Saturday, 12 January 2013

Inside Kovai: One of the oldest theatres in Kovai still holds on to Dravidian 'spirit'

While most cinema theatres in the city are being pepped up fervently by owners to screen first shows of latest Kollywood flicks that are being released for Pongal, the excitement is palpably missing  at the Royal Theatre on Big Bazaar Street even at noon on Friday, two days before the festival.

The handful of staff working at the 67-year-old movie theatre laze around in the sprawling two-acre campus, barely a kilometer away from the railway station, as their Pongal special movie had been released barely an hour ago. In front of a giant screen, which is one of the oldest in the region, a modest audience of just a few dozen people sit and enjoy the Pongal release screened here.

“The crowds will gradually pick up for the matinee and evening shows to around 200. Come back on Sunday and you will find the theatre full,” says Ali, who works at Royal Theatre. 

Unlike the multiplexes in the city that have been making a mad scramble to get a print of the latest flicks, the movie released here for Pongal is the yesteryear blockbuster ‘Aayirathil Ourvan’ (1965) starring former Chief Minister (CM) MGR and the present CM.

“We do not release new films for festivals. It is usually an old movie, preferably MGR-starrer.  But, we get more crowds than our rivals who screen latest films,” says Ali. When this theatre re-released ‘Rikshakaran’ during last Deepavali, there was a riot outside.  Hundreds of old movie lovers thronged the theatre with garlands, band music etc. and celebrated the 'premiere'. “It was like a festival out here,” Ali says.

Theatre owner G. Rathnavel, a septuagenarian and a veteran in the movie business, points out that old movies still make a decent run and gets him modest business. “There is a steady market for these movies especially when it stars MGR and other popular yesteryear stars,” he says. “It is a safe bet and keeps us going.”

But, Royal was not always a destination for a peek into Kollywood’s past. Rathnavel fondly recollects good old times when Royal theatres used to screen the best of Tamil, Hindi and other language films. “When we screened Chandralekha (a blockbuster movie released in 1948), the line of cars that were parked outside the theatre stretched upto Francis covent around two kilometers away,” he recalls.

K. Balachander’s Marocharitra, a Telugu film released at Royal Theatres several decades ago ran nonstop for 420 days creating a record of sorts during its day. “Most of our films used to run for 100 days,” says the proud theatre owner.

The theatre was started in 1946 by Rathnavel’s father for screening plays. Renowned theatre group of the 40’s T. K.  S Brothers, owned by T. K. Shanmugan, ran their plays at Royal theatre day after day for several months as crowds thronged the venue. “Over the years, we moved to cinema and upgraded the theatre. Back then, there were no noon or matinee shows and the action begaan only in the evenings,” says Rathnavel.

During daytime, the huge theatre with a seat capacity of around 1600 (among the largest movie screens at the time) was rented for political meetings. Almost all top politicians including C. Rajagopalachari, M. Karunanidhi, Anna Durai and several others have conducted meetings here. In a way, we played a role in the Dravidian movement too,” says the septuagenarian.

The spirit of the movement seems to linger at Royal as films involving MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa continue to draw in the crowds even today. 

Despite their quaint charm, old theatres will have to eventually move out 

For a theatre that has been among the best screens in Coimbatore for several decades, the Royal theatre owners seem to be in no mood to upgrade to the latest in screening technology.

“I am a technology lover and welcome all innovation in the movie experience. Over the years, movie going experience has evolved a lot is set to get better. But, while my generation and my father’s generation shared a love for cinema and theatre, we do not have much patrons among our children. Hence, I just want to operate the theatre as it is,” says Rathnavel.

The ticket prices at Royal are also way beneath present levels. While mutliplexes charge upto Rs. 120/seat, Royal still has a ticket price range of Rs. 30/-, Rs. 20/- and Rs. 7/- only. “We strictly adhere by the rules and even when a new film is released, the prices don’t go beyond this,” says an employee here.

In its heyday, this movie hall was a pioneer in movie technology when several innovations were introduced to make the movie-going experience better for public. “We are among the first in this region to screen noon and matinee shows. We screened experimental films, Hindi blockbusters etc. that did not evoke much interest among theatre owners at the time,” Rathnavel says.

The movie hall that still holds the grandeur of its past is expected to phase out of the Coimbatore movie theatre scene over the coming years and pave way for more high rises. “The concept of cineme theatres have been changing and we don’t think it is viable anymore to make such a huge investment and get good returns,” says the septuagenarian.

Until then, movie lovers in Coimbatore who want to get a glimpse of the 60s and 70s Tamil cinema can count on Royal as a favourite haunt.

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