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Vol. XXX No. 17, January 1-15, 2021

Memories of suburban theatres

Jayaraman Raghunathan recalls happy memories of the city’s erstwhile suburban queens of theatres, Eros and Jayanthi.

Saturdays were for Eros

The wedding was grand, and I was given a warm and pleasing reception by the parents of both the bride and the groom. Santha Sundara Mahal, the marriage hall, was spacious, well-decorated and could accommodate more than 800 guests. The food was exquisite and the aval payasam lavishly sprinkled with fried cashews was heavenly. But I felt a twinge in the corner of my heart, a curiously melancholic feeling of déjà vu.

Today, if you turn left at the Ambika Department Store signal and proceed south, you will hit a series of establishments that include Nilgiris, Wang’s Kitchen, GKB Opticians and so on. Circa 1970, however, there was no road here! It was a muddy stretch that lazily joined a sleepy Guindy road with its thin traffic. It was through this muddy road that we walked every day to our school in Gandhi Nagar. It took just a little rain to fill the stretch with knee-deep water, in which case we would be compelled to take a roundabout route through the Kasturba Nagar Second Cross street – easily an additional 250 meters of walk.

At the Ambika Department Store junction used to stand two short squat pillars in memory of a Congress leader, looking for all the world like a poor man’s Arc de Triomphe. It was on these pillars that you could get ready information about the movie running at Eros Theatre, plastered as they were with film posters. New posters would appear every Friday morning and my mother would remind me to take a look at them on my way to school. “Raghu, it’s Friday. See what’s running at Eros Theatre!” she would say, and I would happily undertake the task with warm expectations of a movie experience the next day. By evening, I would have duly conveyed the information and my mother would plan out the Saturday night programme.

“You please have your tiffin in office and come. Dinner is only rasam and appalam. We shall go to Eros,” my mother would declare. My father would return from office by five and we would leave at six by foot. I remember a retired police constable who would sit behind the yellow painted counter to issue the upper-class ticket – it cost a princely one rupee and sixty-four paise! The front row seats were 48 paise and 64 paise, and would be sparsely crowded. There would be just a handful of families in the seats costing Rs. 1.25. The theatre hardly had more than four or five families in the Rs. 1.64 class. The retired constable would finish the ticketing quickly and go out to close the main gate. It was only when Mera Naam Joker was screened in Eros that I saw a substantial crowd and believed, wrongly of course, that the crowd had come for the wonderful direction by Raj Kapoor!

Films at Eros always started with the T.M. Soundararajan song Ullam Urukuthaiya, played through a damaged gramophone record. The lights would suddenly go off in one magical moment and the song would meet with an abrupt end. The rotor motor sound would pierce one’s ears and, with profound thanks to Thomas Alva Edison, a series of hand-written slides advertising a wide range of shops would appear on the screen. Poongodi Tailors, Venkataramana Sweets, Marutham Native Medicines, Srinivasa Technical Institute and Yuvaraj Siddha Clinic were some of the shops operating in Adyar in those days.

The interval was always looked forward to as my father would get me a no-longer crispy popcorn packet. One would hear animated sounds from the front benches, especially when local women and their children were in the audience – they were sounds of sheer happiness and excitement from recognizing friends and colleagues in the rows behind!

On one memorable Saturday, the retired constable at Eros refused to issue tickets for a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as there were only three families for the whole show!

I recall one Friday evening when I told my mother that there was an English movie to be screened at Eros that week. “Which movie?” she asked. “Pisco!” I replied.

“What? Spell it,” she demanded. “PSYCHO,” I responded. “You idiot!” she replied. “It’s pronounced ‘saiko’. And we will not go see it because it is a horror film!”

Several years later, I watched Psycho at Casino and in a matter of a few months I ended up watching all the glorious films by the master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock, who became such an icon to all of us that he was just one step short of being worshipped in our pooja!

I cannot forget the Tamil dubbed Telugu movie, Pallava Selvangal, which featured several leading Raos like Rama Rao and Kantha Rao. I did not understand why the theatre became half empty after the bathing scene by the heroine!

Another time, we were waiting for the gate at Eros to open when the retired constable caught hold of a small boy my age. He proceeded to beat him black and blue for trying to sneak into the theatre without a ticket. The sight of blood dripping from his battered mouth is an image that appears in my dreams even now!

I had several unforgettable experiences at Eros Theatre – walking back home completely drenched after seeing Sharif Badmash, witnessing an accident after returning from Meendum Vaazhven, watching Deivam nervously with my SSLC public exams due to begin the next day, walking out half way through Ten Commandments as my mother complained of chest pain, watching Nandanar on Vaikunta Ekadasi night, Mouna Raagam, the first film that I saw with my wife….. endless hours of sheer happiness!

