Thiruvananthapuram is a moviegoer’s haven. Within a mere three kilometer radius of Thampanoor one can spot no less than eighteen cinema theatres. Four of them were started by producer P. Subramaniam who founded Merryland Studios in Nemom in ‘51. He also had a Karthikeya theatre in Pettah which is now defunct. Several new ones have come up in the outskirts of the city while some bit the dust. Shakti near the Over bridge reincarnated as Kripa. It had hosted some long-running movies like Oru Vadakkan Veeragaatha. Kalpana in Kesavadasapuram gave way to Big Bazar, Simi in Kumarapuram became a party hall and Joshi in Sreekariam was razed down. Sree Padmanabha is a platinum grade theatre, thanks to the laudable efforts of its proprietor Girish Chandran. The other such theatres are in remote areas – V-Tracks in Kadinamkulam and Sree Kaleswari in Kaliyikkavila. The government-owned Sree and Kairali were inaugurated during the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in ’88. Om Puri and Nazeer Shah queuing up for the premiere of The Last Emperor in one of them provided a curious spectacle. The Tagore theatre, which is being renovated, used to run free screenings. Better equipped though smaller was the House of Soviet Culture’s Gorkhy Bhavan. I remember watching Vittorio de Sica’s Italian neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves and Frenchman Jean Renoir’s The River (Ganges is the river in question. Watching the shooting of this film in Calcutta in ‘51 was what sparked the desire in a young Satyajit Ray to become a film maker) at this theatre for free. Such shows along with low priced Russian classic books and magazines like Sputnik became a casualty after the Soviet Union fell and the funds stopped coming to the state. When India’s first 3D film My Dear Kuttichathan was released in ’84, members of the Kerala legislature including the Chief Minister K. Karunakaran and Speaker Vakkom Purushothaman attended the first show, sporting dark glasses and flashing Kolynos smiles.
The well-maintained Kalabhavan is the centre stage for Soorya Film festivals. Soorya is a pioneering film appreciation society started by a former ISRO engineer and cultural enthusiast Krishnamoorthy. Retrospectives that one savored at the venue in the ‘80s include those of masters like Hitchcock and K. Balachander. The open air Nishagandhi theatre in Kanakakunnu is primarily a venue for dance and music concerts but I recollect watching there a black and white film featuring tin soldiers as a child. The theatre has hosted film related events since. The late Ajit Panja, then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, once addressed a function in Bengali-accented Malayalam (‘Neengollk ente nomoshkorom!’ he took off amidst roars of laughter, upon which he paused and queried, ‘Shoriyolle?’). Jaya Bachchan and Amol Palekar’s former wife Chitra had been there too, in their capacity as Chairpersons of the Children’s Film Society of India.
The father of Malayalam cinema, Nagercoil-born J.C. Daniel established a film studio named Travancore National Pictures in Pattom. One of the greatest film makers of the land, Phalke winner Adoor Gopalakrishnan pioneered the film society movement in India with his Chitralekha studio in Aakkulam. Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair produced his early films. The Southern Film Institute at Thiruvallom churned out many talents like Manoj. K. Jayan who are mainstays of the industry today. Chitranjali is the film production studio established by Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC). Local legend Mohanlal’s Vismayamax Animation Studio complex operating in the Kinfra Film and Video Park is sought after by many South Indian stars including Rajanikanth. Talk of Lalettan cannot be complete without mention of his Model School mates Priyadarshan and Maniyanpilla Raju as well as other chums like Suresh Kumar, Ashok Kumar and M.G. Sreekumar. In the seventies this gang regularly got together at the Indian Coffee House for discussions. Three decades later as they are established as world beaters in their respective spheres within the film medium, their personal and professional friendship only got cemented. Priyadarshan heads the Sasthamangalam based Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, an autonomous body under the Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala.
