The year is 1980. It’s yet another day in the lives of film buffs Kamal Haasan, Santhana Bharathi, PC Sreeram and Mani Ratnam. They gather at Samco Hotel’s roof-top in Alwarpet, for an evening of tea and conversation. All of them are in their teens and have a common love for ‘good’ cinema. Apart from Kamal, none of them has made it big yet.
Cut to 2019… Santhana Bharathi has won a National Award for directing Mahanadi (1994). PC Sreeram and Mani Ratnam are now household names. This is the story of Once Upon a Time… in Kollywood.
On Madras Day, we drive down the streets of Chennai, reliving #MadrasMemories through the eyes of 1980s director Santhana Bharathi. Our journey starts in Thiruvanmiyur, at 10.40 am. Our destination? Let’s find out.
A walk to remember
11.40 am, AVM Studios (Minute 60)
Bustling Arcot Road is unusually traffic-free, as we head to one of India’s last surviving film studios, AVM Productions, a place where dreams became reality. Famous for its rotating globe with the letters AVM inscribed across it — the studio was a window to the cinematic world for upcoming filmmakers, including Santhana Bharathi.
Along the way, he points to Forum Vijaya Mall, recalling memories of another famous studio — Vijaya Vauhini Studios, which, in the 1980s, was Asia’s biggest.
“There were plenty of studios in and around Vadapalani back then. Over the years, the studio working model reduced drastically and now, you have several independent producers,” he says.
As clichéd as it might sound, Bharathi says he was mesmerised when he stepped into AVM Productions for Oh Manju (1976), his first film as assistant to legendary filmmaker CV Sridhar. AVM Studios was then considered a hub for South cinema where films were processed, edited and re-recorded.
He takes me through the vacant corridors of AVM Villa Garden, where huge set pieces were erected for film shoots. “I filmed Engirundho Vandhan (1995) and we created a small house here. As a matter of fact, the 100th day function of Raaja Paarvai (1981) was held at AVM Garden,” he says.
The studio is no longer the go-to location for shooting as was the case earlier, and very few filmmakers opt to shoot inside the building now.
Fortunately for us, we catch the makers of Vijay-starrer Bigil renovating the iconic Central Jail replica, to shoot a sequence featuring actor Jackie Shroff. A portion of AVM’s expansive space has now been converted into residential apartments. The studio might have lost its charm, but it still has a enduring legacy.
2.30 pm, Safire Theatre (Minute 230)
We stop at a restaurant nearby for lunch, before heading to the next location. It’s hard to find even a trace of Safire Theatre, regarded as India’s first multiplex theatre and established in 1964. The theatre, which once was a breeding ground for world cinema enthusiasts, is now reduced to an empty plot, located near Gemini Flyover.
Remember the crushing scene in Cinema Paradiso (1988) when Salvatore Di Vita witnesses the theatre getting demolished? That’s how Santhana Bharathi says he felt when Safire Theatre was razed to the ground. All through the 1980s, he would religiously watch movies here, comprising three screens — Safire, Emerald and Blue Diamond. Aspiring filmmakers, he says, celebrated Safire since it primarily screened English films, that too at an affordable price range (₹25).
The American historical drama Cleopatra was the first movie to be played at the theatre. “Emerald and Blue Diamond screened Tamil and Hindi films. I remember watching Padosan (1968) and Mera Naam Joker (1970), which had three intervals,” he remembers.
He adds that Blue Diamond had an option of repeat-viewing, and audiences sometimes watched movies even thrice. “For instance, if you do not exit the lobby after the movie ends; you can sit for the next show,” he says.
A lot can happen over ‘kaapi’
3.30 pm, Drive-In (Minute 290)
Most millennials might not know the fact that the lush green garden of Semmozhi Poonga was once the place where Tamil cinema personalities hung out.
Before Semmozhi Poonga, there was Woodlands’ Drive-In restaurant — the city’s favourite pit stop before it was closed in 2008. Meeting industry friends at Woodlands’ Drive-In restaurant was a regular affair for Santhana Bharathi, who recalls having pointless conversations with friends about life, movies and everything in between. He describes Drive-In as the Cafe Coffee Day of those times, where people would just sit for hours and talk.
“You could spot PB Srinivas at any given day,” he laughs, “It was crowded with people — ranging from musicians to industrialists.” The food was generally brought to the window of the car — something similar to the scene in Aboorva Sagotharargal (1989), which was shot in Drive-In.
4.30 pm, Kamal Haasan’s office, Eldams Road (Minute 350)
Kamal Haasan’s office in Alwarpet may be the Makkal Needhi Maiam’s headquarters now, but it will always be remembered as a ‘cinema rendezvous’ for film buffs “who were trying to explore alternative cinema”. Getting into Kamal’s good books wasn’t an easy task, admits Santhana Bharathi. However, he was part of Kamal’s gang comprising names like RC Sakthi, PC Sreeram, Mani Ratnam and Pratap Pothen to name a few.
Bharathi shares behind-the-scenes anecdotes of how Haasan Brothers (it was renamed Raaj Kamal Films International later) came into place and how RaajaPaarvai’s script was written at his office. “Kamal once hosted a film festival at his house and we watched movies of Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard,” he smiles, adding, “It became a meeting point for all of us who were at that point making inroads into Tamil cinema.”
This is the fourth of a five-part series through a 380-minute tour of heritage sites that celebrates 380 years of Madras