From the silent era to the current digital age in cinema, the theatres of Tamil Nadu carry the history of Tamil cinema and have played a very important role for the locals. The movie halls functioned as a place where people could get together with a common purpose of entertainment without the distinction of caste, class and religion; they were the first democratic space for the locals. Chennai-based photographer Balaji Maheshwar has been documenting the rise and fall of old theatres across Tamil Nadu for the past five years. He has come up with a photo exhibition, Talkies — an old cinema exhibit. We caught up with the photographer for a quick chat about his ongoing exhibition at British Council.
“I’ve grown up listening to crazy stories like how my grandfather K Kannan ran away from his home in Virudhunagar to pursue acting in the 50s.
Later, he acted in the 1956 film Madurai Veeran and did close to 300 films. Even my father used to share stories like how cinema halls in our state were at once truly secular spaces for the whole community transcending societal barriers and political ideologies. This piqued curiosity in the photographer in me — I took my camera and started travelling and meeting the owners and projector operators who had interesting stories to share,” says Balaji.
Balaji Maheshwar, Photographer (Photo: Justin George)
The exhibition has a collection of archives of theatres and photographs of the present and transient state of the once glorious cinema halls. It took five years for him to cover around 600 odd theatres in the state. “Being a photographer, I felt the need to archive this and explain its importance to others. Apart from understanding the genesis of theatres, I also got to know how these spaces transformed into areas for political discussions. Most of the buildings have art-deco style architecture. Understanding the language of theatre and realising how steeped it was in history were an enriching experience,” shares the photographer.
While a few theatres still function, some are in dilapidated state and some have transformed into marriage halls. “One theatre in Purasaiwakam still screens MGR films and his fans light candles inside the theatre as a mark of respect and love. This photo exhibition is part of a bigger project that I am working on called Dear Cinema,” says Balaji.
He is also directing a video documentary called Thalaivar (Leader). This documentary is about how cinema and politics are interlinked, particularly, in Tamil Nadu. “The rise of the Dravidian politics to the current political scenario — how actors are getting into politics and trying to recreate a narrative that happened once. There is a huge vacuum in TN’s state politics and from the recent developments, it looks like we are searching for an actor to fill the gap!” remarks Balaji.