Nostalgia Barely anyone in Coimbatore remembers Samikannu Vincent, a pioneer of motion picture industry in South India. His eldest grandson, Winfred Paul, recounts the days when Coimbatore was a cinema hub


E xactly 10 years after the Lumiere Brothers screened their first film in Paris, a 21-year-old man from Coimbatore ushered in the film movement in Tamil Nadu, silently. A draftsman-clerk of the South Indian Railways in Tiruchi who earned just Rs.25 a month, he got a taste for silent films from a French film exhibitor named Du Pont. In the middle of February in 1905, when the Frenchman fell ill and had to return to Europe, this youngster raised Rs. 2,250 with great difficulty, bought the touring cinema set from Du Pont, and made history as a pioneer of the motion picture industry in South India. This young man was SamiKannu Vincent (18 April 1883 to 22 April 1942) born here in Kottaimedu in Coimbatore.

Resigning from his job, he took his touring cinema to places as far as Lahore and Peshawar, Myanmar (Burma then) and Afghanistan. He erected tents close to a town, which attracted large crowds. He travelled all over Asia and established the first theatre in his home town Coimbatore — the Variety Hall Talkies in 1914. This became the first theatre in South India that fell under the then Madras Province that included Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra and parts of Karnataka. So, it was the people of Coimbatore who experienced the magic of movies early on. Variety Hall Talkies is now Delite theatre.

“My grandfather knew only English and Tamil but he travelled extensively,” says Winfred Paul, Samikannu's eldest grandson. Those were the days of silent movies. A person with a microphone explained the sequences that unfolded on the screen, and people sat on sand floors and watched in awe. Chairs were put up only for important people.

At Winfred Paul's house in Kalapatti, his wife Amali Winfred serves us fizzy Vincent Crush, from the soda company on Trichy Road, also started by Samikannu Vincent. A photograph of the illustrious man graces the wall and carries a citation alongside. It says “ ‘Nulla Dies Sine Linea', meaning ‘not a day without something done'”. He lived by this thought. He brought electricity to the city in 1922 and lighted up V.H. Road.

He started Electric Printing Works in a house near his theatre to print quality handbills using the cinema house's electric power plant. “Freedom fighter S. Subramania Gounder of Pollachi used to print pamphlets at his press,” says Winfred. Vincent started the first power-driven rice and flour mill and controlled everything from his Variety Hall Palace which he built next to the theatre. An early riser, he would take the passage from his home that connected his various establishments, and conduct surprise checks on his employees. A stickler for perfection, he always dressed in whites, in a suit with a hat, and with his arms crossed behind him, walked the corridors of the palace. About 30 family members lived in the palace.

He partnered with Central Studios and produced Valli Thirumanam, a roaring success. “Kalaignar Karunanidhi used to stay at the studios and take a horse drawn carriage to watch films at V.H.Talkies,” Winfred says. His grandfather had a fleet of cars that included a Studebaker, a Maurice Minor, a Ford, a Chevrolet and an Austin. “Every Friday in the backyard of the palace an elephant from the Perur temple would be fed. Rice and vegetables boiled in big andaas would be served to the elephant.” Samikannu Vincent also conducted magic shows much to the chagrin of the Church.

He was very fond of children. “Once, I fell into the fountain well at the entrance of the V.H. Talkies. A gardener rescued me and my mom who had jumped in after me to save me. My grandfather gifted the gardener a gold chain and declared a holiday for the theatre that day.”

Samikannu Vincent set up Touring Talkies under Vincent Forces Cinema on Trichy Road to entertain the British soldiers, who camped at the Madukkarai Battalion during war. “The tent would go up in the evenings. The projector moved on a trolley and English films were screened. The soldiers travelled in a bus, which was largely a skeleton body with wooden planks and steel rods. You can see the bus at G.D Naidu museum,” Winfred says. The canteen served half-boiled eggs, roasted bread, black tea and black coffee to suit the British palate. Samikannu started 12 theatres in the city. The Rainbow theatre was set up on a lease agreement with the English Club. It screened English films. It was at Light House theatre on R.S. Puram, that Damodarasamy Naidu of Annapoorna made a small beginning with a canteen. It is now Kennedy theatre. Variety Hall Talkies screened a number of Hindi movies starring Dilip Kumar, which were big hits. Edison and Carnatic screened Tamil movies. At Winfred Paul's residence, his grandfather's majestic 1.5 tonne mirror framed in teak wood (shipped from Belgium), artistic elephant face stands, teak chairs, a 1914 wall clock, and a laundry basket in rosewood, echoes the Victorian age. Winfred Paul says Coimbatore resembled a village and Trichy Road, V.H.Road, Avinashi Road and Jail Road were the arterial roads. “Brooke Bond Road was called Palm Trees Road because palm trees dotted the place. There were maize fields everywhere. People walked everywhere. Royal Enfield motorbikes were owned only by the landlords,” he recalls. He remembers the funeral procession of his grandfather in 1942. “There was hailstorm in the city and ice pellets damaged the window panes.”

Despite everything, Samikannu Vincent is barely remembered in the annals of cinema and in the memoirs of Coimbatore. There is no memorial for him in Coimbatore. The legal heirs of the family erected his statue at V.H. Palace, which was however removed as the theatre changed hands. Says Winfred, “The statue is now at my uncle's house in Ramanathapuram. A fitting tribute would be to re-erect it on V.H. Road, the place which marked the birth of cinema in Coimbatore.”

(As told to K. JESHI)

Watching ball room parties at Palace Theatre which now functions as Naaz. The screen was replaced with music orchestra, English music filled the air and the Englishmen danced with their partners all through the night on the glistening marble chip floors. It was not open for outsiders but as owners we used to watch the dance from the Box room.
He travelled all over Asia and established the first theatre in his home town Coimbatore — the Variety Hall Talkies in 1914
Winfred Paul Born on August 19, 1932 at the Vincent Palace on V. H. Road is the son of Rajambal, the first and eldest daughter of Samikannu Vincent. After schooling, he worked at the Government District Board Office and later at a private textile mill. As a child he remembers watching a movie in parts over a period of a week as they owned the theatres. Other than films, his passions include driving about in his grandfather's Austin. He has a keen interest in the electrical and mechanical aspects of movie projectors.