- 25 Oct 2017
The walls of Sridar, Kerala’s first AC theatre, echoes with the memories of a million moviegoers who have sat in their seats and drifted off into film induced worlds of wonder
It was Good Friday in April 1990 on the island of Vypeen when a bunch of teenagers decided to sneak out of the lengthy church services. Elvis, Eileen and a whole gang of their friends had planned it all three days prior, when they found out that their favourite theatre – Sridar - was screening the movie that they had been looking forward to for a long time. As if narrowly escaping the prying eyes of their elders and managing to hop onto a boat to mainland Kochi wasn’t hard enough, they had to brave what seemed like a never-ending snaking queue at the box office - while dressed in their demure ‘church clothes’. It was the first day, first show of the iconic movie Pretty Woman. The movie was a huge hit but the real climax happened when they missed the boat back to Vypeen, had to bribe a few fishermen to take them back to the island on an old rickety boat and ended up being caught red-handed and punished for what they were told was sacrilege – the act of viewing a movie, that too a romantic one, on one of the most solemn days in the Christian calendar.
The city of Kochi has had a long and rather romantic relationship with movies. Kochi was home to some of the first theatres in the state. They were vast dark halls where audiences sat on plush maroon chairs with their eyes peeled to the colourful images flashing past on the ‘vistarama’ screens. Ushers walked around with their big silver torches, guiding latecomers and serving cold drinks, sweetmeats and popcorn - a far cry from the wooden benches and movies projected onto white walls. We all have our fair share of anecdotes just like the one narrated above, that my mother told me years ago – of our yesteryear movie escapades but if one were to reminisce about the movie going experience in Kochi you most probably have one story that has something to do with one of the Shenoy family’s theatres.
The Shenoy family was the first to bring a cinema viewing experience to the state and has continued to do so over the decades. “We were hardware merchants, until one day, my great grandfather Lakshman Shenoy decided to start a theatre here in Kochi,” says fourth generation theatre heir, Ajith Shenoy.
Lakshman Shenoy’s ancestors came to Kochi from Goa. He built a fortune importing hardware (New Guna Shenoy Company established in 1843) for the British before diversifying into film distribution and exhibition. It was then that he built the Lakshman Theatre – the first theatre in the state – which was inaugurated by the Raja of Kochi in 1944. Later, Padma theatre was built in 1946 and in 1964 his son, Srinivasa Shenoy built Sridar in memory of his older brother, Sridar Shenoy which was then the first AC theatre in the state - was inaugurated by President V V Giri, says Ajith. Shenoys and Little Shenoys came later.
Though Lakshman, which once stood near the South Overbridge where the Natural’s ice cream store stands today, has long been shut down; Padma, Shenoy’s and particularly Sridar hold a special place in our hearts from being merely a centre of entertainment to an institution in Kochi. “The theatre business has been in my family for four generations and honestly, all of us are huge movie buffs. Over the years, the cinema viewing experience has changed drastically with the dawn of multiplexes, 3D and now a virtual reality which is quickly developing, but there is something about the old school movie going experience that still tugs at the heartstrings of most movie goers. These days you can either stream a movie online or just download it merely a few days after it’s released and watch it in the comfort of your home, but the experience just isn’t the same. And some movies, I feel, really ought to be watched in a theatre,” says Lakshman Shenoy’s great grandson Ajith who oversees the functioning of the family’s three theatres today.
There was a time when the Shenoy family was the sole representative for Columbia films in the state and therefore Sridar exclusively screened only English movies. "Back then we had the monopoly and were therefore the only theatre to screen English movies. Films like Titanic and Ananconda ran for weeks with packed houses and anyone who wanted to see the movie had to come here," says Ajith.
Years after listening to my mother’s movie going tales, I found myself running through the narrow lane on Shanmugham Road that led to Sridar and managing to get a seat in the last row of the ‘Club’ class (previously the seating was divided into two classes, Balcony and Club – the former being the swankier section) watching Padayappa. Down there, the audiences were always lively, hooting and whistling and breaking into song and dance much to the dismay of the more well-mannered audiences in the balcony. Movie going became a ritual we indulged in two or three times a year, one we’d wait for anxiously and had to ask permissions for at least a week in advance. I remember when my friend lied to her parents saying that the movie Salaam Namaste was about the Indian freedom struggle for fear of being punished if she had told them the real plot of the movie. These are the thing that I miss most about going to the movies and these are the memories I associate with Sridhar.
"There was a time when the family considered selling the theatres as most of them are located on prime property. This was back when the income from films dipped and the whole multiplex fad had begun. We chose not to do so, since we had a social obligation to provide wholesome entertainment to this city and its members. We have however kept up with the times and renovated the theatres all the while ensuring that the old-world charm isn’t lost while we try to give movie goers the most modern comforts and amenities that they would require. We are very lucky, since over the years our theatres still managed to have `housefuls' for most of the shows," Ajith says.
Much has changed in a world where a millennial’s idea of catching a movie is ‘Netflix and Chill’ and in keeping up with the times, Kochi’s theatre family too is planning to renovate the Shenoy’s and Little Shenoy’s complex into a multiplex theatre. While they all still have their old box offices that most people still queue up along, all of the theatres also have the provisions for online reservation, advance booking for future shows, etc via portals like BookMyShow and also on their own websites. These days most of my movie going is limited to a PVR or Cinepolis. I do occasionally like to go stand at the old Sridar box office, purchase a ticket and sink back into the seats, back into time.
Text Credits: Rochelle D'souza Featured Image: Anand A N Image Credits: Sridar theatre