We've all bunked college lectures to catch a show at Sathyam or planned a long drive on the ECR just to watch one screening at Mayajaal. Watching a film in a theatre is so much more than just sinking into a chair and relishing that tub of popcorn. It's sharing and experiencing a narrative collectively with strangers. Cinema in Chennai however goes way back to the late 1800s, just a few months after the first ever public demonstration in Paris. It's safe to say that it has involved and undergone many phases. What started out as a small screening in the Victoria Public Hall has now become a default requirement in the upcoming malls and complexes.
Today, going to the theatre is a lifetime experience with reclining chairs and pre-paid popcorn brought to your seat. Back then, a theatre was just a plain box that showed a movie and the popcorn came in plastic packaging. Single screens were stars in their heyday, but now are forgotten myths. Madras had charming single screen theatres and picture palaces, each one having its own charisma. From special-seating arrangements for women to Jaffar's ice-cream, movie-going was quite another experience altogether. In cinema-crazed Madras, every street had political graffiti with film stars and film posters.
Mount Road had a stretch of movie halls that were famous in the 1980s. Only 3 out of the 13 movie halls on Mount Road remain. The rest, such as Alankar, Anand, Sapphire and Wellington have given way to malls or office complexes. While the Pilot theatre or Safire complex are no more, the city still has a few theatres that preserve this old charm - Kasi, Devi and Udhayam theatres. With every popular new release, thousands of fans congregate outside these theatres to celebrate their idols with 50-foot tall cardboard cut-outs, firecrackers, music and dance.
Picture 1: Udhyam Theatre,Wikimedia Commons
Watching the latest Pongal/ Diwali release in theatres has almost become part of the mandate for most people! A friend's phone call with saying "Tickets booked for FDFS" is a reason for celebration. The FDFS is a phenomenon thatâs considered quite an experience much beyond the actual movie. From painted cloth banners and wall paintings to mega-size digital banners, the celebrations are extensive. There are firecrackers, confetti and a whole lot of celebration that could well resemble a thiruvizha or a local festival. Loud cries hailing the hero, followed by frenzied whistles is an experience. When you end up re-watching these movies, you'll always feel something missing!
To most of us, the name "Sathyam" signifies a movie experience. It's been one of Chennai's most reliable movie halls and over the years, it's become a much fancier experience than we all remember it to be with gaming arcades and VR experiences. It is a favourite haunt for movie stars, especially during their film release dates. When PVR bought SPI Cinemas, all of us sighed. The question that lingered in the back of all our heads was, will Sathyam popcorn still remain? The most important part of any movie watching experience is the popcorn. And everyone in the city would have shared the counter, mixing up their own combinations of Sathyamâs signature flavours. What is about these flavours that fill our hearts with content? Although bigger multiplexes have emerged in recent years, Sathyam remains one of the cityâs most iconic theatres, particularly for Tamil cinema.
There are a couple of ECR gateways, to which you could plan a long drive as a getaway from the crowded city. Mayajaal right from the time it first opened, set benchmarks with a centrally air-conditioned complex featuring a bowling alley, gaming zone, food court and a long list of sixteen screens! People from several generations will remember spending a Sunday at this entertainment complex kind of treat with games, food court and tubs of popcorn for screen time. Along the ECR, is another establishment we all hold dear to our hearts - a drive-in theatre. Sitting by the beach, feeling the evening sea breeze in the cozy comfort of your car with food and popcorn, while watching a movie screened against the open sky - it might seem like a scene out of a movie by itself. The mosquito bites however, might bring you back to reality. This is just what an evening at Prarthana would be.
Picture 2: Prarthana drive-in, Cartoq
In today's world, along with other public establishments, theatres too have been closed and are not functional. With movies releasing directly on various OTT platforms, we may not be able to relive most of these experiences in the near future. Drive-in theatres may make a come-back, watching movies from the comfort of our sanitised cars. Maybe theatres will re-open with plenty of restrictions. Whether we're watching from our cars, overly sanitized plush seats or from the comfort of our bed, cinema will always be something that we, as a city, celebrate and cherish.
I'm sure there are many more experiences that I may have failed to mention, please write to us and share your experiences!