The Assembly Rooms cinema hall in Ooty reopened on Friday after being shut for more than eight months in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In a time when many theatres across India are closing, the 136-year-old theatre, which is also Ooty’s oldest, was revamped during the hiatus.
Inaugurated by the District Collector of the Nilgiris, Innocent Divya, the cinema hall now has a new compound wall built around it that showcases iconic scenes from classic movies on LED-display instalments. Divya is also the ex-officio President of Assembly Rooms.
D Radhakrishnan, the honorary Secretary of Assembly Rooms, tells Silverscreen India that audiences can now book tickets online. He said, “We had been pondering for some time but it is also very closely related to Covid. It helps with social distancing. We thought that we should do it with this reopening as it will help keep people apart. People who are extra cautious can book online and come.”
While Assembly Rooms is a service-oriented institution maintained by a public Trust, lack of revenue during the pandemic had affected the cinema hall just like it has affected private theatre, said Radhakrishnan. Further, he said that ticket prices had to be raised to Rs 100, 80 and 60 in order to cover the SOP requirements including masks and provide better services. Despite the price hike, Assembly Rooms would be the kind of an institution that many people would be able to identify with, he said.
Assembly Rooms was bought by Lady Willingdon in 1886, who bequeathed it to the people of Ooty in 1922. Due to its British origins, Assembly Rooms has predominantly been an English movies-only theatre. It thus reopened with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
It is only over the last two decades that the cinema hall has begun to screen Tamil and Hindi films.
While movies like 10 commandments, the entire James Bond gamut, Guns of Navarone, Longest Day, Love Story, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and To Sir, with Love, made for iconic screenings for Assembly Rooms, several Shah Rukh Khan films as well as films like Petta and Darbar have been screened more recently.
As an ode to Assembly Rooms’ iconic screenings, Radhakrishnan carefully handpicked a select few movies, including Sound of Music, Ben Hur, Enter the Dragon, Titanic and Mackenna’s Gold, to put on display on the newly built LED display wall. The wall also pays tribute to late actor Sean Connery.
The entire project, which cost approximately about Rs 38 lakh, has been built in such a way that if there is any necessity to change the pictures on display, they can be taken down and other images can be featured, said Radhakrishnan. “It becomes a sort of selfie spot, people can just stand in front of the LED boards or in front of their favourite actors,” he added.
Calling it the Wall of Fame, Radhakrishnan said, “The location of the theatre is on Garden Road. Garden Road is Ooty’s best known road. With the garden being the main attraction in Nilgiris, the road has the largest tourist flow. So we thought that if we keep this display then the road itself gets a value addition.”
According to Radhakrishnan, the key to keeping up with the times while preserving something’s historical value is to strike the right balance. “People should be able to connect with the theatre. They should not feel that they are walking into some modern complex. A sense of belonging should always be there,” he said.
In a bid to preserve the memories of the past, a museum was built in front of the theatre hall in 2017 featuring old film paraphernalia, including a 1954 vintage Bauer projector. Radhakrishnan said, “When we moved from analogue to digital in 2015, I asked somebody in Coimbatore that I didn’t know what to do with the projector and he said that he will take it for Rs 10,000 scrap value. It angered me. Immediately, we decided we will go for a museum.”
Radhakrishnan believes that there are no other institutions like Assembly Rooms in the entire country. That’s why he thinks future generations should continue to keep it going. “People, when they come to Ooty, should look forward to seeing Assembly Rooms. Cinema is changing so much. We don’t know what is going to happen in the future. People should know how we made movies and how we screened movies,” he said.
In the four days of reopening, Assembly Rooms saw only around 30 to 35 people fill the 344-seat auditorium. “With the mandatory 50 per cent occupancy rate, we cannot expect a lot of people,” said Radhakrishnan. However, Radhakrishnan feels more people will visit.
Assembly Rooms has always been treated as the collective property of the people of Ooty, said Radhakrishnan. He added, “To many if they don’t visit Assembly Rooms, their week or day is not complete. Assembly Rooms is a way of life in Ooty.”