Mumbai: It’s 10.30pm on a wet Wednesday, and the sleepy Mumbai suburb of Matunga has already turned in for the night. The dim glow from a street light outside Aurora Talkies falls on a group of people, all bystanders, as they watch workmen sawing away at a 55-foot cut-out of Rajinikanth, in preparation for the release of Kabali on Friday.
The Pa. Ranjith-directed film, which marks the return of the Tamil superstar to the screen after two years, is expected to see a big opening in 3,000-4,000 screens across India, besides about 400-500 screens overseas, say trade pundits. But for true-blue fans of Thalaivar (leader in Tamil)—as Rajinikanth is known—in Mumbai and its suburbs, the journey of homage will begin at Aurora Talkies, one of the last surviving single-screen theatres in the city.
In keeping with the tradition, Rajinikanth fans will flock to the theatre on Friday and perform a bhopla (pumpkin) aarti to ward off any evil eye on their beloved Thalaivar. But this time around, Nambi Rajan, owner of Aurora Talkies, has convinced them to avoid the pal abhishekam (milk offering) and do something “fruitful for the society" instead.
So, beyond the usual distribution of food packets at the venue, fans will set up a blood donation camp. A free eye camp is also being organized at the theatre by Dr S. Natarajan of Aditya Jyot Eye Hospital, a Rajinikanth fan himself. Each of the tickets being sold will come along with an eye-pledge form.
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On his part, Rajan is busy getting his modest single-screen theatre ready for the big day, between frantic calls from friends of friends desperately looking for tickets. Lights are being lined around the posters on the facade, and streams of banners bearing Rajinikanth’s face flutter inside the lobby, ready to welcome the crowds.
“We are going to give the theatre a fresh coat of paint, and we have also installed laser lights," said Rajan, explaining that just like the theatres in the south, which have “jig-jig" lights that start flashing during the hero’s onscreen entry, a fight scene or songs, these newly installed laser lights will flash during Thalaivar’s entry.
But there’s also a new addition to the mix—bouncers.
“Everyone will be so excited, people start whistling and dancing, and that’s all part of the joy of watching the film. But sometimes, fans get carried away. One will jump on to the screen and others will follow suit. Or someone will insist we play a song again. I can deal with one or two, but when that becomes a mob, it’s difficult," he said.
Aurora Talkies will run six shows through the day, including one as early as 6 am. “During Enthiran (2010), the lines (for tickets) were never-ending, and during Sivaji (2007), people showed up at night, waiting for the ticket counter to open the next day," he said.
Rajan is now waiting for clearance to run a show at 3am, given the demand—all at a princely ₹ 110, ₹ 120 and ₹ 150 a ticket!
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It will be a hectic week. “I’ll probably have just enough time to go home and bathe before returning back to the theatre," he laughs, stroking his white beard, a new addition for the usually clean-shaven Rajan, as a tribute to his hero Kabali.
But Rajan wishes it were like this all the time. “If a Rajinikanth movie came every month, I’d be the richest person in India," he said, lamenting the erosion of single-screen theatre audiences in Mumbai.
“Single-screen theatres are not viable anymore. Government taxes are 30-38%, electricity costs are going up like anything, there’s labour problems. But more than all of these problems, the biggest problem—the picture has to run. One Kabali or one Sultan is not enough to sustain us through the year," he said.
In 1938, Aurora Talkies came up on land that was at the far end of the city—it was the last stop for trams in Bombay. There was only marshland beyond the theatre. In 1942, it started showing movies and was a popular destination for people looking to watch English films. In 1943, it introduced Tamil films in the matinee show, catering to Tamilians around Matunga.
South Indians would travel long distances to experience a slice of their culture in busy Mumbai. “It used to be a tradition: early lunch at Concerns, which served authentic South Indian food on a banana leaf, followed by a matinee show at Aurora," said Rajan. The tradition still endures as people come from suburbs as far as Vasai, Virar and Dombivli, at times without even knowing which movie is playing at the theatre.
Aurora Talkies was owned by Bejan Bharucha and his German wife Gertrude, under their company All India Theatres Pvt. Ltd. The firm controlled 70-80 cinema halls in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi—some owned, some leased. “I leased it from the owners in the 1980s," said Rajan.
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But with the entry of multiplexes, there was immense pressure on single-screen theatres. “I had a lot of problems getting movies, as distributors would favour multiplexes and satellite channels. But we had to survive. That’s when I launched a strategy, we used to run one Tamil movie for the matinee show, and three other Hindi shows.I started Telugu films in the 3pm slot and then Malayalam films in the 6.30 slot," he said, adding they had a lot of takers for the regional fare.
“Instead of begging them (distributors), I thought it would be better to do my own thing. That is when I started showing other movies in Telugu and Malayalam." Incidentally, Rajan is also a distributor of Tamil films.
Buckling under the pressure of rising costs and the competition from multiplexes, Rajan closed the theatre after the successful run of Sivaji in 2008, hoping to pull down the old cinema and build a multiplex in its place.
The theatre remained shut for five months. During this period, he went to see Dasavathaaram (2008) featuring Kamal Haasan at a multiplex and didn’t really enjoy the experience.
“It was clinical, you could literally hear a pin drop because people are so conscious of what others will think. Even a comedy scene won’t be appreciated as it should. Here (at Aurora Talkies) it’s (like) freaking out. You can have filter coffee in a five-star hotel, but it will never taste as good as the filter coffee in a typical South Indian restaurant. We (Aurora Talkies) are that South Indian restaurant," he explained, adding fans can whistle, dance and clap as they please.
Of course, some things—such as throwing bouquets, coins and used lottery tickets at the screen —is discouraged. “The flowers get stuck and stain the screen, and the coins can hurt people if they are thrown hard," said Rajan, explaining that fans are requested to leave the bouquets outside.
Following his underwhelming experience at the multiplex, he had an opportunity to rethink his decision. “Within a month, Kuselan (2008) had released. I thought instead of keeping Aurora shut, we should open it for a Rajinikanth movie. My staff, around 40 people, requested that we should keep the cinema going till other plans materialise," he said.
“But it’s already been nine years. After that so many films came, Robot (Enthiran), Lingaa (2014), and so on. Next year, Robot 2.0 will release, hopefully we will still be open. Maybe, that will be our last film," Rajan said, before taking yet another call inquiring about tickets.