Chennai's Devi Complex Turns 50: Here’s To Theatre Love, Which Is Different From Movie Love

When the 23C bus began its ascent on the Gemini flyover, it was time to close the book I was reading, get up from my seat and walk towards the driver. Because I needed the big windows in front of him, the big windows that would allow me to see both sides of Mount Road. Because after the descent, there’d be the banners on the Safire theatre complex to the left. And bang opposite, outside Church Park School, there’d be three or four big hoardings for new or future releases. These hoardings were hand-painted, and the names of the films would be spelt out using small, glittery discs, the kind you’d sew on your dress for the Boney-M dance on Parents’ Day. These discs would shimmer and shine in the breeze and the sun, like a T Rajendhar set come to life on Chennai’s busiest road.

A little later, to the right, you’d see the hoarding at Alankar theatre, and finally, the bus would lumber into the stop opposite Shanti and the Devi complex. You couldn’t see which movies were playing at Devi though, because there is a little passage that leads in, and the banners are invisible from the road. The theatre complex just turned 50, and news is that it’s being spruced up during this lockdown. The press release says that the first screening held here was on May 23, 1970: Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity. But I’ll bet nobody remembers that movie. What people remember about Devi is the gigantic 70mm screen and the gigantic films that played on it, like Mackenna’s Gold. The Gregory Peck-Omar Sharif Western was a bomb in the US, but here, it “ran and ran,” like we say in Chennai.

That’s one thing I miss: the movie revivals. Because the number of releases was a fraction of what it is today, there were weeks without any major releases, and they’d whip out a Mackenna’s Gold in a “putham puthiya copy”. Whether it was really a brand new print or not, we didn’t know, we didn’t care. You got to see the film on the big screen. That was the point. Seeing Guns of Navarone in 70mm was the point. The fishing boat explosion (see clip below) doesn’t play the same way on a small screen. Nearby, at Midland and Leo, the Bond movies would be screened. I’m talking about the Roger Moore era, when I went in and watched Octopussy without any idea that the title might be something out of a Playboy joke book. Hey, it had a cameo by Vijay Amritraj!

One of the things I loved to do in these old-timey theatres is look at the trophies and shields. Back then, because films were released in so few theatres, they “ran and ran” for 100 days, 150 days, 25 weeks. And then there’d be a celebration, and everyone would get a trophy, including the theatres. One of those films, if memory serves me right, was Kizhakke Pogum Rayil. The Bharathiraja drama “ran and ran” for an entire year. Of course, it’s not a fair comparison to say that films today don’t have that kind of longevity, because carpet-bombing is the preferred release strategy now and there’s home-viewing now, and a four-week run is considered a serious success. Still.

The theatre right at the top was Devi Paradise, and it had that winding walkway. If you paced yourself somewhere between a walk and a jog, while coming down, you’d feel like you were in an anti-gravity amusement park ride. Then there were/are the boxy theatres: Devi Kala and Devi Bala. They screened the kind of films we’re saying will go right to OTT now, like Kizhakku Vaasal.

The Devi multiplex didn’t quite have the snob value of the Safire complex, but then, those days, I don’t think I cared about any of that. Today, a theatre is a lifestyle experience, where you talk of reclining chairs and pre-paid popcorn brought to your seat. Back then, a theatre was just a brick-and-mortar box that showed a movie. The popcorn came in a plastic packet.

Thinking of Devi celebrating 50 years makes me nostalgic, as well as curious about the future. Will “theatre love” still be the thing it was for generations for whom a theatre was the only place you could watch a movie, unless you preferred to wait it out till whenever Doordarshan decided to air it, with numerous ad breaks? I think not, and that’s how it rolls. Everything changes, and theatre love changes, too. Now, there’s no concept of a film that “ran and ran”, because they are “running” forever on YouTube or a streaming service. So this is just a little memory piece. There was such a time, and I was there.

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