During the early 1960s, it was not uncommon to hear of Madras being derisively referred to as an "overgrown village". Despite its 300 plus years of existence, it couldn't hold a candle to the other big three - Bombay, Delhi, and Calcutta. Whatever it had, including its Colonial legacy, the other three had much bigger and better of the same. There was nothing it could show off, except its second widest beach; and even that was impossible to visit during the day for the most part of the year owing to the scorching sands and the near absence of any worthwhile pastime.
Then Mount Road began blossoming and making a name for itself. It took on the mantle of The High Street, challenging the more famous names of Linking Road, Connaught Place, and Park Street. It made an impressive start from Fort St. George and rolled gingerly onto the pristine Island Grounds. (Note the irony of the past tense). Here was an island of such magnificent promise for tourism, that its current status is heartbreaking. After all, there aren't many cities across the world that have an island of this size in their midst!
As it cut across the island, on one side of Mount Road was an expansive playfield where dozens of teams could be seen playing mostly cricket at all times during the day. The fencings and compound walls came much later. On the other side was a friendly Army Officers Club, whose security staff never denied drinking water to the thirsty players from the other side. Right in the middle of the road is the imposing statue of Lord Munro on his steed on a high pedestal. A story goes that the sculptor of this masterpiece was so overcome with remorse when it was pointed out that he had forgotten the stirrups, that he committed suicide. What an ignominy!
The impregnable Gymkhana Club, at the fag end of the island, was mostly a European show during those days. The Cooum River looping around the island, although not dirty or smelly as it is today, was hardly visible as its surface was mostly covered over with the invasive hyacinth plant that has a tendency to choke everything else. As the Road crossed over to the main city, there used to be a handsome cupola with ornate wrought iron grills to its right and a statue of George V, to its left. Neither of these were spared. In a myopic display of bureaucratic power and a xenophobic show of skewed priorities, history was brazenly erased. Neither of these landmarks appeared to be upsetting any traffic patterns.
For the pleasure seeker, the offerings of Mount Road began a short distance after Simpsons, The Hindu and the Evening Mail. Not many stopped at the aristocratic shop window of P. Orr & Sons; after which began a string of movie halls within minutes walking distance of each other. Leading the pack was Elphinstone with its superb but independent adjunct - Jaffer's Ice cream parlour, with its ambience of an English pub and its unforgettable cassatas and peach melbas. Where Anna statue is today, used to be a round tana with an enclosed car park. (There wasn't much demand for parking anyway). The theatre, the parlour, and the tiny car park were the tangible starting point. There was a natural and discernible southward flow of entertainment activities.
A slight detour on the right, past the Art Deco building of the dead and gone, Hotel D'Angelis, led to Casino, Gaiety, and Chitra, while a detour to the left, past another Art Deco building of the Curzon's, led to Children's theatre, Paragon and Star. Back on Mount Road, there were four other halls - Shanti, Plaza, Wellington, and Globe. Anna and Devi complex, with its 4 screens, came almost a decade later. Anand and the Vecumsee's group (Safire, Emerald, and Blue Diamond), were not easy to reach by foot.
In these times of online bookings and home theatres, it may sound amusing how difficult it was to get into a movie hall. There was a primitive system of advance booking, but even that required a lot of physical effort. To get a seat, one had to queue up long before the show began; with different queues for different classes, often in the company of unsavoury people trying to get ahead. A few theatres had separate ladies queue that greatly aggravated matters. Naturally, this led to a flourishing black market. All of this could only be controlled by a claustrophobic and suffocating cage-like setup. Larger capacity halls was one solution, till Blue Diamond came up with the hop-in hop-out idea of continuous shows. Going impromptu in a large group was a calculated risk, with some having to go back or to sit in different rows. Valid ticket holders were often pestered by the unlucky ones to make a deal.
One particular movie and incident that I can distinctly recall was during Raj Kapoor's super-hit Awara. Nearly all the songs were such terrific hits that the entire hall would sing along in a deafening chorus. One could hear the jingling of coins being tossed in the aisles during every song, making us believe the sweepers were in for a lottery. When the lights came on during the interval the truth was hilariously revealed. Many in the audience had brought coins in little bundles tied with a long string that could be cast as often as they pleased and pulled back without suffering a loss. These had to be disentangled shamelessly.
Mount Road in those days was a foodies delight for all budgets; Whether it was ice creams at Jaffer's, or lassi and samosas at a Punjabi stall near Anna subway, or a quick North Indian lunch at Bombay Halwa House, or Chinese food at Chungking's, or fine dining at Vega's or Kwality's, or the slam-bang type of South Indian meal at the Udipis. But by far the most patronised eateries were Buhari's, Bilal, and the Iranian Coronation Durbar.
Buhari's stole a march over the rest with a gadget that very hotels in Madras had at that time - a music jukebox that could accommodate a whopping collection of 25 or so EP records. You inserted a 25 paise coin into the slot and pressed the button for the music of your choice. An arm would glide out magically from somewhere, unfailingly pick the right one, and drop it gently on the spindle. AND EVERYBODY ELSE HEARD THE MUSIC FOR FREE. A constant source of childish wonder was how that arm never made a mistake. The level of automation was science fiction stuff. And to think how the music world has gone beyond recognition within a matter of 70 years from hand-wound gramophone players to iPods and what-have-you.
For penniless students like us, Mount Road was still an interesting place to loiter. But to be accurate all the action was only up to the LIC building. Beyond that was a 'drab' stretch of corporate offices that not many pedestrians cared to venture into. With Anna Nagar developing into a cosmopolitan colony after the World Trade Fair of 1968, Poonamallee High Road began taking away some of the sheen from Mount Road. And now with theatres disappearing at regular intervals, parking becoming a major headache, traffic snarls at every junction, and shrinking pavements inadequate for fast-paced pedestrians, Mount Road is definitely out of the competition. It is just an artery now and what little it has to offer is fraught with too many hassles. Reminds me of that apt quote: "What Mother Nature giveth, Father Time taketh away".