Bombay dreams; he decided that he would make new dreams right out of Madras and started working on some path breaking movies, which my family really admired. What this meant was that starting around the time of the release of Nayagan (Diwali, 1987), I used to tag along with my grandparents and my parents to pretty much every movie that they wanted to watch. Mind you, this was the pre-satellite TV era. Heck, I don’t even think DD-metro was on air back then, let alone Koffee with DD!
My admiration for Kamal began in the post-Nayagan phase itself. But truth to be told, I was not the Kamal Daasan that I am now! I used to equally enjoy Rajni’s masala movies. Maapillai at Albert Theater was quite something, especially the pre-intermission feisty exchange with Srividya; the fans screamed until the elders in the audience lost their hearing completely. I even remember going to the now-defunct Sapphire theater to watch Mohan Lal and Mammooty movies without subtitles, without understanding Malayalam! An hour into the Mohan Lal starrer His Highness Abdullah, my Mother exclaimed, “Bore adichu thallardhu! Kalambalaam!” (“I am bored stiff. Let’s leave!”) My grandpa was enjoying the movie and didn’t want to leave. And, I don’t know if I enjoyed the movie or if it felt nice to ‘support’ my grandpa but I said, firmly, “Naanum varra maaten!” (“I am not coming either!”) And, I very proudly stayed with my grandpa throughout the movie, savoring the corn puffs purchased during the intermission as much as what ensued on screen! My mother and grandma, meanwhile, left the theater in an auto during the intermission! As my age approached double digits, I have a feeling that I understood movies a little better. I remember being impressed with serious fare like Thalapathi (Diwali, ’91) and Marupadiyum (Pongal, ’93). But it was only years later that I took movie-watching as seriously as I do now. Save the occasional Balu Mahendra or the KB movie, it was still the mainstream entertainer that I looked forward to, in those days. Speaking of Thalapathi, I have fond memories of my Aunt (who passed away in October) and Uncle who would take me to preview screenings of GV and Mani Ratnam productions. My Uncle is a chartered accountant who partnered with the late GS (GV and Ratnam's brother) and so, I would tag along with them to not only catch the movies but also glimpses of the stars. I still remember Suriya, during the premiere of Nerukku Ner, as a gawky youngster who looked as star struck as I was! Well, that was 20 years ago!
|Devi Theater / Cineplex (Image Courtesy of IndiaCatalog.com)|
My mid-teens were when I started watching movies with friends. Sathyam and Devi theaters were our frequent haunts, followed by Woodlands and less frequently, Shanthi or Albert. Given how passionate we could get about our favorite actors and actresses (especially the latter!), a heated argument was always lurking in the corner. We would needle one another, argue vehemently as though our lives depended on it and would stop only when another friend would step in to gently remind us about dinner plans! The friends in our group had wildly varied tastes – some of us were huge fans of Aishwarya Rai, others hated her, some of us liked to watch the occasional artsy movie, others preferred commercial entertainers – and we used to exhibit very little respect for each other’s tastes! Years later, when my erudite Uncle taught me the term, ‘De gustibus non est disputandum’ I told him that I wished he had shared that with me when I was in my teens! In the 90s, Praarthana was an open-air theater that opened in the outskirts of the city. Once the novelty wore off, it was not a favorite of mine because I was invariably disappointed with the acoustics. But still, watching Vaali (during a trip to India, in the summer of ’99) along with friends was a memorable experience. Not just for the movie – which was fantastic – but one of my friends started bashing Simran as a hopeless actress, much to the chagrin of others!
An annoyance or pleasure, depending on your tolerance level and interest in that particular movie, was to watch movies amid all the sarcastic remarks of those smart alecks in the crowd. While I admit to being occasionally peeved with those comments (in a movie like Kuruthi Punal, which had me riveted), I have also experienced guilty pleasure thanks to the sheer audacity and the wit of those comments. In the dramatic climax of Alai Payuthey, as Madhavan pleads to an unconscious Shalini to wake up, a restless friend of mine hooted, “Yendhru Shalini Yendhru!” Years later, when I was watching Chandramukhi in a packed theater in Southern California, there was a scene where Prabhu says, “Saravanan, ungaluku e-mail la message vandhuruku.” To this, an audience member reacted – rather loudly, I might add – “Pinne, e-mail la message varaama masaal-vadai ya varum?!” (Now, how do I translate that to English without losing the magnitude of the irreverence? I’m not even trying!) It was in Southern California but I felt transported to Madras in a matter of seconds! By the same token, it is sheer magic to watch a movie that’s working for an audience, in a theater in Madras. Chennai-600028 (part 1) was one of the first movies that I watched with my wife. What added to the fun element was that we also had one of my best friends for company. While laughing along with the audience at Shiva’s perfectly timed one-liners was fun, what was especially memorable was the theater erupting hysterically at the start of the “Saroja Saaman Nikkalo” song.
Video capturing fans’ reactions during the intermission scene of Baasha:
As I revisit these memories in my mind, I realize what a fun, communal experience movie-watching in a theater in Madras has been. Things have changed over the years with the advent of upscale malls, outrageous parking fares, perfectly upholstered seating, snazzy lighting, western food, online booking, etc. That’s all well and good. But my memories are of a different type of city that seemed to possess a different ethos. The evolution of the theaters, the audiences that frequent them, the amount of money spent there, all form a microcosm of the city's evolution. It doesn’t matter if the changes have been for better or for worse, overall; they are what they are. I am just thankful that the city’s theaters afforded me the luxury of pleasant memories. These scenes from my childhood and youth, be it with my family or friends, seem to play quite vividly on my mind’s screen even now, as nicely as the movies played out on the silver screen back then! And, that’s the end!