Madurai: The curtains have come down on one of the most popular landmarks of the city, Thangam theatre, once considered Asia's largest, after its new owner started to demolish it recently. The cinema hall, which could seat 2,563 persons and spread over more than 52,000 square feet and was built in 1952, is being converted into a block of flats by a Chennai-based businessman.
It was built by Pitchai Muthu, considered a stalwart in the film industry and guide to many theatre owners, according to RMN Annamalai of the Cinema Theatre Owners' Association.
The cinema hall was inaugurated even before completion and one of the first movies screened was "Parasakthi," debut film of legendary Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan, said Annamalai.
The film, whose story and screenplay were penned by M Karunanidhi — later to become Chief Minister — ran for 175 days, he said.
"You can imagine the collection in the big aluminium hundi boxes for the film. There used to be four shows on normal days and five on festival days as people from even surrounding villages used to come to the theatre. The prices of tickets ranged from 50 Paise to Rs 5," he recalls.
"In those days if we didn't get a ticket in other theatres we would come here," said Manickam, who runs a teashop near the theatre. "We were sure of getting a ticket here as it was huge"
When the final show of the day closed at 1:30 AM, "It would be like a festive crowd," he said. "In view of the seating capacity, if a film was shown for 50 days in this theatre, it was like being shown for 100 days in other threatres," said Khajamoidheen (66), a local resident.
Interestingly, Pitchai Muthu's family members say the theatre was born out of a challenge. Muthu, a partner in a cinema hall, had some differences with the other partners and and began constructing Thangam Theatre, they say.
"Probably he wanted to build a very big theatre which none in India could boast of. And it turned out to be at that time Asia's biggest theatre," said family members.
Movie goers recalled that after the stupendous run of 'Parasakthi', films that enjoyed a similar success were the M G Ramachandran starrer 'Nadodi Mannan,'(175 days) and the Gemini Ganesan starrer 'Panama Pasama' (140 days).
But the record breaker was the K Bhagyaraj starrer 'Thooral Ninnu Pochu,' which ran for about 300 days to packed houses. The theatre with an expansive screen used American-made projectors and was so designed that people could watch a movie from any corner. There were also provisions for people to make a quick exit through three points during emergencies.
Corporation officials said the theatre had remained shut for more than 22 years due to disputes among family members. Though many movie goers still long to watch their favourite films there, Muthu's heirs were unable to revive it.
The Government Gazette says the theatre was built in Mela Perumal Maistry street, named after the legendary mason of the same name, who successfully filled the moat around Madurai old city fort. However, after Thangam theatre was built, the street took the name of the cinema hall.
Film agent Ramanathan recalled that when "Athaiya Mamiya" was released in 1974, other theatre owners went on strike, as the theatre screened six shows daily and 10 on weekends. "Other theatres were almost deserted," he said.
However he said it would be quite difficult for anyone to run such a huge theatre now, with problems like video piracy and also the complex problems the film industry faces.
"Many moviegoers in Madurai used to come to the theatre in horse drawn coaches in the 1960s. But they are not there any more. Many heritage houses around the theatre have vanished and become multi-storeyed buildings. Thangam theatre too will soon become one such building," said officials.
Updated Date: Aug 05, 2011 14:59 PM