KOCHI: As a jeep comes rolling down the dusty road of the town, with film songs blaring out of the (loudspeakers), children, as well as adults, eagerly wait to catch hold of the pamphlets thrown out from the vehicle. Excitement fills the air, as announcements are made about a new film set for release at the local theatre or ‘cinema kottaka’.
The village or town would be abuzz with discussions on the hero, heroine and supporting actors in the film. And on the big day, everyone gets ready on time and rushes to the ‘ kottaka’, which, as per today’s standards, might be considered a D class structure.
After buying the tickets, people would jostle with each other to get a comfortable spot that would give them a proper view. “Those were the good old days when going to the cinemas was a big thing,” says writer N S Madhavan.
From the ramshackle structures with walls and roofs made of woven coconut leaf mats, cinemas have now graduated to plush state-of-the-art multiplexes. And, alongside, single-screen theatres where AC was a luxury shut down one after the other.
“Many have given way to malls and other commercial establishments,” says Sumesh Joseph M, secretary of the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK). The decline happened gradually. Now, all that remains of many ‘star’ cinemas of the bygone era are run-down structures like a ticket counter, or a weeded building wearing a forlorn look. Vestiges of a glorious past.
Sadness grips one while recalling the bustle at these very structures. “The pandemic drove the final nail in the coffin,” says Mohanan E G, owner of Kalpana Theatre at Iritty in Kannur. The decline was on even before the pandemic struck. The number of single-screen theatres in Kerala declined from 1,600 to 515. “The numbers plummeted as the virus hit our lives,” says Sumesh.
Recalling the good old days, the owner of Chitravani Theatres in Thalassery, Dinesh Rao, says: “We stood at the top when it came to collections in Kannur district during the 80s. I still remember the times when some of the films ran houseful for over two months.” Mohanan adds business used to be profitable from the launch of his theatre in 1978 till the fag end of the 90s.
Lakshman, Padma and Menaka
Such cinemas were so famous that even the junctions or places were named after them, says Madhavan. “In Ernakulam, I remember three main junctions were named after the cinemas that were located nearby Lakshman, Padma and Menaka,” he says.
Kochi, Madhavan adds, was the first city in the state to have multiple cinemas. “Lakshman Theatre was located near the South overbridge. It no longer exists,” he says. “It was the first theatre to be built in the state, and was inaugurated by the maharaja of Cochin in 1944.”
The owner of the theatre, Lakshman Shenoy, later constructed the Padma cinema in 1946. The family then built Sridar, followed by Shenoy’s and Little Shenoy’s cinemas. Kochi boasted 11 cinemas. Mymoon-Lulu twin theatres, owned by the Kokers group, came up in 1981.
Raktham, directed by Joshiy, was the first movie to be screened at Mymoon. Lulu’s inaugural movie was Vidaparayum Munpe. Both cinemas were air-conditioned and flaunted the then-famous 70mm screen and DTS sound system. The cinema complex still exists but wears a deserted look.
“The single-screen theatres that catered to the weekend entertainment needs of the young and old in Kochi had many to choose from,” says Madhavan. “Lakshman theatre had screened the first blockbuster Malayalam film Jeevitha Nouka, directed by K Vembu. The filml ran for 284 days.” These cinemas catered to fans of Hollywood films, too. “I remember English films being screened at Menaka,” says Madhavan. “These films used to be screened on Sundays, the morning show.”
However, Menaka gave way to a mall named Penta Menaka. Madhavan reminisces about the food that was served at the cafeterias. “Masala-dosa at Padma was famous. The food at Lakshman Cakes near the namesake theatre was also popular.”
In the past, he adds, the cinema culture was different on the whole. “The advertisement system, for instance, was totally different,” says Madhavan. “I remember people collecting notices and posters of the films that were used to announce the screening at a particular theatre. They even used to print booklets containing film songs.”
Madhavan notes how the seating system has come full circle. There was a time when people took mats to the cinema. That changed to chairs, and, later, cushioned seats. Finally, now we have plush seats that can be reclined all the way, akin to a bed. And people go with blankets! “The taste of the audience has changed,” he adds. “In the past, the audience used to participate in films. That is no longer seen.”
Recreating the ‘kottaka’ magic
A unique project is being implemented at Chengannur in Alappuzha for those who love nostalgia tripping. “As a part of the Champions Boat League, a slew of programmes are being organised aiming to reacquaint the people with the past,” says Kerala Folklore Academy chairman O S Unnikrishnan.
“As a part of the programme, we have decided to bring back the glory of the cinema kottaka. The plan is to reintroduce the theatre made of coconut leaf mats. We will be screening 10 old films at the film festival for 10 days as a part of the programme called Chengannur Peruma.”
Unnikrishnan adds a temporary structure has been constructed at Mundankavu, where a theatre named Santhosh once existed. “The novelty factor has piqued curiosity among many people,” he says. “However, we don’t see a long-term future for it. Who will, in this era, want to sit on the ground in the soil or on chairs inside a rustic structure to watch a film? The novelty factor would wear off after a while.”