Ganesh Thirai Arangam, the last surviving movie tent in Tamil Nadu

PK Ganeshan has been running the talkies and screening movies since 1985.
Ganesh Thirai Arangam, the last surviving movie tent in Tamil Nadu
Ganesh Thirai Arangam, the last surviving movie tent in Tamil Nadu
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Ganesh Thirai Arangam in Puttuthakku, a nondescript village in Vellore district, is one of the last surviving tent or touring talkies, also known as ‘tentu kotta’, in Tamil Nadu to continue the age-old culture of showing movies in tents.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, touring or tent talkies were essentially makeshift tents equipped with a big screen, a projector and big speakers. These touring talkies were akin to travelling circuses. The audience sat on the floor, usually on the sand, while the affluent were given chairs. This was how cinema was taken to the villages before theatres were built.

With time, these tent talkies became an immovable form of entertainment. A big white screen was housed under cement or tin roofs, supported by steel pillars. 

What makes this theatre experience magical is watching a film in a natural environment. Surrounded by green fields and plenty of trees, the summer breeze, laden with bird calls, is one that can never be experienced elsewhere.

“Lakshmi Talkies in Thiruparankundram, which I thought was the last tent talkies, was closed down recently. I’m surprised to find another here. This should be the last in the state,” notes Balaji Maheshwar, a photographer from Chennai, who has been documenting old cinema theatres in the state for the past five years.

For those at Ganesh Thirai Arangam though, this is news. PK Ganesan, the man who runs the tentu kotta, muses, “I was sure there were none left in North Arcot (Vellore) but I did not know that mine would be the last in the state.”

Tent talkies/touring talkies was a fad in the eighties across the country and it was during this period that Ganesan took over the business from those who were already running it in the area.

From teas to movies 

Coming from a family of farmers, Ganesan confides that running a tentu kotta happened purely by chance. “We own a roadside tea shack and having dropped out from school after eighth grade, I began working for it. I was making tea for about 15 years; it was a profitable business. When the owners of the talkies decided to sell it, they asked me to take over. Maybe because I am known for my quality and standard. I make no compromise on that front,” says Ganesan.

“There were totally nine theatres in this region - seven touring talkies and two theatres. This talkies was initially closer to the main road and was run by a few others from the village. But since they kept incurring losses, they asked if I could take over. I moved it here (a few hundred meters inside) in 1984. And since ’85, I have been screening films,” says Ganesan.

Movie for all

Located a few hundred meters off the main road, the fading powder-blue facade of this rustic building in Puttuthakku is the source of entertainment for 20 villages in the vicinity.

People also come from Vellore, Arcot, Visharam and Thiruvallam in their two-wheelers and cycles to watch films here.

“Even audiences from Chennai, who usually watch movies seated in a comfortable chair, want to watch films seated on the floor. They tell me that it reminds them of their childhood and ask for floor tickets,” he beams, adding, “We do not want to make money; that is not our intention. We want everybody, including the poor, to be able to watch films.”

The tickets are priced at Rs 25 for floor, Rs 30 for chair and Rs 40 for box. 

Keeping up with technology

The talkies is well maintained with newly cushioned seats in the box, Qube projection and DTS with 7.1-channel surround sound experience.

Thanks to his son Ramesh, this tent talkies also has a good online presence, including on Twitter and Facebook.

For about 30 years, Ganesh Thirai Arangam has been screening films using an advanced spool projector system, which was custom-made by their in-house electrician, Subramani. He says that the modification was designed and executed by his boss, Karunanidhi.

“Earlier, at such talkies, films used to be paused four times to change the reels. We increased the spool’s capacity to play 10,000 ft reels in one go. So, we had to change the spool only twice - once during the interval and then after the movie was over. This is the brainchild of my owner Karunanidhi. We made many such projectors to be supplied to other talkies,” he explains.

Three years ago, Ganesan adopted the latest cube projector that is currently used in all theatres, making the reel projector obsolete. He also shares that the speakers have been imported from the US and Spain to ensure the quality is not compromised.

Once a year, Ganesan renews the license to continue screening films, a process quite tedious and expensive, he reveals. "I am aware what this theatre means to people. I am indulging in this business purely for the sake of nostalgia and my patrons," says Ganesan, who inculcates the ideologies of K Kamarajar in his work principles.

It never gets old

Ganesh Thirai Arangam has two shows every day - at 6 pm and 9 pm. Around 5.55 pm, people start walking in to buy tickets, and invariably, at 6.15 pm, the film starts playing, irrespective of the size of the audience. 

“For Vijay, Rajini and Ajith films, 400 to 500 tickets are sold out. And for the second show, we sell 100 to 150 tickets,” adds Ganesan.

Ganesan (extreme left) and Subramani (centre

When we visited Ganesh Thirai Arangam recently, Vishal’s Aambala, which was released in 2015, was being screened. Even though the film is three years old and that it was the fourth day of its screening, we were surprised to find that close to 90 people had turned up to watch the film. 

“On Sunday, the second day of the film screening, we sold 210 tickets for the 6 pm show,” he adds nonchalantly.

During the 80s, Ganesh Thirai Arangam housed around to 1,000 people per show. “Tickets were priced at 50 paise for floor and 75 paise for the bench. When Shivaji’s films did well, 600 ladies used to flock to the theatre. Now, we see only 8 to 10 women,” says Ganesan.

“Fifteen years ago, Appa used to play films such as Veerapandia Kattabomman for free for school children during the day,” pipes in his daughter Vigneshwari. “Being the tent owner’s daughter was considered cool in my school. I did enjoy some privileges,” she smiles.

The Shivaji connection 

This ardent fan of Shivaji Ganesan points out that Puttuthakku has a strong connection with the actor. 

“The producer who launched Shivaji in Parasakthi in 1952 was PA Perumal Mudaliar, who hails from Puttuthakku. Shivaji visited him every year for as long as he was alive. Now, there is no one here. But make sure you spread the fame of Puttuthakku,” he stresses, adding, “The legendary actor shares a special bond with Puttuthakku. I have even met him a few times.”

Is that why the theatre bears the name ‘Ganesh’? “No, it is not named after Shivaji or myself for that matter. It is named after god Ganesha,” he clarifies.

As dusk wrapped the arangam that day, the huge white screen under the humble cement roofing comes alive, adding another layer of memories on its sands of time.

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