Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Madras movie theater experience: Fun memories of watching movies in Madras

“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
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!


ravishanker sunderam said...

Too Good Ram !

The old Madras theatres (like you the word 'Chennai' barely crosses my lips), movie watching experience was something else.

I pity the current generation of movie goers who never saw Mackenna's Gold in Devi theatre.

I felt as if I'd visited the Grand Canyon for three hours and come out !

You're my kinda guy

Ram Murali said...

Thanks a lot, Ravishanker. Is Devi theater the same kind of place these days or has it changed?

Note to readers:

My wife Nandu insisted that I should mention my Chithi, who passed away in October (based on all the memories of my childhood that I have shared with her). So, I added a few lines to the end of the paragraph where I wrote about serious fare like Thalapathi and Marupadiyum.

Also, here's what I had written about my Chithi in my tribute, when she passed away - "As I grew older, she was an older sister to me, taking me to outings with her friends and treating me like I was one of her other buddies. I still remember attending a housefull screening of “Anjali,” sitting on her lap and getting the feeling that I was on a rickety dinghy, for she sobbed through the entire second half!"

Kousalya Murali said...

I keep telling my friends that in this day of strict watch on what children should watch and for how long, you were brought up on a staple diet of Tamil movies and also with some Malayalam movies-thanks to my Malayalee friends in the office. I remember that those were the days of the great "walk out". If I didn't like a movie, I walked out and sure enough both you and my father would not do that. My poor mother would walk out with me just to support me. I remember there was a third class Kamalahasan and Bhanupriya movie that I could not stand to watch for more than 30 minutes. As usual you threw tantrums because I wanted to walk out. But for once I put my foot down with you and took you home as the movie was too vulgar.

those are some reminiscences. But as you rightly pointed out, movie going was the only entertainment in those days and we as a family enjoyed the whole experience-the popcorn and snacks, the comments and the reviews afterwards. I remember the " Brilliant Mani" comment from me for Bombay with which you teased me for such a long time afterwards. ALso how you defended "Iruvar" as a "commercial earner" whatever that meant.

Ram Murali said...

Amma - thank you for the comment! Do ask Thathama to read it too.
By the way, the "third class Kamalahasan and Bhanupriya movie" that you mentioned was Maharasan :)

" Brilliant Mani" comment from me for Bombay with which you teased me for such a long time afterwards.
--> Yes, you made him sound like a naay kutty that fetched a ball from the lawn!

ALso how you defended "Iruvar" as a "commercial earner" whatever that meant.
--> Commission earner was what I said. I don't know what that meant either; just sounded better than "a miserable flop!" :))

Anu Warrier said...

Enjoyed reading this, Ram. It brings back to mind all the movies that I watched in theatres, initially as my movie-loving father's partner-in-crime, and later, with my sister and cousin. We were indiscriminate movie-watchers - every single film that was released had to be watched, criticised, analysed... :) My mother used to be so upset with us - girls always watching movies! :)

Thanks for bringing back memories.

If I may make a suggestion? Could you please make smaller paragraphs next time? :)Makes it easier on the reader.

Ram Murali said...

Thank you, Anu! I am glad that the post made you go down memory lane too!

Regarding your suggestion - absolutely! I will work on having shorter paragraphs in future write-ups.

ravishanker sunderam said...

"email la message varaama pinee masala vadai yaa varum"

God ! That was a surgical scalpel strike !

That line sounds so dated.

I still say mails in my office which start with "Thank you for your email"
To which my reaction is "are there any other mails other then E-mails ?"

ravishanker sunderam said...

"Heck, I don’t even think DD-metro was on air back then, let alone Koffee with DD! "

Really savouring this just like I'm savouring the thought of tomorrow's holiday.

To quote a friend from college, another new channel means one more channel NOT to watch.

Ram Murali said...

To which my reaction is "are there any other mails other then E-mails ?"

--> ha ha! Just thank your stars that P Vasu, with how dated he can be (did you watch the trailer of Shivalinga??), didn't have Vadivelu crack an inane joke like, "E mail-ku apram kosu mail varuma maapu?!"

ravishanker sunderam said...

Really enjoyed reading your comments Mrs.Murali.

The jousting between mother and son is the icing on the brownie :)

"Third class Kamal movie" ROFL

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - thank you! Amma didn't bother to mention that she and my Chithi routinely drooled over Kamal, when he acted in first class and second class movies ;)

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ha Ha Ha

"Chakkachchavaayyynnu irukkaaandeee !!!"

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ram Murali : That last paragraph gave me goose pimples. Very Very well written

Iswarya V said...

Haha.. Ram, you have an eye for the most delicious details and a memory that lingers over the best, sunny moments. I seriously envy the sort of warmth and joie de vivre that comes across in your writings, maybe all the more because I'm such a sour cynic for my age. Sadly, my memories of theatre visits range mainly from the embarrassing to the acutely painful, especially the two occasions, both on my birthdays, when I took out my school friends to (cringe-alert!) "Joot.. Are you ready?" and my cousins to "Paarthale Paravasam" for no better reason than nursing a crush on the heroes. Sigh! :(

I've also had the spectacular bad luck of watching the FDSS of "Boys" in Udhayam with my parents on either side! (Remember, the first week was before they self-censored some essential "bits".) My mom was obviously trying to do a Davani Kanavugal Bhagyaraj, but realised she'd have to practically anaesthetise me for the next two hours and so she threw up her hands in despair!

Ram Murali said...

Iswarya - so nice to see your comment here. Hope you are doing well.
I was grinning ear to ear seeing the three movies titles that you have mentioned. May be you must think harder - I am sure you saw some more worthy movies! So, help me understand this - you had a crush on Maddy but watched Parthale Paravasam but not Kannathil Muthamittal?! Please explain with reference to context :))
Just kidding.
Anyway, thank you for stopping by to comment...

ravishanker sunderam said...

Thoruughly enjoyed reaching Iswarya's comment after a an extra stressful week :) :)