Projecting Dreams

Tomomi Hayata interacts with Ayyasamy and Balu, film projection technicians at Guru Cinema, Madurai, and discovers that so much happens behind the scenes to ensure that the audience has a memorable viewing experience!

 A movie theatre is a house of dreams. The lights, the smell, the space… the entire atmosphere creates pure magic. You buy a ticket, take a seat and the lights dim. Then darkness settles and begins to cloak the entire space… it‘s time for entry into another world; either alone or shared with other people in the theatre. You may be happy, cry, worry, or even get bored! Whatever feelings you get are real, but the experience you witness on the screen is only a dream. You are in the dream only for a while, but people like film projector operators are people who live with the dream.

Every time I go to the movie theatre, I am fascinated by the projection room and curious to know how it functions. My dream came true here in Madurai. I interviewed two film operators, Ayyasamy (51) and Balu (50), working at the projection room of Guru Cinema. Ayyasamy has been working as an operator for thirty years and Balu for five years. Guru cinema in Madurai was renovated recently and now it has a SONY 4 K projector which no other theatre in India is equipped with.

I expected the projection room to be dusty and hot, but was pleasantly surprised to find it was clean and cool. There were three types of projectors; Sony 4K projector (the latest one), Photophone (the oldest one) and Qube. Operators had used Photophone, a manual projector with changing mono sound system to DTS and Dolby Sound system, for thirty years, and then started using automatic projectors, Qube with digital sound system and SONY 4K with HD vision. The shape of the 4K projector imported from Hong Kong is like a box, but the manual projector looks like a steam train, which is the perfect image for a movie theatre.

When the operators opened the cover of the manual projector, we saw a long stick inside. The manual projector is powered by the stick, which causes fire to come out. A film roll is then maximised through a cinema scope and extended to the full screen we watch the film on. Operators formerly used two manual projectors at the same time for one film because they needed to change the film rolls. They now use the 4K with a hard disk, not a film, and a touch panel system. They use a stick instead of their fingers, however, to touch the panel.

Within thirty years, the system of projectors has been improved and the tendencies of the audience and the film have changed from time to time. Ayyasamy, however, has consistently been watching everything that happens in the movie theatre. He tells us about his interest in film, his job, old memories and life working at the cinema.

“I have always been interested in watching movies. When I was a child, I often cut school classes and went to the theatre instead. I became an operator after finishing college when I was 21. I took training in Madras for a year and got a proper license because this is a dangerous proffession. The room was too hot to check the operation system when we used only manual projectors, but since 4K came, we need to put full air-conditioning on to protect it, so the room is now cool. We can’t hear the voices of the people in the audience because of 4K, but we could before. Before DTS system came, we used the manually operated sound system and speakers to bring out sound to the theatre. We observed the likes and dislikes of the audience so that we knew which scenes we had to adjust the sound levels for. So when we made sound, the audience expressed their joy or distaste through exclamatory shouts.

In 1985 while screening a film called ‘PRIYA’ starring the famous actor RAJINI KANTH, the projector suddenly stopped working properly, so the audience shouted and threw burgers at the screen. The police intervened and the movie began again after an hour”.

“The trends in movies change every year. Today’s films are technically better but the quality of the stories are getting worse. And today’s audience are well informed about sound systems due to the popularisation of the TV, so they sometimes tell us the sound quality in the theatre is not good.” Thirty years is a very long time, but Ayyasamy remembers many things. The very first film he operated in the theatre was the Tamil film ‚Udiripookal‘ in 1980. The last time he used the manual operator was 2002. The first 3D movie he operated was the Chinese film ‚Magnificent Bodyguards‘ in 1978. Of course, with foreign films such as ‚The New Cinema Paradise‘ he cut prohibited scenes that involved kissing with an editing machine.

Ayyasamy and Balu are individuals who are passionate about what the do. They remind me of the film projector technician in Cinema Paradiso. When I looked down to get a wide angle view of the theatre from the small window of the operator room, I was so excited and felt like I was in Cinema Paradiso. There is something fascinating to people about the theatre. You need to love cinema and to enjoy working with projectors to be a film operator. Ayyasamy showed us his notebook with the list of movies he operated in the theatre from 1980. Ayyasamy and Balu said that they are honored to be the first to operate QUBE and 4K in India. Yet they still have a certain attatchment to the manual projector. I asked Ayyasamy what career he would have pursued if he could not have become a film operator. “I don’t know,“ he said, „maybe I could have been a film director.” People like Balu and Ayyasamay work tireslessly behind the scenes to ensure that we have a memorable viewing experience in the theatre. So what if occasionally some slips happen?