Sitting under the stars: What is it like to see a movie at the IIT Madras Open Air Theater?

Staying behind with umbrellas in the rain to an unexpected but dramatic performance by a deer, what’s it like to see a movie at the IIT Madras Open Air Theatre?

Staying behind with umbrellas in the rain to an unexpected but dramatic performance by a deer, what’s it like to see a movie at the IIT Madras Open Air Theatre?

A huge wall was the only witness to the seasons and numerous IITians who graduate from Chennai every year. This long-standing wall, kissed on either side by the shabby branches of the trees and embraced by the hum of the wind, lights up once a week with moving images that cast luminous shadows on their viewers.

It is often said that cinemas provide the means for a collaborative viewing experience. But the IIT-M’s little-known Open Air Theater (OAT) takes the argument further: sitting under the stars on a moonlit evening to watch a Hollywood blockbuster or an Indian masala Film has its own appeal. In the case of a boring movie, you have the luxury of lying still and gazing at the stars and singing in unison with the evening birds. If you’re lucky, a blackbuck might even crash the movie.

When a film is played at OAT, nothing stops the showing. Not even the rain. There were cases where people stayed behind with open umbrellas. (This is where some of your wildest date night dreams come true!)

But nothing beats the palpable thrill and collective high that swept the campus during the 2011 World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka when Dhoni scored the last ball six. It was perhaps the first time a cricket match was projected at OAT for the campus folks. This is just a veritable treasure trove of memories one would associate with OAT.

The space was closed for renovations just before the pandemic. Now, two years later, the theater has reopened for screenings with the recently released film Samrat Prithviraj as the opening film. “We haven’t renovated the theater for a long time and then the lockdown came. Now that things are getting back to normal, we thought we should start showing films again and the students are back on campus too,” said Jitendra Sangwai, who took over as president of the Film Screening Club, IIT-M, last month Has.

As a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Jitendra’s role as president is to ensure smooth operations – from selecting films and absorbing suggestions from students and staff to overseeing finances and negotiating with local distributors.

A short story

Designed after the Roman amphitheater, OAT has a 6,000-seat capacity with a central stage measuring 120ft x 80ft with a 50ft wide x 24ft high screen. It has four entrance and exit gates: main, family, student and garden gate.

Thanks to the German-Indian cooperation during the Cold War, the IIT-M was founded in 1959. However, the foundation for OAT was laid by Dr. Heinrich Lübke, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, when he visited the institute on December 3, 1962, also marking the inauguration of the theater.

The original idea of ​​the OAT was to act as a common space for institute-related events and special occasions. Movies were originally shown on Sundays, which was later changed to Saturdays at 8pm. Until the construction of the Students Activities Center (SAC) in 1983, OAT served as a place for meetings and institute days. Highlighting the importance of the then newly established OAT, the first director of the IIT-M, Prof. B. Sengupto, said: “The stage is for group performances, folk dances, acrobatics and games such as basketball, volleyball, badminton and tennis. It was lit to hold these games at night and also to show movies.”

There is no clear picture about the very first film shown at OAT. But thanks to S Ramanathan, born in 1969, who wrote the list of films in his diary, it is known that classics such as born yesterday (1950), Choose M for Murder (1954), Operation Underskirt (1959) and The Anatomy of Murder (1959) were among the earliest films to be screened. It can be assumed that the institute mainly showed English films in the early years.

The convocation and institute day were then held in the OAT

The convocation and institute day were then held in the OAT | Photo credit: Heritage Centre, IIT Madras

It’s show time

The IIT-M campus is a microcosm where multiple cultures and languages ​​meet, and for this reason regional language films are treated equally. A typical schedule in the OAT calendar looks like this: a Hindi film in the first week, while the second and fourth weeks are usually reserved for English. The third week is for Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam. If there is a fifth Saturday, a children’s film – either animation or fantasy – will be shown.

There is an active Student Film Club that works closely with the Film Screening Club. “We give out a form asking students to vote if three good films come out on the same day and we have to decide which one to take. But that is rare,” says Ajay Singh Sitole, student general secretary of the Film Screening Club.

However, the selection is based on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) ratings that are above seven. ‘R’ and ‘A’ certified films are mostly avoided unless there is significant interest. “Our selection is based on the entertainment factor. We try to avoid controversial films as it’s mostly a family-friendly audience,” says Jitendra.

“We have to make the schedule for a month ourselves in the first week. Once we have the films finished we have to decide which distributor to contact and if they would be willing to give a print that particular week and so on. Our screenings depend on all of this,” says C. Rajendran, Secretary of the Film Screening Club.

A blueprint of the OAT

A blueprint of the OAT | Photo credit: Heritage Centre, IIT Madras

Rajendran joined as projectionist in 2001 and stayed until 2011. The projector was converted from reel to digital in 2011 and since 2013 OAT have been using a 2K projector with DTS sound system.

While screenings are largely limited to students, staff, and residents, the institute allows guests who do not have a membership card. There are over 2,000 membership cards issued to students paying £25 each month, in addition to cards issued to staff and faculty.

oats during the day

OATS during the day | Photo credit: Srivatsan S

Jitendra says they spend between £15,000 and £25,000 plus GST on film rights, which works out to around US$1,500,000 a month. “This is for students and we don’t make profits. The remaining money is put into a fixed deposit with the Film Screening Club, which we use for other purposes. We have an annual maintenance contract for the projector and sound system which costs over two lakhs a year.”

OAT is ultimately a bioscope of campus life. “There is always interest, especially among older students. They often share their fondest memories of OAT,” says Jitendra.

With contributions from Heritage Centre, IIT-M

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