Barely two months ago on one of my visits to Madurai, I was once again walking past the grand old Chinthamani theatre and thinking of its past glory. Despite its rugged and run-down look in pale green, the theatre had still managed to retain a slice of its old-world charm and had an air of regality about it, I had then thought. The once acclaimed theatre was now a godown for a reputed cloth store in Madurai. Even that has changed, as a coule of days ago demolition work of Chnithamani began. A mall is set to come up in its place.
You cannot get a sadder state of affairs, when a celebrated, historic theatre turns into a godown for clothes. It was hard to imagine that for years a space once filled by shrill yet cheering voices, where celebratory came to watch a film and fans clapped lustily, turning into a storage for lifeless bundle of clothes. Now, the owners want to convert into a more sophisticated building. The decision, locals say, was inevitable, considering the land value in the area and economics of running a theatre. It has already been several years now since the screenings have stopped in Chinthamani.
When the last brick of Chinthamani theatre - a relic of British era - is pulled down, a piece of history will die with it. The history would now be transferred to a piece of paper and for generations that would later come, Chinthamani would soon become a vague name for something that had failed the survival of the fittest test.
But Chinthamani theatre perhaps has a history that not many theatres in Tamil Nadu could boast of. The theatre was built out of profits earned from the very famous 1937 movie, Chinthamani. Produced by Royal Talkies of Madurai, Chinthamani was a landmark in Tamil cinema in many ways. It established Thyagaraja Bhagavathar as the first super star of Tamil cinema. It was the first Tamil movie to run for a year in a single theatre in Madurai. The film also saw a year-long run in many theatres in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. The makers perhaps thought it would only be a fit tribute to the finest of films to have a huge and majestic cinema hall named after it.
Chinthamani, both as a movie and a theatre, bears a testimony to Madurai’s undying love for Tamil cinema. The love was perhaps mutual. Old residents of Madurai say that for many of them a holiday was incomplete without a biryani from Amsavalli eatery and a night show at Chinthamani theatre. A phenomenal number of films have had a successful run. According to MGR fans (yes, there are many of them), at least 21 of his films were released in Chinthamani, of which, many, including Rajakumari, Marmayogi, Marudhanaatu Ilavarasi, Alibabavum narpathu Thirudargalum, Anbe vaa, Kaavalkaran, Adimai penn, Mattukara velan, Engal thangam, Kumarikottam, Netru indru nalai, Ithayakani and Meenava nanban were huge hits, running for over a hundred days.
Chinthamani theatre has also been witness to successful release of a range of films over a period of time from Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar’s Sivakavi to Kamalahaasan’s Virumandi and Madhavan’s Run. “I remember watching films like Ninaivu chinnam and Vaigasi poranthachu there. Every release was like a festival, complete with throwing confetti, bursting of crackers and distribution of sweets. Chinthamani theatre made my childhood that much richer. I would always cherish memories of it. The theatre would always be part of us, a part of Madurai” says Manian, an avid film buff from Madurai.
Sadly, Chinthamani is not the first theatre to be demolished in Madurai. Despite retaining its place as a culturally active place, Madurai has witnessed the demolition of many old theatres, to make way for parking lots or shops. Imperial, Madurai’s first ever theatre, is now a commercial complex while Nadana, Natiya, Narthana theatre complex have been converted into a hospital. On the sprawling lands of Thangam theatre, once Asia’s biggest theatre with a seating capacity of about 3,000 persons, now stands a well-known chain of stores. The number might look whopping but Sivaji Ganesan’s Parasakthi and MGR’s Nadodi mannan were mega hits in the theatre, running to a packed house for over 100 days. Old timers recall how even old films were housefull shows on Sundays in Thangam. Despite its huge capacity, the theatre offered unhindered viewing, to any film-goer sitting at any corner, thanks to its technical superiority. Such lively tidbits about the majestic Thangam have now been relegated to pages of history.
A scene from the movie Chintamani
Chennai too has been witnessing the demolition of several theatres, bowing to mall culture. Several theatres like Kamadhenu, Anand etc have been demolished to give way to more sophisticated buildings. But the death of theatres anywhere in Tamil Nadu, is a death-knell to a part of its rich popular culture.
From 1930s to the 1990s, cinema theatres across the state were a symbol of democracy in public spaces. Unlike the staid and rigid malls of today, with an air of cultivated unfriendliness towards the not-so-rich people, theatres threw their premises open to all, often, more welcoming to the poor. Far from being overwhelming, a theatre was more friendly making film-watching an unforgettable experience in itself.
Remember that bottled drink ad where the guy woos the girl by explaining to her the excitement of watching first-day- first- show of a Tamil movie? That still remains a quintessential theatre experience. So, when curtains come down on some of the iconic theatres in the state, a part of our souls is lost – the part that loved and reveled in watching films in a theatre.
— The author writes on socio-economic and cultural aspects
Passing into history
Madurai and Chennai the two big hubs of cinema, have seen the closure of a number of famous cinema halls over the years.
Chintamani theatre, so named after it was built from profit made from MK Thayagaraja Bhagavathar film by the same name, Chintamani.
Imperial, Madurai’s first theatre was also demolished and converted into a commercial complex.
Over 21 of MGR’s films, including Rajakumari, Marmayogi, Marudhanaa tu ilavarasi, Alibabavum narpathu thirudargalum, Anbe vaa, Kaavalkaran, Adimai penn, Mattukara velan, Engal thangam, Kumarikottam, Netru in dru nalai, Ithayakani and Meenava nanban have been blockbuster hits.
Nadana, Natiya, Narthana theatre complex is now a hospital.
Thangam theatre, once Asia’s largest, with a seating capacity of 3,000 has turned into a popular chain of stores.
Chennai too has its share of lost theatres. National, Vani, Vasanthi, Gaiety, Little Anand, Pratap, Ram, Kapali, Alankar, Paragon, Plaza, Palaniappa, Chitra, Uma, Rajkumari, Eros, Roxy, Sun, Wellingdon, Safire, Blue Diamond, Emerald, Kamadhenu and Leo are some of them.