P. Madhavan Nair or Madhu born in Gowrisapattom is a product of the National School of Drama, Delhi. Equally reputed as an actor and an educationist, he is the son of R. Parameswaran Pillai who was Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram. Manuel Sathyanesan Nadar or Sathyan was another local lad who started his career as a teacher at St. Joseph’s High School and after a few more roles in life, donned the actor robe to perfection until his untimely death at age 59. The name Chirayinkeezh Abdul Qadir did not sound jazzy enough for cinema patriarch Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair who fixed it to Prem Nazir and the rest is history. Quite on the diametric extreme of acting styles was Kodiyettam Gopi, also from Chirayinkeezh. In his pursuit of excellence Gopi subjected his body to such rigors that he became paralyzed at his peak. Karamana Janardhanan Nair who worked at the Provident Fund office earned immortality via his role in the classic Elipathayam. One of the greatest artists to have taken breath in our country, Jagathy Sreekumar exhibited his genius even when he was a student at Mar Ivanious college. His father the late N.K. Achary was a frontline playwright who occasionally appeared in movies like Padmarajan’s Desadanakkili Karayarrilla. One-man-army Balachandra Menon who treated us to one family entertainer after another, comes from Malayankeezh. During Pre-Degree days at Arts College I used to spot him at his nearby ‘Safe Release’ office, kerchief bandanna securing the false hair firmly in place. From Ooruttambalam comes the master of middle-of-the-road cinema, Lenin Rajendran who once unsuccessfully fought the state assembly elections. The late M. Krishnan Nair who directed over a hundred films and his son and Chief Secretary K. Jayakumar (No stranger to films himself with lyrics including ‘Kudajadriyil kudikollum…’ and ‘Chandanalepa Sugandham…’) are the prides of Keraladityapuram. Not far from there is Powdikonam, home to reputed still photographer and Kerala’s Bud Spencer N.L. Balakrishnan. A protégé of Aravindan, he had worked in all of the maestro’s movies. Ravi, Jagannathan (more than a movie comedian, the latter was a key member of Kavalam’s Sopanam folk drama troupe) as well as the retired police officer Jagannatha Varma are permanent fixtures in the city’s cultural landscape. The perennially young looking Jagadeesh who excelled in academics and taught commerce at M.G. College was born in Neyyatinkara. Santhosh Sivan, Loyola school old boy and FTII graduate, pursues world class excellence in cinematography. He has made films as well like his father Sivan before him and his brothers Sangeeth and Sanjeev. Among the present crop of stars, Prithviraj who went to Sainik School in Kazhakoottam, Christ Nagar alumnus Jassie Gift and the law graduate from Karamana Anoop Menon have done the city proud in recent times. Suraj who graduated from mimicry to movies and made his native Venjaramood a household name among Malayalis is the busiest comedian in Kerala today. Ambika and Radha, the sisters who sizzled on South Indian screen in the 80s, hail from Kallara. A regular at cultural events in the city is critic and one of the best thinkers on film in the country, Vijayakrishnan.
Thatched roof theatres are a thing of the past and I have had the pleasure of being to some, like Kishore in Sreekariam which burned down and Krishna in Chempazhanthy. One battled with bugs and bidi smoke in these halls san air conditioning. Bamboo poles blocked the view from the cloth screen often. Some theatres in rural areas drew large crowds of male audiences, mostly college students, for noon shows. The movie could be anything from Kumara Sambhavam to Gandhi. Interpolated bits of porn were the secret of these shows running house full. After the golden era of Malayalam cinema ended with the 80s, three trends gained prominence – soft porn, low budget comedies (Jayaram was the biggest benefactor of this stream) and superstar megalomania. The opening days of the superstar movies witness black marketing, unruly crowds and lathi charges at theatre premises.
Established cinemas in Thiruvananthapuram need to expand through franchises into the suburbs. Multiplexes can attract more crowds in these times of cable, disc and internet streaming. They provide excellent packaging of the cinema experience, complete with fine dining, games and indulgent shopping. They will also have provision to increase the number of screens for movies based on the trends. Innovations like the Dollar theatres in US (They show movies which have had full runs at the normal price of twelve dollars, for one dollar per ticket. But the sodas and popcorns are steeply priced) and Atmosphere theatres (Astor in Melbourne comes to mind) are the need of the hour. Well-intentioned (and well-heeled) veterans from the medium who care for the survival of cinema have to come forward and join hands to make all these possible. Theatre, including amphitheatres like those at Museum and Nishagandhi, can proactively promote short films which are gaining currency. Technopark is emerging as a hub of short film production, given the abundant and amazing talent of the software engineers in this area. I personally want to reclaim the movie mojo that had had me making a religious beeline at Sree Visakh with unfailing regularity come Friday evening, wet or fine, rain or shine, hell or hailstorm.