Why Puraswalkam is the mecca of cinema-goers in Chennai

From Abirami Mega Mall to Ega Cinemas, Puraswalkam is home to some of the city’s oldest theatres.
Why Puraswalkam is the mecca of cinema-goers in Chennai
Why Puraswalkam is the mecca of cinema-goers in Chennai
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If you are looking for a perfect blend of a residential area and shopping hub, then Purasawalkam is your automatic pick. Ironically, the term “Purasai” originated from a tree called “Purasai maram” as this area was copious with this tree variety. Ironically, this area is devoid of greenery today and the streets are always crowded.

Purasawalkam is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Chennai. In Tamil Nadu’s tinsel town, the catchment areas of Purasawalkam also includes Kilpauk, Ayanavaram, Kellys, Otteri, Aminjikarai, Anna Nagar, Chetpet, Choolaimedu and Nungambakkam. In trade parlance, this conglomeration is technically West Chennai since Kodambakkam can be labelled as South Chennai, North Madras has an obvious identity and Mount Road is effectively Central Chennai.

Abirami Mega Mall

Purasawalkam is often considered as the signal provider for the entire cinema industry. If there is uncertainty over the release of a film, the opening of advance bookings at Abirami Mega Mall is considered a green signal for the movie’s release. The highly reputed and influential veteran ‘Abirami’ Ramanathan is the trade’s powerhouse and all roads lead to him for crucial decisions.

Even last week, he sprung a surprise on the entire industry by waiving off the most talked about online booking charges in his theatre, which many believe has come from the right person as he heads the Tamil Film Chamber of Commerce.

‘Abirami’ Ramanathan’s pet child- the four-screen multiplex Abirami Mega Mall– has seen the industry evolve. The Abirami complex entered business during the early 1970s, at a time when the multiplex boom started in Chennai. Starting 2007, Abirami took up each screen for renovation and brought up different theme-based theatres. They even introduced a new jargon in cinema trade- the ‘7 Star theatre’. There is a waiter on call to deliver you dinner and there are recliner seats, which can be turned into a bed while you watch your favourite flick.

Image Courtesy: Abirami.in

For the last few years, Abirami is often the first theatre to open advance bookings for a blockbuster film.  They were also the first to stop advance bookings for films like Vishal’s Madha Gaja Raja and Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, signalling postponement. While Abirami is one of the pioneers in sound technology (they installed Dolby sound system even before the release of Kamal Haasan’s Kurudhi Punal-the first Tamil film mixed with this sound), today they have the latest laser projection for their screens.

Abirami, however, never released Hindi films until the reopening of one of their screens, post renovation (they renovated each of their screens one by one to make sure business does not stop). Their first big Hindi release was in Diwali 2007 when they released Shah Rukh Khan’s Om Shanti Om in their refurbished Swarna Sakthi Abirami. But Abirami did not stop here, he even distributed the film in Chennai. This move sent shock waves in the theatre business, with Ega Cinemas, which specialized in Hindi films, taken by surprise. Ega Cinemas released only one film -Saawariya-that Diwali, missing out on the high profile SRK film.

Sangam Cinemas

Abirami’s nearest rival-Sangam Cinemas-is around 2 km away at Kilpauk. Sangam, by design, tries to replicate Sathyam Cinemas by creating a similar lobby, trained staff, elite concession counters etc. They are less cramped when compared to Abirami Mega Mall. With big auditoriums, Dolby Atmos, couple seating and affordable tickets, Sangam is a unique three-screen complex in Chennai.

Image Courtesy: Sangam Cinemas

In 2007, when ‘Abirami’ Ramanathan distributed Rajinikanth’s Sivaji in Chennai, he brought in a new revolution by releasing in the film in record number of screens. In all other areas of Chennai, there was wide showcasing but in Purasawalkam area, Abirami simply monopolized the distribution. While they played the Rajinikanth blockbuster in all four screens at Abirami, they did not give a single show to Sangam. Sangam reciprocated when they started distributing movies like Vijay Sethupathy’s Pizza. The cat and mouse game followed when superhits Kalakalappu and Kumki were not released at Abirami, while Sangam played it exclusively.  

Today, this practice has been stopped as every film gets released across theatres as the distributor wants to make the maximum earnings from the first weekend.  In 2007, Ajith’s superhit Billa set the trend when it got screened at both Abirami and Sangam multiplexes-a first in this area.

Ega Cinemas

On the same road as Sangam, lies Ega Cinemas, the 2-screen complex which is considered Chennai’s Bollywood hub. Be it the crowd-pulling Khan films or off-beat movies like Amithab Bachan’s Paa or Ranbhir Kapoor’s Burfi or lesser known films like Meri Pyaari Bindu, there is hardly a Hindi release which Ega misses. For the past three years, Ega is also accommodating big Tamil releases as Tamil distributors want every screen in the city for big opening numbers.

