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Final fade-out for Elgin

Feb 7,2012: 0:23 IST

HERITAGE

During its 115-year history, Elgin Talkies in Bangalore’s Shivajinagar has seen all changes cinema itself has undergone. The Talkies, built in 1896, finally downed shutters in December 2011, writes Krupa Rajangam

Now not showing: The facade of Elgin Talkies. (Photo courtesy: neighbourhooddiaries.in)Elgin Talkies in Shivajinagar was one of Bangalore’s earliest cinemas and possibly South India’s as well. It was built in 1896 by Veerabhadra Mudaliar and has since remained in the same family before it finally downed shutters in December 2011.

During its 115- year history, it has seen all the changes in cinematic history. It started life as Elgin Hall, a place where travelling theatrical troupes performed plays and dramas to entertain the locals. It kept pace with the movie era and started playing silent movies in 1918. When cinemas became extremely popular it took on a new lease of life as Elgin Talkies, complete with a projector and sound system that is today 80-plus years old.

However, past its centenary, it appears to have lost its relevance. What probably contributed to its closure was economics. Being a second run single screen cinema, it was no longer able to keep pace with the numerous satellite channels which all put together easily play about 30 odd movies a day. During its hey-day, the cinema with a seating capacity of 400 people, used to run house full. It had a separate entry for women and a curtained enclosure as well inside, for them. This has since been removed.

Krishnamurthy, (now the former) owner, remembers his grandfather telling him that ticket prices started at half anna. He recollects it being 60p for the stalls and Rs 1.95 for the balcony, when he was a child. Today it costs Rs 25 to watch a movie here and the balcony has been closed for some years now.

The family had other stories to share, how the public would rush to the tiny till to buy tickets and some canny people would drop some change onto the existing pile and swear they had paid the full amount. Naturally, with the rush, it would be very difficult to verify this. Some members of the audience would watch only one half of the movie and then during the interval sell their tickets at half price to others waiting outside and thus share both the ticket price and story.

Off to the movies in a bullock cart


With no marketing blitz like today, they used to rely on bullock carts, with the cinema poster pasted onto its sides, to meander through the streets of Shivajinagar with accompanying drum roll to announce forthcoming attractions.

Some of the big films it has screened in the past include ‘Alam Ara’, the first Indian talkie, way back in 1932. Krishnamurthy rescued an early picture register of Elgin Talkies, dating from the 1920s which has a detailed record of the films screened here, how long they played, who supplied the reels and the number of reels supplied. The first entry in the register has the intriguing name ‘Vanishing Trails’, playing from 11.10.1922 followed by ‘The Great Secret’ from 9.11.1922.

Besides each of the pictures listed in the register, there is a comment by his grandfather on whether the run was poor, fair or good. Against Alam Ara’, it reads ‘very good’.

When Krishnamurthy took over in the 1980s, albeit reluctantly, the place was experiencing a downturn, but it gradually got to him and he stayed on. Cinema appears to be in the family’s blood – his father was a sound engineer in Mehboob Studios, before he too returned unwillingly to take over the running of the place.

Ahmed, who started life at Elgin, about 40 years ago, as an odd job boy and moved onto manning the ticket counter, canteen and even running the projector, remembers a time when Ashok Kumar, the Hindi cinema actor, used to drop in fairly regularly as he was a good friend of his boss Mr Thambi.

During the course of conversation, he mentioned that Ashok Kumar gave his boss the car that was used in the movie ‘Chalti ka Naam Gaadi’. This seemed extremely interesting but on following up it proved to be a similar model of car rather than same car…

On enquiring about other movie stars who might have visited the place, Ahmed recollected that Mahipal, the star of Hatim Tai and Sheikh Mukthar, premiered their movies here. Dilip Kumar especially was very popular and Krishnamurthy’s elder brother, Hariharan, remembers how the audience used to throw coins onto the stage and get up and start dancing whenever Dilip Kumar appeared on screen.

Trying to keep pace


Although, the family tried to keep pace with the times, making a number of renovations over the years, Elgin began to experience quite a reversal in the last few years. As a second-run cinema, it largely relied on migrant labourers to form the bulk of the audience.

Over the last few years, their numbers, especially those from Bihar, have reduced quite dramatically. This naturally affected the day-to-day collections and led to the inevitable closure. In the final reckoning whose loss was it? Just the owner’s or the city and cinema history’s as well?

It is hoped that the structure at least will find a new lease of life. It shows that much thought has gone into its construction and appearance. The faade, a mix of European classical and Indian, is well proportioned and detailed. The structure itself is cast iron columns supporting a hard wood timber truss with mangalore tiled roofing. Uniquely, purpose-made hollow clay tiles were inserted into the tiled roof at regular intervals in order to absorb echoes. The new owners state their intention is to retain the building skin and make interior modifications, giving it new life as a convention centre – ‘Elgin Palace’.

This remains to be seen but meanwhile the story of Elgin is available for viewing online on www.neighbourhooddiaries.in under ‘Blackpally Diaries’. A collaborative project between Saythu and Jaaga Media Centre, Neighbourhood Diaries is a project to document oral histories of Bangalore’s neighbourhoods and place them in the public domain. It started with Whitefield Diaries, stories related to the historic Anglo-Indian settlement there and the team is working towards Malleswaram Diaries.

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