The dawn of multiplex theatres redefined the movie-going experience, making luxuries like signature food and ergonomic seating a necessity. Despite its grand success, have you ever had them offer a chance for you to watch a movie with the friendly neighbourhood dog? If you point out that this is a thing of the past, I’d say that not a lot of theatres can boast having turned that around to offer a first-day-first show (FDFS) experience even before your Sathyam opens for the day’s business. Such nostalgia and all my second-hand pride is reserved for Porur’s own GK Cinemas.
From being the Gopalakrishna Theatre of a bygone era, the place has done more than just shed its name. Amid all the competition and constant threat of oblivion, it has managed to adopt a digital-friendly avatar. The theatre was started by PV Janardhanam in 1974. It saw its fair share of golden years, hosted the big hits of the decade and drew a steady crowd for years. Nestled between this incarnation and today’s alter ego is the theatre of my childhood.
It was the summer of ‘99 and my eight-year-old self was all powdered up and piqued to go watch the season’s new release — Mugavaree. The fact that my aunt was sneaking three kids us (my sister and younger cousin) out of the house before my disapproving father could return from work, only added to the adrenaline. But the expedition did not go as planned. For one, my father caught us red-handed as we were walking to the theatre. Once at the theatre, having purchased tickets that cost perhaps `30, we found that it had only five others watching the movie along with us. That was until a stray dog decided to wander in and see what was up with Ajith’s musician dreams. The theatre’s spartan wooden seats left us with numb rear-sides and aching limbs. Unbeknownst to us then, that movie was to introduce every family’s designated storyteller-uncle to a tale of digging for gold and the art of perseverance, which would then be earnestly retold at every family gathering for the next decade. (I am looking at you, Mathi mama).
The GK Cinemas of today is far more sophisticated than its younger self. One of its two screens is still housed in the room where I watched Mugavaree. Now, it has felt-covered, cushioned, push-back seats. The food scene has come a long way from the ‘colour’ drinks and limited snacks of the 90s. From popcorn to chaat, the counter now offers a range of movie staples right from 6 am. That’s one better than Sathyam, I’d say. While you get to see people from every corner of the city there on a busy day, a dog has not been spotted enjoying a movie there in recent times.
GK Cinemas, while being personal to me in its transformation, is certainly not the only one to make the journey. Ambattur’s Rakki Cinemas was once considered, unofficially, as a men-only theatre. Now, it draws movie buffs in abundance every day. It features Malayalam and Telugu movies even when big brands have to let go of them. If not for this, many people on this side of town would not have been able to enjoy a Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum or Fida.
Rohini Silver Screens too caught on the change-with-the-times bug pretty early on. I had the ‘privilege’ of watching STR’s Vantha Rajavathan Varuven at 5 am there and I don’t suppose there could have been a better place for it; make of it what you will.
The biggest FDFS of the year for Avengers: Endgame was experienced, of all places, at Murugan Theatre in Ambattur. This time around, it was a 4 am show! To put things into perspective, this tiny theatre had to clear every bike and car from the 4 am show to allow those coming in for the 8 am show. This is a theatre where you can shout out loud from your seat for the volume to be increased and the operator would be able to hear you and respond accordingly. And yet, believe me when I say that their 4 am show was booked out days in advance.
While many formerly single-screen theatres have stagnated and others are still on the road to modernisation, all of them — in their singular way — offer an answer to multiplex monopoly. And isn’t that something!