One would also recall the 1990 evergreen blockbuster-Karagakattakaran-which ran for 365 days in Ega. Apart from screening such rare Tamil films, Ega screens only Hindi and Malayalam movies. Can you believe that in today’s short-run trend, Bangalore Days- a 2014 feel-good Malayalam blockbuster-ran for 100 days at Ega?  

PVR Multiplex

A five-minute drive from Ega will take you to Ampa Skywalk, where the seven-screen PVR Multiplex made its debut in Chennai. Interestingly, the area, where this mall stands, was considered bad luck. Until Ampa Skywalk was constructed, all establishments (such as Arun Hotel or Windsor Park) that functioned here fared poorly. This allowing Ampa Skywalk to invest in the city without burning a hole in their pockets.

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia/Ashwin Kumar

The best thing at PVR Cinemas is that superhits generally get a longer run when compared to other theatres. In fact, when the multiplex opened, one of their first releases Vinnaithandi Varuvaya-the romantic urban superhit from Goutham Menon had a 100-day run here. In 2012, Vijay’s Pongal superhit Nanban ran here for 100 days and continued even after the television premiere. It helps that the multiplex is surrounded by areas like Anna Nagar, Kilpauk, Aminjikarai and Arumbakkam, which are all large areas with a sizeable population. This means there will be good influx of people on any given day. 

PVR is famous for the comfortable luxury seats and wide leg space, which was a big hit from the time they opened in Chennai. The success of their Aminjikarai property has in fact motivated them to invest in Velachery and Tirusulam locations.

The end of single screen

Presently, the only single-screen cinema that is functioning in this area is Otteri Mahalakshmi. They mostly screen the yesteryear classics of Sivaji Ganesan. At a time when satellite television is at its peak, watching Sivaji Ganesan classics on big screen is a unique experience for the people in this neighbourhood. The legacy theatres- Roxy, Mekala, Motcham, Saraswathi, Balaji, Bhuvaneswari, Vasanthi, Saravana, ‘Strahans Road’ Lakshmi and Thirumagal (at Purasawalkam), Uma (at Kellys), Gopikrishna, Nataraj, Ashok and Sayani (at Ayanavaram), Lakshmi, Palaniappa and Muralikrishna (at Aminjikarai) and Grand theatre (Anna Nagar) have all shut shop.

Interestingly, Anna Nagar despite being a big residential area, does not have a single movie hall. This is because the highly affluent residents never visited a cinema in the 1990s, preferring to watch films on their VCRs at home. And while there were no proper theatres in the ‘90s, from the early 2000s, it became impossible to invest in a plot and construct a theatre in Anna Nagar. The screens in Aminjikarai served as a small alternate for the residents! For example, Vijay’s 2007 blockbuster Pokkiri had a 100-day re-run at Aminjikarai Lakshmi, where the film released post its 100-day run in release centres. This was a new record that was previously owned by Rajinikanth’s Annamalai in 1992!

Purasawalkam has a history of single-screen presence and all of them are not in today’s cinema map. One of them is Roxy, which was famous for screening English films till the 1980s. Roxy, previously known as Globe theatre, was a landmark in this area from 1918. For the Hollywood movie fans and the Anglo-Indian settlements, Roxy was the one-stop destination. Roxy also screened Tamil films like Server Sundaram to the delight of Tamil audience here.

Mekala, a mass single-screen cinema, served as the prime release centre for Tamil biggies. Yesteryear superstar MG Ramachandran’s blockbusters like Ayirathil Oruvan, Anbey Vaa, Kaavalkaran, Adimai Penn, Enga Veetu Pillai had dream runs at Mekala with fans going berserk on the day of the release.

After the huge success of Enga Veetu Pillai, when MGR was considering his entry into politics, he signed up with Reddy to remake a Telugu hit Kathanayakudu, which was made as Nam Naadu in Tamil. When Nam Naadu released, both Reddy and MGR went to Mekala theatre to watch the reaction of the viewers. There was a scene in which MGR was being welcomed after his victory in the elections. The audience was screaming, clapping and whistling and asked the theatre owner to repeat the mass scene. After witnessing the cheers (that proliferated once scene was repeated), the superstar hugged the director and with tears of joy, he said, “Thanks Reddiar! I have received the people’s acceptance.”

On the other hand, Sayani, another single-screen cinema, was a Sivaji Ganesan stronghold screening cult classics like Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Kappalottiya Thamizhan.

Thanks to multiplexes like Abirami, Sangam, PVR and Ega, Purasawalkam has not fallen like North Madras but the industry feels the growth did not proliferate like Kodambakkam. Somewhere down the line, a major multiplex in Anna Nagar will give this area a complete feel.

Ajay Srinivasan is a film critic, blog-writer and cinema tracker.

This article was originally published on his blog. You can read the full story here.

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