The Glory Days of Guwahati’s Kelvin Cinema
In this new series, G Plus takes a nostalgic ride back to the days when iconic cinema halls of Guwahati were the only “go to” places of entertainment. The focus in this issue is on Kelvin Cinema that was located at Tokobari.
When Jyoti Prasad completed the first Assamese film Joymoti in 1935, there were no regular cinema halls in the state. He had to screen the film in makeshift auditoriums, schools, godowns and theatre halls. The later stages saw quite a number of theatres coming up. In Guwahati, halls like the Choudhury Talkies and Rupasree on AT Road, Kelvin at Tokobari, Pragjyotish at Maligaon, Mayur Krishna at Fatasil Ambari, Urvasi and Bijuli at Fancy Bazar, had an immense capacity to pull movie buffs. But unfortunately, due to a few unavoidable reasons they could not continue to attract the same strong crowds as they had in the initial stages.
The story behind Kelvin cinema hall
Kelvin Cinema of Guwahati — the second cinema hall in the fledgling town — with an audience capacity of 302 persons who were to sit on chairs, benches and planks and enjoy the show, came into existence in 1935.
One hundred and twenty five years ago, a young man named Ganeshdas Goenka arrived in Assam all the way from Rajasthan by train, steamer and pony cart in search of a fortune. He chose to settle down in Shillong, the new administrative headquarters of Assam where no Marwari businessman had set foot till then. Soon Ganeshdas started exporting potatoes and ginger from Shillong to Calcutta. Business thrived and Ganeshdas got married in the process earning the distinction of being the first Marwari family in Shillong. He was blessed with two sons — Balchand and Jeevanram — who in course of time joined the family business. Jeevanram had many an innovative idea. He wanted to diversify their family business and venture into something new in Assam. He decided to start a cinema hall in Shillong after landing a contract of electric wiring of the governor’s house. His idea metamorphosed into the Kelvin Cinema — the first full-fledged cinema hall in Assam.
In 1895, Ganeshdas had purchased a plot of land measuring 2.2 bighas at Fancy Bazar, Guwahati for Rs 500 only. The plot had been lying vacant for nearly four decades. The successful run of the cinema hall in Shillong convinced Jeevanram into starting a similar venture in Guwahati. He and his new partner, Mr Unger, built a cinema hall on the vacant plot. And thus in 1935 came into existence Kelvin Cinema. Both halls, in Shillong and Guwahati, derived their names “Kelvin” from their movie projectors branded “Kelvin.” These were kerosene and petrol-run projector made in Germany which had been imported by Unger.
Unfortunately, unlike in Shillong, the Goenkas failed to run the Guwahati theatre very successfully and within two years it was leased out to a Bihari gentleman named Biajnath Chowdhury. The latter ran the business successfully for nearly two decades. Later, in 1956, the possession of the hall again passed into the hands of the Goenkas through litigation.
By that time the next generation of the Goenkas had come into the picture. Shankar Goenka and Mahavir Goenka now took up the Kelvin business in Guwahati and this started a fresh chapter in the history of the hall.
Since the 1940s, huge money was being poured into the film industry. The American and Allied soldiers stationed in the town lavishly spent in watching movies. Business spiraled. In 1956, a new Philips projector was installed replacing the old Kelvin but the hall retained its name. The first documentary on Laksminanth Bezbaroa too was released in this hall by Sri Bishnu Ram Medhi, ex chief minister of Assam.
Shankar Goenka, the sole proprietor of the house since 1982, recalls with pride some of the “firsts” that Kelvin Group of halls (which included Kelvin, Anjali and Bijou Talkies in Shillong and Kelvin Cinema of Guwahati) had achieved. They introduced the first cinemascope, the first “television”, first 70 mm screen in Assam. Matinee and noon shows first started at this very theatre. Shankar Goenka recollects, “Mughal-e-Azam was such a super-duper hit that we had to arrange an extra show to cope up with the rush.”
Kelvin also created some all-Assam records. This theatre has the unique distinction of screening the “single hall golden jubilee movie” among the cinema halls in Assam. Jai Santoshi Maa had a record 53 weeks uninterrupted run at this hall — the record remains unbroken in Assam till date. It was also the first theatre in town to screen an English movie. Dramatist and litterateur, Late Lakhyadhar Chowdhury, had said in an interview a few days before his death that he was introduced to the best of English movies at Kelvin Cinema.
There are many interesting anecdotes about the hall. When Jai Santoshi Maa was screened, the operators named Khoka and Bhimlal Singh performed pujas everyday in front of the huge cutouts of Goddess Santoshi before starting the machine.
The hall was also nicknamed “Silver Hall” in the film distribution circle as most of the movies released here from 1950s to 1970s celebrated silver jubilees — Aan, Kismat, Anarakali, Mughal-e-Azam — the list seems endless. One day when Nagin was being screened, two live snakes appeared in front of the screen. The news spread like wildfire through the town and the movie too had a silver jubilee.
Kelvin is indeed a part of Assam’s cinematic heritage. In recognition of his great contribution, Jeevanram Goenka was honoured with the title of Rai Bahadur by the British government in 1934 — he brought cinema to Assam.