Sitting in a dingy room that has its green painted walls wearing off, Ganesan and Govindarajan bear no trace of being the owners of a place that once had a glorious past. Dotting the now unclean walls are some framed images " including of their ancestors " that remains an ambiguous fragment of this glory.
Almost eight decades ago, four friends from unlikely backgrounds " Santhanakrishna Konar, K Nataraja Pillai, KMS Govindasamy Pillai, SVS Subburamaiyer " came together to start Central Theatre at West Gopuram street, now one of the busiest streets in Madurai. Today it is run by their descendants including Ganesan, son of Kannayiram (grandson of K Nataraja Pillai) and Govindarajan, son of Sundaram (grandson of Santhanakrishna Konar). Govindarajan is reluctant to call himself an owner. "My father is 85 and still comes here every evening to oversee the collections. His soul lives in this theatre."
Madurai's Central Theatre. All images courtesy: Kavitha Muralidharan
The theatre continues to survive even as many others in Madurai have been closed down only because of Sundaram's affinity to it. "We wanted to convert it into a marriage hall. But my father says he wants to be known as Central Theatre owner when he passes away. How can you not heed to such a request?" Govindarajan asks.
But that has not stopped them from innovating with the theatre even while sticking to ethics. The tickets are priced at Rs 30, Rs 20 and Rs 7 (excluding GST) and never sold in black. Ganesan says the age-old practice of giving a discount to women still exists. It is perhaps the only theatre in Madurai that has enough open space to allow a fire engine to 'take a full round.' "We designed it that way because it was mandatory. We have never wanted to change it."
The last of theatres to survive on film rolls, the owners recently decided to introduce digital technology and alternate between the both. "It is now the only theatre in Madurai to survive on films " and to alternate between Qube and film. It was inevitable. If we had stuck to films, we had a very limited choice. People will not come to watch the same movie over and over again," says Govindarajan. The owners have a schedule for the next four months ready. "We no longer have new releases. So it is easy," he says with a wry smile.
When it was started in 1939, Central was a huge sensation. "Imagine, it was modeled on Kolkata's Metro Theatre. People used to come not just to watch movies but to see the architecture," Ganesan says.
Govindarajan and Ganesan
The glory might have now fallen with many bigger landmarks coming up in the neighbourhood, but for the handful of employees, the place remains a cherished part of their better days. 62-year-old Everest Mohan, an employee of over four decades, recalls his brush with heroes like MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan during 'good old days.' "Those were the times when most films of MGR would be released here. When Enga Veetu Pillai had a hundred-day run, we had MGR come down and walk towards theatre from about a distance of two kilometers amidst a sea of crowds. It was like a festival."
The victory streak continued even through the days of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Films like Kamal Haasan's Sakalakala Vallavan ran for 175 days. "Those days we had over 1,100 seats. Now it has been reduced to 950," says Govindarajan.
Inside the theatre
But the ten employees of the theatre sometimes get to witness a semblance of the past glory when some rare films are screened. "Recently, we had screened Malaikkallan " an MGR film released in 1954. The local MGR fans association came and had a celebration of sorts. For an old movie, it had a decent run," says Ganesan.
So the viewers get to watch an old film and a relatively new one on alternate weeks. But for the theatre's lone film operator, 65-year old S Ramadoss, it means reduced work and he detests it. "I have been an operator for 35 years and I know nothing else. I cannot live without doing this job," he says. To Ramadoss, film is better than digital because it carries a 'human touch'. "It also means I have more work but I have grown to love this. These are almost like a family. I have spent more time with them than with my wife," he says, pointing to the machines.
Ramadoss hopes Central would not suffer the fate of many other theatres around " 'at least as long as I am there.'
In recent years, several theatres of Madurai " iconic landmarks in themselves " have been shut down to make way for malls, parking lots or shops. Madurai's first theatre, Imperial, is now a commercial complex. Nadana, Natiya, Narthana " a well-known theatre complex " is now a hospital. Touted as Asia's biggest theatre with a seating capacity of 3,000, Thangam now houses a chain of stores. Chinthamani, which had the unique distinction of having its launch from the profits of a movie by the same name, was razed down three years ago.
"For Central, the decline started in the early 2000s. That is when women stopped coming to theatres because of television serials," says Ganesan. "There used to be times when we had special all-women shows. When Aadi Velli " a devotional movie " was released in 1990, we had women who would be 'possessed' in the middle of the movie. We used to light incense at the theatre to create the right kind of atmosphere," he smiles.
A tinge of sadness creeps into their voices when asked about their plans to convert the theatre into marriage hall in future. "Someday, we might have to take the decision, but it will be one of the toughest decisions we have ever made in our lives," they say, looking at the statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar adorning the entrance " a gift from the crew of MGR's Pallandu Vazhga movie when it was released in 1975.
With the death of every theatre, a city like Madurai, which is rooted in its culture, perhaps loses a bit of itself " a bit of democracy that allowed the fans to mindlessly celebrate, a bit of friendliness that allowed people from any class to be themselves. Central carries in itself a part of Madurai's soul.
All images courtesy: Kavitha Muralidharan