In the 1990s people began to show preference for technically upgraded theatres with better facilities.
A city centre with a movie theatre in any direction one turns to is not something many cities can boast. Each has had a clientele of its own, from the favourite theatres of superstar fans’ associations to theatres which regularly presented the latest Hollywood releases.
Over the past quarter century so much has changed in the look and feel of the theatres that some are hardly recognisable now, from what they used to be in the 1990s. Some others have retained the exterior, which brings back nostalgic memories for theatregoers, while upgrading the interiors.
Movie watching in that era is associated with lining up behind serpentine queues, snaking round and round through narrow tunnels, struggling to reach one’s seat through the tightly packed rows with hardly any leg space, and sitting in hard, red-coloured seats with hardly any cushioning and jostling with the person in the neighbouring seat for a piece of the arm-rest. Surround sound was yet to make its entry and the projection just about tolerable. Yet, the community experience of watching in a massive theatre with more than a thousand seats was unmatchable, which drew in the audience despite the growth of cable television.
One of the first major changes during that time was the revolution in sound technology, with the introduction of surround sound systems by DTS and Dolby Laboratories.
“Sree Padmanabha was one of the first to introduce the Dolby sound system here around 1996-97. Movies like Indian, Gupt, and Kuruthi Punal released during that time with Dolby sound. The results were overwhelming. A lot of people came in just to experience the new sound system. A year later, we played our first English film Air Force One, which was followed by Titanic, which ran for 205 days, still an unbroken record here. People were beginning to get quality-conscious around this time, as they began showing preference for theatres with better facilities and which have upgraded technically,” says Girish Chandran, who runs Sree Padmanabha and Devipriya theatres at East Fort.
A quiet entry
For a long time, advance reservations meant queueing up the day before at the theatre to get a reservation coupon. Later, phone bookings became possible in some theatres. Online reservations in its earliest form appeared around 2000, when the internet was yet to become a part of our daily lives. In that nascent form, which was powered by a small Technopark-based form, a row of seats were set aside for internet reservation. Much of it was released an hour prior to the show, as only a few chose to book online then.
In the period from 2000 to 2010, things remained static as far as technology upgrades or improvement in standards of the theatres were concerned. In a way, it mirrored the state of Malayalam cinema during that period, when it was caught in a rut, with good films with fresh themes being far and few between. The movie theatre audience also began to dwindle, raising question marks on the survival of the old model of massive theatres.
Towards the end of that decade, the influence of multiplex cinema with fresh, urban-centric themes, targeted at the multiplex-going audience in metro cities, began to be felt here too. A new crop of filmmakers, writers, and actors made their entry. The audience, who used to frequent metro cities, began to bemoan the lack of similar multiplexes in the city.
The digital revolution took cinema by storm by 2010, with theatres in the city too slowly shifting to digital projection systems. One of the first city theatres to go for a complete makeover was again Sree Padmanabha, which at that time had 1,500 seats, something almost unthinkable in movie theatres these days. For maximum leg space and plush seats, the number of seats were reduced to 1,100. The number would further come down to 500 seats three years later, when the theatre was divided into two, and Devipriya, a mini theatre with 200 seats, was introduced.
In 2012, the Kerala State Film Development Corporation decided to renovate the three government-run theatres — Kairali, Sree and Kalabhavan — ahead of that year’s edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). In addition to the latest projection systems and refurbished seats, one more theatre, Nila, was added to the Kairali complex.
“After the renovation, the crowds returned to Kalabhavan and Kairali. They also became release centres for the latest movies, which they were not for some years,” says K. Gopakumar, Manager, Kairali theatre.
In 2014, New Theatre, one of the oldest theatres in the city, opened after renovation. The facade looked just the same. But inside, the 1,200 capacity theatre was converted into three screens, with 550, 200, and 173 seats. Dolby Atmos sound system was also first introduced in the city at New Theatre.
In the years that followed, the other theatre owners were also forced to up their game. S.L theatres, an old model multiplex with four theatres, became Aries cinemas in a new avatar, with six screens and a massive 72×31-foot silver screen and the first 4K twin projectors in south India. Kripa Theatre, which itself was a renovated form of the old Shakti Theatre, also was renovated recently as a two-screen theatre.
Then, COVID struck
In 2018, Carnival Cinemas opened a five-screen multiplex at Greenfield Stadium in Kazhakuttam, aimed at the IT crowd. A few months later, the Mall of Travancore, one of the first malls in the city, opened with a seven-screen multiplex. Carnival Cinemas opened another four screen-multiplex at Central Mall, leaving the movie buffs in the city spoilt for choice.
Some other theatres were going ahead with renovation plans when COVID-19 hit. Since March this year, all theatres have remained closed. With every passing month of the theatres remaining non-functional, losses began to mount. Quite a few theatre owners have pending loans, due to upgrades or overhaul of the theatres. The owners, as well as the movie buffs, are waiting for the pandemic to pass, for a return to the marquee.