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Coliseum: Championing the Independent Heritage Cinema

Indian films are keeping KL’s oldest cinema open, but for how much longer?

Story by Surekha Ragavan & Maya Tan

 

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The Coliseum theatre on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman is one of the oldest theatres in the country. Image by Adrian Yap

 

The atmosphere is usually electric with anticipation. It begins while you queue for a ticket and hope that you’ll get one before the show begins or sells out. While waiting, you’re eyeing the snack bar where sunflower seeds or ‘kuaci’, ‘kacang puteh’ (the term used for groundnuts or other types of nuts sold in newspaper cones), pickled fruit or fresh fruit, and Polar Mints, Hudsons, or Hacks sold in stapled plastic packs of five, are being peddled. All around you people are chatting excitedly.

Inside the plush red velvet theatre, you have either bought a First Class ticket (cheaper seats downstairs) or a slightly more expensive Reserved Class ticket (balcony upstairs); it’s all very diplomatic and everybody wins. ‘Kuaci’ skins litter the floor, and you are encouraged to add more to the collection once you’re settled into your seat. An attendant will check your stub and direct you to your seat, using a flashlight to light your path and illuminate your seats. Depending on the era, the hall may be cooled with ceiling fans or air conditioners. The smell of Minyak Cap Kapak (a mentholated oil) is likely to permeate the air − the cause, aunties who have anointed their temples to ward off the headache that the cool air may bring.

For close to a century, going to the cinema has been a favourite Malaysian pastime. But back in the day, watching a film in the Coliseum Theatre in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman was a special affair. The Coliseum experience warranted a trip to Downtown KL, and it was the first to premier many a Tamil/Hindi film, which even in the early days of the theatre, were all the rage.  

 

Last Man Standing

The cinema was constructed in 1920 by Chua Cheng Bok. Built in the style of Art Deco, the theatre boasted 900 seats and featured a balcony. Right next door, the Coliseum Cafe and Hotel − notorious hangout of author, William Somerset Maugham, during his stay in British Malaya − presided.

The Coliseum is also the longest standing cinema with uninterrupted operations in the country (with the exception of the Japanese occupation in World War II.) Other cinemas such as The Majestic in Pudu and the Lido in Brickfields have been toppled by new developments. The Pavilion and Cathay cinemas were converted into parking lots and now sit at the site of the upcoming Bukit Bintang Sentral MRT station. The Capitol is now a giant warehouse and a stone’s throw away, the Federal Cinema on Jalan Raja Laut (closed for many years, even moonlighting as a bar at one point) only recently reopened its doors in 2015. Legend has it, the Rex cinema in Jalan Sultan, Chinatown, was haunted by a ghost and the operators would keep one specific seat covered and unsold at all times. It is now a hostel; good luck to them.

In 2006, the Malaysian government proposed a conversion of the theatre into a centre for cultural heritage. The public made such a big hue and cry over it that the government decided instead to build a car park nearby. Dr. Chua Seong Siew, nephew of the founder, had successfully appealed for the theatre to remain open, and so it continued to operate. However, he only lived to see the theatre open for another year, passing away in 2007.

 

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Independent cinemas like The Coliseum are a dying breed. Image by Adrian Yap

 

A question of survival

What has historically enabled the theatre to thrive is mostly the premiering of Bollywood and Tamil/Hindi movies. However, fast forward to the present, and independent cinemas like these are a dying breed. Despite the public outcry over the conversion of the cinema, as more consumers buy into the pre-packaged experience of the one-stop shopping mall, complete with multi-screen cineplexes, small cinemas like the Coliseum depend mostly on Indian audiences.

“Only the Indian people like the old [experience],” says P. Gopal, programming manager at Lotus Five Star Cinema (LFS). “The Chinese and Malays are not coming in. They prefer to go to the big chains.” From looking around at the newly refurbished lobby we observe how ironic it is that floor-to-ceiling posters featuring Malay movie stars from P. Ramlee to Awie adorn the columns and walls.

LFS is a film distributor and cinema operator that buys the royalties to screen a large number of Tamil Indian films in Malaysia. Since 2012, the company has been leasing the Coliseum, and operating the cinema. Due to competition from the influx of large cinema chains such as Golden Screen Cinemas (GSC) and Tanjong Golden Village (TGV) in the last few decades, LFS has had to scale down the number of English and Malay-language films screened at their cinemas. Out of their 25 cinemas nationwide, 10 exclusively screen Tamil films, with the most prominent being the Coliseum,  State Cineplex in PJ and Sentul Cineplex.

Of the three, the Coliseum boasts the longest and most illustrious history. State Cineplex PJ pales in comparison, despite being built 40 years ago and enjoying a previous incarnation as a church, and the Sentul Cineplex is a mere 30 years young. The Coliseum’s clientele has altered a lot over the years, moving from an adoring mainstream audience to now catering to the Indian nationals who live and work in the Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman area, and despite the established history of Indian cinemas, the question of survival remains.

 

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The State cinema in Petaling Jaya is one of the last remaining independent cinemas. Image by Adrian Yap

 

According to Gopal, every movie is a gamble; some make profits, while others make losses. It all depends on one thing: star quality.

