Tripping the light fantastic

Tripping the light fantastic

Words Dheeraj Reddy

Photographs Anthony Cotsifas

The last picture show: In Praise of Indian Cinema’s Magical Theatre Houses…

A slender beam sneaks out of a slot in the wall, unfurls in all its incandescent glory as it travels forward in the dark and crashes into the silver screen. Light comes to life, sound breaks out of the silent walls and the crowd erupts.

I remember quite vividly the first time I went to the cinema. I must have been around four, and walking into the theatre – a gargantuan shape punctured by a dark door – felt like entering the great unknown. I clutched my father’s hand, trying to make sense of the magnitude that confronted me, with a delicate apprehension. Somehow this space felt different from any I had been in. Everything appeared larger than life: the heavy doors, the sombre curtains, the patterned walls and the creaky ceiling fans suspended as if from the sky. Further down the aisle, seemingly endless rows of seats stretched out into the distance, blending into a great white horizon. It felt like the whole world was in this one room, come to witness itself.


The interior of the Midlaand Theatre. Defunct now, the ‘seemingly endless rows’ that seemed to stretch into the distance in the darkness of film screenings may seem more prosaic in full light, but still reveal an impressive seating capacity of 1,200.



Alankar Theatre, Madurai. Still functioning, it screens highly popular low-budget Southeast Asian martial arts movies.


(Left) The Balaji Theatre in Chennai screens black and white movies of yesteryear – at the prices of yesteryear. (Right) The snack bar at the Saravana Theatre in Chennai proudly displays mementos from movies that have been screened there.


And then it began: the descent into chaos, as the light hit the screen and everyone around me transformed into charged beings, electrified by what they were seeing. They screamed, whistled, cheered, laughed and cried – and even though by that age I recognised basic human emotions, these made no sense to me. It was as if everyone had coalesced into one, amplifying everything in sight into an orchestra of ceaseless ecstasy. Over the next few hours it ebbed and flowed like a raging river as I hesitated, a curious four-year-old perched on its banks. None of it made any sense but, eventually, I waded in.

As I grew up, it made more sense, of course. In a culture where myth coexists with the daily – a nation of storytellers – cinema tapped right into our spinal centres, awakening something so elemental that sometimes it didn’t allow us to recognise ourselves. We thronged to cinemas to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, for the essentially human experience of partaking in a story, on a communal level. Our common hopes, fears, dreams and sorrows found uncommon kinships with a sea of strangers brought together by circumstance, united in the singular desire to escape the ‘dailyness’ of our lives. The cinema, it seemed to me, was the arena where most children learnt to dream and most adults unlearnt the tragedy of growing up.




The Krishnaveni Theatre in Chennai, which was famous for showing the movies of Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran (known to all as MGR), one of South India’s iconic film stars turned politician.


The Ram Victoria, the largest theatre in Madurai in its time, with a capacity of 1,700.


And the filmmakers knew this. We didn’t want cinema to reflect life, we wanted it to deflect it. We wanted to see heroes and heavenly damsels who seemed to be just like us, yet were infinitely better: untouchable in their greatness and grace. Those were the opiates we, the masses, sought – and that was what we got, films that provoked those transcendental desires while simultaneously ensuring their gratification. The story was always immaculate: love always triumphed over hate, good always triumphed over evil, usually in the most satisfying, extravagant manner possible, before the inevitable ‘happily ever after’. It was a utopia whose allure lay in its grandiose perfection, the conscious recognition (and acceptance) of the fact that it was perfect only because it was not real – because it was too perfect to be real.

The years have rolled by, and cinema has evolved with them, seeking to reside in bytes and silicon instead of dusty reels and projectors, leaving behind these spaces to fend for themselves. As rural India chases the Pied Piper of modernity, bringing with it on-demand experiences that entice us to stay in the seclusion of our living rooms, some of these epicentres of popular consciousness have found a way to survive, while some have fallen from view. These spaces, devoid of the audiences that give them their meaning, now take a stoic identity of their own. The four walls that once defied time – whoever walked in had to leave reality at the door – have now been ravaged by it, almost in an act of vengeance.

Standing in view of their humble majesty, one wonders what these walls have witnessed – the agonies, the ecstasies, the euphorias and the tragedies of a common people… just as an old abandoned cathedral recalls the fervour of what once was.


The Casino Theatre, Chennai. Still in use today, it is one of the oldest surviving theatres in the region


The now defunct Midlaand Theatre, Madurai, once popular among the locals for screening ‘women-only’ shows.

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