* If my grandmother was to be believed, a competition had been announced for people to suggest names for the new cinema theatre under construction. This was in the 1960s
* Most days though, the morning show screened soft-porn movies, the theatre unabashedly turning family-friendly for the matinee — at a siesta-inducing 2 pm
* Cauvery Mahal is in the childhood and teenage years of many of us who grew up in a certain age of the economy
I had prepared a ritual to mourn. Nothing by way of an actual event; that would be silly, but perhaps something private. I hadn’t yet worked out the details. But then some townspeople told us that the manager of Cauvery Mahal, the last single-screen theatre in Madikeri, Kodagu, might open it for business after all. It has been shut since March, since the insanity of that first national lockdown. Perhaps he will open the doors in March, the manager is said to have told someone who knows someone I know — this is the way of our small-town information highway. There is a plush new Kannada film slated for release and the manager might open the doors to the crumbling vestige of wonder and magic with that film. The film is due in a month or two, or, in keeping with this age of crazy, at some uncertain time in the future. To conclude, nothing is sure. Whether the film will get released, whether anyone cares or whether the last theatre in my town will ever reopen .
Cauvery Mahal sits awkwardly on a slope in the centre of the Karnataka town. Someone some weeks ago told me that it was permanently shut, and there I was one day, just as dawn was breaking, trying to take a few awkward photos through gaps in the locked gates. I had been thinking of Art Deco lately, and newly noticed just what a gorgeous example of the architectural style this old girl was. So I took photos of metre-by-metre space, for if this last survivor had shut shop, the building would soon go. It is prime real estate in a town made richer, and filthier, by tourism. Also, we Indians rarely acknowledge such architecture as cultural landscape.
If my grandmother was to be believed, a competition had been announced for people to suggest names for the new cinema theatre under construction. This was in the 1960s, I think, though, like with all superb storytellers, timelines and actual facts were mostly fluid and merged with made-up in her stories. The votes came mostly in favour of naming it after the Cauvery River, the institution that best influences socio-cultural life in the district, so it was christened Cauvery Mahal.
I watched my first English/Hollywood movie there back in the ’90s. English movies, mostly several months old and not the big, famous productions were occasionally screened during the morning show at 10.45 am. It was a big deal for those of us yearning for a glimpse of the world from our little pocket of misty hills. There was Die Hard once and we all crushed on Bruce Willis. Most days though, the morning show screened soft-porn movies, the theatre unabashedly turning family-friendly for the matinee — at a siesta-inducing 2 pm. At the post-office 6 pm show (‘First Show’) and an ungodly 9 pm (‘Second Show’) so-called decent movies were played to the upper and middle-class audience that included the entirety of the household, live-in house help, neighbours on a cinema picnic, just-married couples holding hands after the lights were off and families with infants, for babysitters were not someone you could hire for an evening. Mostly Hindi and Kannada, sometimes other southern languages if they starred Rajinikanth or Mohanlal or such others, the reel boxes took time to get to Madikeri, a pace that suited the slowness of life here.
My parents were frequent picture-goers back in the day, and among the dozen embarrassing stories they tell me of my childhood, several are from Cauvery Mahal. How, the minute lights went out, instead of the screen, I would turn around and watch people instead. Then I would claim thirst/hunger, make my dad buy Gold Spot, that ’90s fizzy orange, take two sips and proceed to run the length of the corridor, sugar-high and, no doubt, very annoying. The man behind the snack counter seemed very well preserved for the three-odd decades I have seen him — it must be the movies, I used to think.
Cauvery Mahal used to be part of a duo. Half a kilometre away was Basappa Theatre, which was known for being too loud and having dirtier seats. Before a show started, both played Kodagina kavery, a famous Kannada song, the scratchy record being a sign for people gathered outside and socialising in the halls that it was time to shuffle to their seats. This was followed by a slide show of vintage ads from local shops that we were anyway going to go to — it wasn’t like there was a choice. All this was accompanied by the memory of chewing on greasy peanuts and taking in the smell of cigarette smoke from the corners. We also met townspeople we’d not otherwise very often see. Quick news exchanges. Heys and hellos. That ephemeral conflation of community. Good times.
In a scene totally inspired by the cult Italian classic Cinema Paradiso, Basappa Theatre was demolished some years ago, supposedly to make way for a tiny mall that would include a single-screen cinema hall. It is today a car dealership.
There are many stories attached to growing up and seeing the theatre — same setting, different movies — at different stages. The thing with small towns, I have come to realise since moving back last year after living anonymous in cities for nearly two decades, is that everything is compressed within a patina of shared histories. The son of the manager who used to run Cauvery Mahal and some other single screens in the district was my classmate for some time. Friendships go back three and four generations — my friend’s father and dad are buddies, their fathers before that, and so on in reverse until faces and names fade and we no longer know such factoids from our ancestors’ lives.
Cauvery Mahal is in the childhood and teenage years of many of us who grew up in a certain age of the economy. But unsurprisingly, the shutting down of the theatre did not make much or any news in a year when closing down of businesses and whole lives was routine. Nostalgia sure has its comforting place, but it is not here, not any more for me. If, and when, Cauvery theatre, the diminutive we call this by, chooses to open, I cannot say how often I will go, if at all. The choice of movies they screen are different now. Our sensibilities have changed, as has the era when we, like the beautiful kid Toto in Cinema Paradiso, would stare at the world through big screens, wide eyed and oblivious to all else.
The provinces are cosmoses of contradiction — intrusive but well-meaning people; smallness but good air and water; and the utter impossibility of remaining anonymous within an enduring sense of community, like it or not. This small-town I live in has never had a bookstore. The venues for cultural events remain mostly forlorn. In this disinterested town, these words are merely an acknowledgement of the last cinema still standing.
Deepa Bhasthi is a writer based in Kodagu