Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXX No. 13, November 1-15, 2020

An insider’s view of the Safire Theatre Complex

by R.V. Rajan (rvrajan42@gmail.com)

During my official travels to Madras from Mumbai, as a young executive, I always felt that I belonged to this city. I dreamt of settling down here, post retirement. I never imagined that this would happen when I was only 32. Madras welcomed me with open arms and in the last 46 years it has seen me grow not only professionally but also as a human being. Of the many interesting memories I have of the city, my brief association with the Safire theatre complex stands out. Before I elaborate on my story a few words about the theatre.

Started by the Veecumsee Family, the well-known jewellers of the city, this was India’s first multi-theatre complex located on Mount Road (now Anna Salai), close to the old Gemini circle. It was run by H.V. Shah & his sons. It was the idea of the eldest son Yashwant to start the multi-theatre complex and also Silver Sands – the first-ever beach resort in the country. The complex was an imposing building with parking space for about 40 cars. It consisted of three screening halls, viz. Safire, Blue Diamond, and Emerald. Safire, the biggest with a seating capacity of over 1,000, was also the first 70mm theatre in India, opening to the public in 1964, with the screening of Cleopatra. Many other block busters of the time followed. Blue Diamond had the unique concept of continuous shows where you could buy a ticket in the morning and stay inside the theatre throughout the day watching the same film several times. It is another matter that most of the visitors, young and old couples, came to Blue Diamond not to see the movie but to indulge in amorous pursuits in the dark, air-conditioned comforts of the theatre. It was also patronized by salesmen who were looking for an air-conditioned resting place between appointments.

I came to Madras in 1974, to take up a job with Grant Kenyon & Eckhart as the Resident Director. Since Grant was handling the advertising for both the theatre complex and the beach resort, we were given an office space in the second floor so that Grant could be at the beck and call of the client. It was a long corridor located adjacent to the projection room with two rooms at the far end of the office. While the administrative offices of the theatre complex were located in the basement, the first floor was used as the city office of Silver Sands and the third floor was occupied by one of the family members running his own business.

My introduction to Safire happened under unusual circumstances. I was to relieve HW – a pipe smoking Anglo-Indian, who was always suited and booted and spent more time in the Madras Gymkhana Bar than in the office. My boss Vijay Menon from Bombay who had come down to Madras to install me in my new job, asked me to report at Safire theatre, at 9.00 am on a particular day. Instead of taking me straight into the office, Vijay asked me to wait in the foyer of the theatre, as HW had not been told that he was being sacked! I was feeling bad and embarrassed. After waiting for nearly 30 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, Vijay took me and introduced me to HW. Surprisingly he was all geniality, as the sacking had come as no surprise to him. He seemed to be happy that the management finally had the courage to relieve him for non performance!

I was shocked beyond words to see the items on display on the table and walls of the Manager’s office. Apart from finding several objects arousing sexuality, the walls were full of nude model pictures, used in the annual calendars which the agency had produced for the liquor division of a well-known Madras company. While going around the office, I was intrigued to find a room behind the manager’s office with an attached bathroom, a cot and few other fixtures required for living. Later I found out that the multipurpose room was used by HW for his nefarious activities. Whenever he had a big fight with his domineering wife, who was obviously always questioning him on his philandering ways, he would spend the night in the office with some company. The facility was also offered to friends in need.

As we came out of the office, I told Vijay that I was not moving into the office without performing a puja. It was almost a week before I actively took over the reins of an empty office with hardly any business. My tryst with both Safire and Madras had begun. Every morning I would come to the office by 9.30 am. After working in a big office in Delhi with a large staff, it was quite depressing to be seated behind a 25-year-old mahogany table (which had multiple drawers on both sides) and find that I had no work to do! Then it dawned on me that the challenge of the job was to revive an almost dying Madras branch of Grant and that I had to start building the business from scratch. Based on a plan of action I started calling on prospective clients. In the next two years I had brought in enough business to ensure that the branch was self sustaining and I would retain my job! As the business grew I had to employ additional staff. I decided to allocate the rear room to the copywriter, whom I had hired so that he could work peacefully. But I didn’t realize it would disturb my peace because every visitor to meet the copywriter had to pass through my room!

