When Girija was a little girl, she never quite understood why people laughed at her because her father, Padmanabhan, owned a movie theatre. But early on, the shame of being the daughter of the man who owned and ran Girija Theatre in Thrissur began to sink in.
It was when she was in Class 7 that Girija began to have a sense of what it meant, when some senior students approached her, asking her family to donate money for some programs in her school. When she said that they could not donate, the students laughed at her and asked, “Your theatre runs ‘blue films’, so why can’t you donate money?”
Though she didn’t quite understand what they meant, Girija ran home upset and hurt, and asked her mother Nalini if the family’s theatre played ‘bad movies’. Her mother did not answer her question.
Girija Theatre in Thrissur earned a notorious reputation for itself since it only played soft-core pornography for almost 25 years.
For Girija, it became a perpetual source of shame for many years. She hated going out of the house as she always feared being confronted and taunted by people.
She could never summon up the courage to talk to her father about it, but cried secretly every day. All she ever wanted to do was finish her schooling and get away to some place where no one would connect her to the theatre that bore her name.
“After my pre-degree course I left Kerala. My higher studies were in Tamil Nadu. I did not visit my house or Thrissur as I always feared the public. My parents used to come and meet me in my hostel,” Girija recalls, adding that her younger sister Krishnapriya also took the same route.
Little could Girija have imagined then that she would wage a pitched battle to save the very theatre that had caused her so much shame and heartache.
Or that she would one day have a dual career as a dentist and the owner of a theatre running superhit Malayalam films.
GirijaThe theatre was started by my great-grandfather PR Nambiar in 1957. Later it was owned by my grandmother at which time my father and his brothers were also partners, and many good movies played there. My father had preferred to play English classics and good Tamil movies those days. But slowly, when the number of theatres increased in Thrissur, we stopped getting good movies, says Girija, narrating how the theatre acquired its bad reputation.
One of the big advantages of soft-core pornography was that it did not require the significant upfront costs that mainstream movies did.
GirijaFor new releases we had to pay a hefty advance, but for soft-porn movies no advance was necessary.
Girija’s father too always wanted to renovate the theatre and run mainstream movies, as his wife and children demanded he do.
GirijaAfter I returned from Tamil Nadu in 1998, we all compelled him to get a mainstream movie. We got Manju Warrier’s Pranayavarnangal and played it in the theatre. But none of the family audience turned up. Father told me it was not practical, as the theatre had played soft porn movies for 25 years.
Even her father’s partners (her uncles) were not interested in the theatre’s revival.
Things took a turn for the worse in 2001 when Padmanabhan died. The family was under massive debt. Girija and Krishnapriya had to launch a legal battle to keep their house from her father’s partners after his death.
When the large ancestral estate that was owned by all the brothers was partitioned, Girija and her family retained the theatre, another nearby building and the house they lived in.
But just a few months after Girija took charge of the theatre, the complex burned down in a fire caused by a short circuit.
Since they had no idea how to revive and run the theatre, Girija’s family decided to convert the building close to their house into an auditorium for live events. But no one wanted to hire a hall so close to a theatre that played pornography.
“Then we decided to renovate the theatre and get a good name for it. We struggled a lot to manage a bank loan, but many contractors refused to take up the work. They all said it was a shame for them to work on such a theatre,” Girija recalls.
Meanwhile her father’s brothers filled out the land where her father was buried, and sold it. “I was pained. I went there, took a handful of soil and buried it inside the theatre, and decided that I will fight to fulfil my father’s dream of renovating the theatre,” Girija says.
By this time, Girija had also started practicing dentistry in a hospital in Kothamangalam to support her family.
“Nobody helped us, but I had the support of my mother and sister. We slowly started the renovation work, and restructured the theatre into multiplex standard. Girija theatre was the first theatre in Thrissur to introduce stadium seating, Qube digital projection, and recliner seats,” she says.
But the big hurdle was giving the theatre a good start.
Girija and Krishnapriya went to all the major distributors in Kerala, but it was all in vain. “Some of them taunted us, saying that people are worried that we will project soft porn scenes in between good movies,” she says.
That was when Girija heard that Twenty:20, the 2008 blockbuster that featured a veritable who’s who of Malayalam cinema’s acting heavyweights, was set to hit screens.
But a major obstacle in Girija’s way was the Kerala Film Exhibitors Federation (KFEF), headed by Liberty Basheer. The association distributed new releases only to select theatre owners that association members were close to, alleges Girija.
“Then actor Dileep, who was also the producer of the movie, helped me get Twenty:20. I remember him with gratitude. That was a super start for us, and we could change the theatre’s image with just one movie,” she says.
For the first time in more than 25 years, family audiences returned to Girija theatre. But, says Girija, though some more mainstream films then played in the theatre, their battles weren’t done. Thanks to Federation interference, she says, the theatre regularly struggled to obtain rights for films for three years.
Dr GirijaThe Federation played a lot of games. Many times they had taken advance from us and cheat us by not giving the movie as promised, that they would give to some other theatre of their choice. In 2010, federation directed the distributor to delete the movie Pokkiriraja just before its projection. I fought that day, called the police, reloaded the film and screened it.
As a result of all these tussles, regular screenings of movies did not occur, and Girija struggled to repay the loans that had been taken to renovate the theatre. But Girija persevered, holding down her job in the hospital to keep the family afloat amidst its many battles.
And many battles there were.
Dr GirijaOnce the operator got drunk and fell asleep just before the projection of a movie was to start. That day we had to cancel the show. Then I went and got an operator’s license myself so that no more shows would have to be stopped.
Girija also made Krishnapriya obtain an operator’s license, only the third woman in Kerala to have one, she says.
“I have no hesitation to take up the role of an operator, because I have shed my blood to bring up this theatre,” she adds.
Eventually, her perseverance paid off. With hits like 2015’s Premam hitting Girija Theatre, it finally began to be accepted as a space for all audiences.
And with the formation of the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK), under Dileep’s leadership, the climate among distributors changed to Girija Theatre’s advantage too.
Girija's journey has been chronicled by women's magazine Vanitha and others. Girija hopes this would inspire other women to fight for their rights.
“Now families are our main audience. I am so happy about that. We have been able to prove ourselves and wash away 25 years of taint,” says Girija, who now also teaches at the Al Azhar Dental College in Thodupuzha.
(The story first appeared on The News Minute and has been republished with permission.)