“We rank the movies according to grade A, B or C,” Gopal says. “Grade A is Kamal Hassan, Rajinikanth or Surya − the blockbusters. Movies with Vishal or Prabhu go under Grade B. The small stars are just fillers; sometimes we drop these films in just one week.”  

Aside from ultra-famous Indian actors, Malaysian cinemagoers also tend to gravitate towards comedy and romance, also known as the ‘masala’ genre. “They go to the cinema for entertainment,” Gopal justifies. The prices of film royalties depend on the grades they fall under; a potential chartbuster may cost up to a few million ringgit to acquire.

 

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Stand-alone cinemas have to work hard to play catch-up. Image by Adrian Yap

 

Extending the Life of the Coliseum

In order to keep the cinema alive, and as film technology advances, stand-alone cinemas have to work hard to play catch-up. It is so for the Coliseum. Formerly utilising a 35mm film projector with carbon arc lamps, they have now switched to a 2D digital projector. The old projectors − some of which are valued at RM100,000 − have gone to scrap. “Film is bulky, and you have to think about storage,” says Gopal, who also used to work as a projectionist in the late 1970s.

Apart from the projection room, LFS also gave the Coliseum an interior makeover about four years ago. The original 900-seater single-screen theatre has been twinned to accommodate the ability to screen more films simultaneously, with contoured chairs for more comfortable viewing, and a snack bar that has ditched the ‘kuaci’ for popcorn.

But renovating within the walls of a building as fragile as Coliseum was no easy task. “The structure is quite weak. So if you want to hack the wall, it might affect the exterior,” says Mohamed Shah, the LFS project manager who oversaw the renovations. The job took around four months and cost RM2 million.

“Now the Coliseum has been officially declared a heritage building, nobody can touch it,” he adds.

Despite this, the cinemas are not treated with the care that the operators hoped for. Unruly moviegoers would tear up seats with car keys and vandalise the bathrooms. The problem was more apparent during blockbuster screenings, but the situation is improving.

“Out of 10 movie screenings, we used to get 10 incidents of vandalism. Nowadays, it’s only two or three movies out of 10,” he says.

“Now the Coliseum has been officially declared a heritage building, nobody can touch it,” - Mohamed Shah, LFS

The Black Market

When a Bollywood or Tamil blockbuster descends, demand is extremely high, sometimes exceeding the capacity of the cinemas. Before online ticketing systems were implemented at LFS, it was tough-going for audiences to score tickets for big movies, especially during festive seasons such as Deepavali. This became an opportunity for ticket racket to exist, with a group of scalpers buying 100 tickets at a time for resale at higher prices.

“They come in a team of five and they would say ‘okay you buy 100, I buy 100’,” Gopal says. “Sometimes they would resell the tickets for double the price.”

 

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The Coliseum theatre which once boasted a 900-seater has been split into two halls by the new management, Lotus Five Star Cinema. Image by Adrian Yap

 

The Future is Uncertain

While audiences can now flock to the big chain cinema to avoid cases of disorderly behaviour or scalpers, there are loyal film buffs who are enamoured with the ambience and festive atmosphere of the standalone cinema.

M.S. Prem Nath, a Malaysian filmmaker and editor fondly recalls the jeers and cheers during a 2005 screening of Chandramukhi, a Rajinikanth blockbuster. “It was really packed and people were shouting and cheering. As a filmmaker, I’d rather watch a Tamil film in GSC or TGV because of the sound system, but for ambience, nothing beats an Indian crowd,” he says.

The experience is culturally characteristic of cinemas in north and south India. According to Prem, it is customary to see audiences clapping, laughing loudly, wolf-whistling, and if Hrithik Roshan were to make an appearance -- dancing.

Despite the enthusiasm and the charm of the standalone, the convenience and preference of today’s cinemagoers for the modern cineplex is a real threat. Will standalone Indian cinemas eventually die a quiet death?

Prem certainly hopes not. “If there are no more standalone cinemas, the local Tamil movie industry will be affected. First of all, as a targeted venue to show our films, and second, we use these cinemas as a measure to see how many people are watching Tamil movies, and to gauge how well a movie is doing.”

Gopal is pessimistic, believing that while curtains cannot be predicted for standalones like The Coliseum just yet, the number of small independent theatres will flatline at best.

 

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The Majestic Theatre in George Town, Penang was recently rejuvenated, launching with community screenings of Malaysian films at RM1 per ticket. Image courtesy of The Majestic Theatre

 

“The truth is , no one is going to open another stand-alone cinema,” he says. “There will be large cineplexes everywhere. Who knows how many shopping malls will come with 20 screens, 3D effects and all that?”

 

Gopal makes a valid point. While George Town, which has come to life with the many efforts in urban rejuvenation taking place in the past eight to 10 years, has seen the re-opening of the Majestic theatre, in the same heritage building, with community screenings of Malaysian films,  charging a mere RM1 -- standalone cinemas, historical or otherwise may not be popping up at a rapid rate.

With isolated viewing experiences on the internet, on demand in one hand, and 360 degree experiences in the other, perhaps the way for independent cinemas to survive is to offer the latest in technology such as virtual reality, and in truly keeping up with the times no matter how incongruous that may be to its heritage.

 

This story was produced in collaboration with Poskod.my.

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