In the first year, since the job did not keep me busy throughout the day, to kill time I would stand at the landing of the floor watching the traffic on Anna Salai through the huge glass panels or find myself in the projection room of Safire Cinema, watching the movies. This was possible thanks to the friendly projectionists. There were two huge projectors. Watching the projectionists shift from one projector to another, when the reel in one got over was fascinating. It was done so seamlessly that the audience would not be aware of the change. The privilege of working in a theatre complex also gave me an opportunity to see blockbusters on the first day itself because of my closeness to Appunni, the manager of the theatre. A diminutive, balding, Malayalee he was a most sought after man during the first few weeks of any film release. Those days good films ran for 25 weeks or more. Thanks to my closeness to Appunni, sometimes I could also oblige friends with tickets even for the so-called houseful shows in Safire.

While Emerald with a seating capacity of 300 seats featured Tamil & Hindi Films, Blue Diamond with a seating capacity of just 150 specialised in featuring old films both Indian and foreign. Sometimes when I was early to work, I would see couples hanging around waiting for the booking counter of Blue Diamond to open. It was shocking to see some of them coming out of the theatre only around 2 or 3 pm when I was leaving in my car to visit some client. While they looked fresh waiting in the queue, they looked exhausted with crumpled dresses when they came out, looking sheepishly around to ensure that they did not encounter any familiar faces. It was indeed a sight to behold! It was not unusual for me to catch some known faces indulging in such acts. To save them the embarrassment I would act as if I had not noticed them.

Safire cinema, like many other big cinema halls of the time, had family rooms (Boxes) above the balcony area which were patronised by rich and famous people including popular film stars. Many of them would invariably keep the manager informed in advance of their visit so that adequate security arrangements were in place for them. They would come a little late and leave before the film ended to avoid being mobbed by the crowd. Thanks to our connection with Appunni we would be tipped about the visit of a celebrity star, leading to some of our star-struck staff (sometimes that included me) waiting at the landing of the steps to the Box. Our day was made if we could shake hands with the popular stars.

Though Grant had been provided an exclusive parking space, it was tough getting in and out of the parking area when the block busters were screened. At the end of every show there would be pandemonium both inside and outside the complex, with cars trying to enter or leave, resulting in a big traffic jam on Anna Salai. I had to plan all my client meetings keeping in mind this factor. In spite of all the planning, sometimes I would get stuck in the office unable to get out because of unexpected processions by political parties on Anna Salai.

I can never forget 2nd October,1975. The day the popular Congress veteran K. Kamaraj died. There was a massive procession on Anna Salai accompanying the mortal remains of the popular leader which took more than four hours to cross the Safire point. While I could watch the procession from a vantage position in the building, I could not leave the office until the road was cleared for traffic.

Watching fights for tickets was another source of entertainment for me. But one fight I wish I had not seen. One Sunday morning I was shocked to see a fight on some family issue by the warring sons of H.V. Shah, in the foyer. The heated arguments between two brothers led to fisticuffs, watched by a motely crowd. When the old man tried to mediate, he was also roughed up. This public humiliation affected the old man very badly. I felt bad because H.V. Shah was a good soul and one of my well-wishers.

Within six years of my taking over the reins of Grant Madras the business had grown to such an extent that I had to appoint more staff. Apart from the need for bigger office space, the problems posed by the theatre complex to my clients who wanted to call on me at the office necessitated my moving out to another office on Graemes Road in 1980. Though my day-to-day association with the complex had ceased I continued to keep in touch with Appunni so that I could get tickets at Safire whenever I needed it.

In 1994, the Safire complex was sold to the AIADMK but the proposed party headquarters was never built. Today the empty space where the theatre stood looks forlorn, full of weed and wild plant growth and is used by many as a public toilet. Every time I pass the area, I am filled with nostalgia of the good times I had there. I can never forget that it was at Safire that I first tasted professional success.

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