Now, when I see Eros Theatre as the wedding venue Santha Sundara Mahal or when I see the place as a Mitsubishi Service workshop, something snaps inside me. It cannot be anything else – it has to be Eros Theatre where an adolescent boy derived innumerable hours of happiness. It simply cannot be anything else!

Midnights at Jayanthi Theatre

Jayanthi Theatre. Courtesy: Jayanthi Gopinath.

It was one of those regular evenings in the early seventies when our group of friends was playing cricket. The sun was sinking in the west with its brassy rays and it was becoming difficult to see the cork ball. Anantharaman was the first to make the statement – “Two films shown in one ticket! Shall we go to Jayanthi theatre tonight?”

“Two films? Just one fare! What are the films?”

“French Connection and Idhayakkani!”

We abandoned the game quickly and trundled to our respective houses for permission – night shows were a strict no-no for youngsters like us. It required specific marketing skills to obtain the family approval.

“What is this nasty habit of going to night shows? It’s fine to go to matinee or evening shows but not night shows!”

“Who will wake up at two in the morning and open the door for you?”

“Tomorrow, you will be sleepy the whole day! No night shows!”

All the above googlies were batted deftly and we succeeded in getting the permission, not just on that day on but many such days!

Jayanthi Theatre during its heydays. Courtesy: The Hindu.

The midnight return journeys from the theatre usually involved a long walk that was great fun. Once Kumar drowsily enquired as to why MGR fought with Gene Hackman – he had sleepily mixed up French Connection and Idhayakkani!

Another twin combo that we saw at Jayanthi was Aradhana and Pattikkattu Raja. As we walked along the Indira Nagar road deserted at that time of the night, a couple of us sang the hit songs from these films. Our Hindi diction of the songs from Aradhana would have given S.D. Burman a heart attack should he have chanced to hear us!

Jayanthi theatre then was a thatched roof auditorium, pleasantly called Tent Kottagai! It had uniformly spread coconut and palm leaves woven neatly on top and dark blue bedsheets on all sides. The sheets would have suffered innumerable poking holes which would stream bright lights from outside, spoiling the beedi-smell permeated ambience inside. As MGR drew his heroine closer to his face, holding her chin and approaching her lips, the film roll would invariably snap and a string of bright yellow bulbs would light up the ceiling. When the operator reconnected the film and the action resumed on screen, a hundred and odd feet of film would have been skipped. Now the heroine would already be running around the trees and MGR would have commenced his throaty song. Audiences like us would be deeply disappointed not knowing what happened after MGR drew his heroin’s face closer!

Our experience while watching Apoorva Ragangal at Jayanthi is another episode worth narrating. The show was crowded and after the four of us were seated, the next three seats were empty. Suddenly came three ladies – a mother and two young ones. Kumar sitting in the corner seat was lucky to have a young half-saree clad lass next to him. While all of us seethed in jealousy, Kumar, however, had another story to share after the movie. “Look at my luck! Throughout the movie, I had to be careful not to touch the girl by mistake and I could not focus on the film! Bloody waste of two rupees!”

When Pathinaru Vayathinile, the rage of those days, came to Jayanthi, we decided to go again even though we had watched the film in Midland Theatre.

“What masterly film making by Bharathi Raja! We must see the film again! I will host all of you!” Those were Anantharaman’s words and it was only later that we realised that his keenness to watch the film again was for its elfin heroine Sridevi and not the direction!

Tickets at Jayanthi Theatre used to be designed in garish colours – dark pink, violet and magenta. Sometimes I would forget to remove it from my pocket and the next day, our maid Rathinam would complain to my mother.
“Amma! The trouser you bought for Raghu is gone! Look at the colours!”

My mother would chide me with those typical admonishing words – “ Kadankaraa! Why can’t you remove the damn tickets before putting the clothes for wash!”

Even though Eros Theatre was closer home, it would take a 100 years before a good movie would get released there. Being out of city limits, Jayanthi would often get much newer films and we would therefore make a beeline there at least once a month. More than watching the film, the planning that went into it, the long return walks from the theatre, loud reviews of the film, cheeky whispers about the good-looking girls we saw in the theatre were all hours of pure fun worthy of nostalgia.

After a few years, the tent was demolished and, in its place emerged Jayanthi, the regular theatre. Our fun and frivolity of watching movies did continue for a few more years until we had to part ways in our race towards a worldly life!

These days, I am wary of meeting a stranger. I may have to ask him his whereabouts and he may say “You know where Jayanthi theatre was, I live in an apartment there!” I may instantly dislike him as if he were the one who ruined my pleasant and youthful memories of Jayanthi theatre!

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