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Vol. XXVIII No. 24, April 1-15, 2019

Lost Landmarks of Chennai


A paragon of a theatre

Arihant Narayana Ocean Towers is a tall building by Chennai standards. It sticks out, all 18 storeys of it, from the still rather low skyline of Triplicane. The ocean or for that matter the sea is some distance away and I presume that from the 18th floor you do get a good view of the water. Standing at the entrance to this building it is difficult to imagine that once this was a cinema theatre and resounded to music, dialogue, fight sequences, the claps and hoots of the audience, the muted sales pitch of touts selling tickets in black, and the steady hum of the old-fashioned reel projectors.

This spot, which is on Wallajah Road, was once Paragon Talkies. The land itself belonged to Narayana Gurviah Charities, one of the older Arya Vysya trusts of the city. The institution by itself has its share of history, for Narayana Guruviah Chetty’s was one of the most comprehensive wills of its time, made out in 1915. He had made his fortune in deal wood crating and piece goods trading and being childless, left behind his wealth for good causes. His second wife, who was among the first trustees was Narayana Ethirajamma and it is after her that the Ethiraj Kalyana Mandapam on TTK Road is named.

As per film historian Stephen P. Hughes, there was a theatre functioning briefly on this site even in the 1920s. This was the Empire and it folded up after a couple of years. It is probable that this was a temporary structure for the story of Paragon begins with one Mr. Kamath leasing an empty plot of land on April 7, 1932. A couple of years later he built a theatre on it and named it Paragon. The name was probably inspired by the Paragon Theatre and Music Hall in London, in which Charlie Chaplin acted in his early years. The Paragon in Madras soon saw the Kv.Al.Rm. Alagappa Chettiar owned Presidency Talkies Limited taking an interest in it and by 1936 had the lease of the land transferred to its name. Under Alagappa Chettiar, the theatre prospered and Vauhini Studios released several of their films here. But as was typical of this magnate, his interests in cinema distribution soon waned and he sold his shares in the Presidency Talkies to V.L. Narasu. This was another homegrown entrepreneur, who having made his fortune with the eponymous coffee brand, branched out into cinema. He formed the Narasu Picture Circuit for distributing films. Later, he would purchase Vel Studios in Guindy and name it after himself. Today, after having changed hands in the interim to become a soft drink plant, it is the ITC Grand Chola.

Narasu acquired Presidency Talkies Limited in 1945, becoming its Managing Director and running Paragon Theatre thereafter. A year later, disaster struck. Narasu was contracted to screen Ayyar Productions’ Rukmangadan starring the famed Carnatic singer G.N. Balasubramaniam in the title role. The film opened on October 23, 1946 and ran successfully. Early in December, Madras witnessed torrential rains and on the 5th, even while the film was running, a part of the Paragon Theatre wall collapsed, killing three people. The Police ordered the suspension of all screening and asked the Corporation to investigate the condition of the theatre. M. Meeran, City Engineer, Corporation of Madras inspected the site and found that the entire building was structurally unstable. Paragon closed pending a complete overhaul. If this was not enough, the owners of Ayyar Productions sued Paragon for not fulfilling their contracted number of screenings of Rukmangadan. The case dragged on for six years with the appellate court ruling that Narasu was under no obligation to pay any damages to Ayyar Productions.

Paragon in the meanwhile was pulled down and a new theatre rose on its site, opening for business under the old name in 1948. It first screened AVM’s Vazhkai, starring Vyjayanthimala and the film was a silver jubilee hit. Being just off Mount Road, close to Government Estate and opposite Kalaivanar Arangam, the theatre proved to be quite popular. According to actor Mohan Raman, it became closely associated with the movies of M.G. Ramachandran from the 1950s. Somewhere in the interim, it also changed hands, being acquired by M.L. Mahalingam Chettiar.

By the 1960s, Paragon was once again quite decrepit. This was when Sivaji Ganesan was getting into film production, his first venture being Puthiya Paravai, starring himself, Sowcar Janaki, B. Saroja Devi and M.R. Radha among others. The film was due for release in 1964. “The first choice of theatre on Mount Road was Sivaji’s Shanti,” says Mohan Raman. “But Raj Kapoor’s Sangam was running to full houses there. Sivaji was reluctant to stop that, as he was also a good friend of Raj Kapoor’s. At the same time it was unthinkable that a Sivaji film did not screen in a Mount Road theatre on release and so the hunt for other venues began. Unfortunately all the others were running successful films and Paragon was the only one available. Its shabby interiors made Sivaji baulk at a premiere here but there was no other option. He funded the clean up and had new seats installed. Puthiya Paravai screened here and became a great hit.”

By the mid 1970s Paragon was no longer a theatre of choice. Labour trouble was frequent. It regularly screened re-runs and this trend continued through the 1980s. By then the video revolution had begun to sound the death knell of theatres and many on Mount Road began closing down. Paragon was no exception. Upon expiry of the lease, the land reverted to Narayana Guruviah Charities who opted for development. Arihant Builders were roped in and the Ocean Towers rose up in place of Paragon.

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