Nostalgia struck me when I read a Facebook post by a very senior alumni of our school about the movie – The Guns of Navarone. It was the second English movie I watched in my life. The first English movie was Mackenna’s Gold. The next English movie was Where Eagles Dare.
When I joined the school in 1971, I knew only Malayalam and English was all alien. The ‘scary’ scenes in all these movies ensured that I closed my eyes and slept off in 15 minutes. I later watched all these classics.
A movie was screened every Saturday, Tamil, Hindi, English and occasionally a Malayalm movie. The swimming pool doubled up as an open-air movie theatre with the viewers sitting on the stadium steps, and the screen placed on the opposite side of the swimming pool. Later, the old Senior Cadets’ Mess was converted into a movie theatre. The cadets had early dinner on Saturday at 7 PM and the screening commenced at 8 PM – after it became dark.
Mr P Gurumoorthy, our Mathematics Teacher, an expert in local liaison, was responsible for procuring the movie and the late Mr PT Cherian, our Physics Teacher was responsible for the screening. To read more about Mr PT Cherian, please click here.
Mr Gurumoorthy was better known as the Naval Officer in the National Cadets Corps. The sight of him in his crisp white Naval uniform was the main motivating factor for many of our friends choosing to opt for the Indian Navy at the National Defence Academy. He was instrumental in I choosing the Indian Navy as my first option, but the medical authorities decided that I was fit for the Army only.
The projector used then was RCA Photophone 35mm which used a carbon arc to throw the image of the celluloid film on to the big screen. Today’s digital screening had not come in. The movies came in reels – each reel 1000 feet long, running for about ten minutes. The Indian movies were generally of 16 reels, running for about two and a half hours and English movies about 10 to 12 reels, of about 90 minutes to two hours. The reels of a movie were enclosed in steel boxes and were physically transported from theatre to theatre, often by bus or train.
To reduce cost of production and keeping in mind commercial viability, a Tamil movie was released in about 25 cities/ towns of Tamil Nadu. Theatres in Udumalpet (Udumalaippettai,) the closest town to Amaravathi Nagar – about 25 km away – hardly ever received a new release Tamil movie. It featured in the ‘Second-Run’ towns – that meant that a Tamil movie was screened a month or two after its release. English and Hindi movies came mostly six months to year, many much later, after their release.
English and Hindi movies ran as morning shows on Saturdays and Sundays at Udumalpet theatres. After the Saturday’s morning show, the reels were despatched by bus to Amaravathi Nagar and was screened in the evening. Sunday morning, the first bus carried the reels back to Udumalpet, in time for the theatre to screen their Sunday morning show.
Tamil movies were screened in Udumalpet theatres as regular shows – matinee (3 to 5:30 PM), first show (6 to 8:30 PM) and second show (9:30 PM to midnight.) Now how to get those reels to far away Amaravathi Nagar on a Saturday evening when the movie was playing its regular shows?
After the movie played its first five reels, it was loaded into the bus on its last trip at 7 PM from Udumalpet and the bus reached Amaravathi Nagar a few minutes before 8 PM. As the swimming pool was very close to the bus-stand, the screening commenced immediately thereafter.
Mr Menon on his Bullet Motorcycle, stationed at the theatre in Udumalpet, carried the next six reels at 8 PM and reached Amaravathi Nagar by 8:30 PM. He returned with the reels played till then to Udumalpet, in time for the theatre to commence their second show. Then he carried the last six reels to Amaravathi Nagar and returned them after screening. What an idea Sir Ji!!!!
How was any delay in this clock-work precise operation covered? Mr Gurumoorthy had an answer. The local theatre had bits and pieces of song and dance sequences and fight scenes, cut out from reels of Hindi and English movies. These were screened to keep the viewers engaged, as Mr Menon raced to the theatre with fresh reels.
Veteran Colonel T Ravi (Roll No 556) reminisces:- ‘Prior to 1969, the school had only a 16 mm projector. The movies were all ‘black and white’ English movies. Maybe, there were no Tamil and Hindi movies available in that format.
That time, Chera, Chola, Pandya and Bharathi Houses dined in the longish shed. Bigger strength Pallava and Valluvar Houses dined in the Boxing Arena. On Saturdays, if a movie was to be screened, we had to pick up our chairs after lunch and deposit them on the lawn that existed between the two sheds. The mess staff took out the dining tables and made seating arrangement for viewing the movie. Dinner was served outside.
90% of 5th and 6th Graders fell asleep as soon as the movie started. For one, we were tired, and the other, we could not understand the language. Subtitles and close captioning were not heard of or seen. The film strips often broke or Mr Cherian had to change the spool with the help of his lab assistant Manuel. He switched on a lamp he had on his switch board, and wake us from the slumber. After the movie was over, we were woken up and sleep walked back to the dorms.
Sometime in 1969, a 35 mm projector was installed in the swimming pool and the first movie to be screened was Sivaji Ganesan & Jayalalitha starrer ‘Enga Mama’ – remake of Hindi Film Brahmachari) The students sat on the bleachers, while the Staff sat on the top arena. We started watching movies in Eastman color. Since it was an outdoor pool, the movie screening was dependent on weather. Some evenings the movie show was cancelled even while we were eating our early dinner of tomato rice and kaajaa. There have been occasions we had to scoot half way through the movie, due to unexpected showers.
Apparently, around 1974, the movie screening moved back to the good old ‘longish’ shed, but with a proper projection room and 180 degree change in the viewing direction – with the stage now becoming the balcony.
Some of the daring 11th Graders (senior most then) sometimes sneaked off to Udumalpet on a Saturday evening, watch a movie, sleep in the bus stand and return on Sunday morning. Not many attempted this risky business, anyway.’
Veteran General PM Hariz (Roll No 579) writes:- ‘Whilst watching 16 mm movies like No Man is an Island – a 1962 war film about the exploits of George Ray Tweed, a US Navy radioman who avoided capture and execution by the Japanese during World War II; Sinbad the Sailor – a 1947 fantasy film about the daredevil sailor Sinbad, who embarks on a voyage across the Seven Seas to find the lost riches of Alexander the Great; etc, changing of reels took some time. This dead time was for the singing talents to pelt a few numbers. I vividly recollect Om Prakash (Roll No 285)- our short hockey wizard – singing ‘Asman sey aaya farishta’ and using the reel cover as the dhol (drum.)‘
Movie watching at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar will forever linger in the minds of all its alumni.