The Story of A Man Who Built Five Cinemas


Veerappa Alagu Caruppiah

by Dr A.C.Visvalingam

In or about 1904, Mr R.Copland, the then Superintendent of Nichola Oya Estate, Rattota, who hailed from Dumfries in Scotland, was so impressed with the mechanic-cum-building contractor who used to attend to mechanical repairs and building construction on this plantation that he gave him a small block of land near the factory to set up a workshop. This contractor’s name was Veerappa Alagu. In next to no time, Alagu had built a workshop and living quarters on this block for himself and his family. What is more, he installed a penstock to bring water from a much higher, perennial streamlet to power a second-hand Pelton turbine that was connected to a lathe, a fan-driven blacksmith’s furnace, power hacksaw, stand drill, grinder and electricity generator. In other words, he had built a well-equipped workshop to deal rapidly with whatever tasks were assigned to him.

His wife was a fair, beautiful girl of 13-years when they wed. She gave him eight children of whom the second, born on 11 December 1902, was a boy whom they named Caruppiah. This child went to the tiny estate school and completed only the third year Tamil class because that was as far as there was to go there. Caruppiah was highly intelligent, honest and hardworking like his father and, consequently, as he grew up into a young man, he was not only able to help Alagu in the workshop and the field but also managed to learn how to drive the estate lorry and soon got his license.

In the early 1920s, the Tamil film CHINTAMANI starring Aswaththamma as the leading lady was screened in a cinema in Matale. Caruppiah, with a few friends, walked about 12 miles (20km) up and down the intervening hills to see this film which was vastly popular with the local population for whom the cinema was still a great novelty. He was so taken up with this movie that he saw it several times and got it into head that he would build a cinema one day and enjoy seeing more films!

Mr Copland was transferred to Mayfield Estate, Hatton, in the mid-1920s and had become so reliant on Alagu to keep his estate’s roads, bridges and mechanical fixtures in good order that he persuaded the latter to come and settle down there. Alagu was given a small house, which, incidentally, is still in use. Here again, Alagu installed a penstock and Pelton turbine but utilized them only to power a small generator to provide electricity to the Superintendent’s bungalow and his own house.

Meanwhile, Caruppiah had built up the business at Nichola Oya so well on the sound foundation laid by Alagu that he was able to buy a second-hand Austin 7 and restore it to good running condition for his personal use.

Unfortunately, Alagu, an asthma patient, became progressively unable to cope with his work-load at Mayfield and, in 1928, persuaded Caruppiah, with his wife and son, to join him there. From this point onwards, it was Caruppiah’s next younger sibling Somasundaram who continued with the family business at Nichola Oya Estate until his own son Jeyakumar took over much later. Tragically, the entire workshop, house and car (as well as a house further down the slope, with a family of six people in it), were swept into the raging torrent below by a horrendous landslide on 18 December 2012. Following this disaster, the century-plus family link with Nichola Oya was broken forever.

Caruppiah was in the interesting position, when he got to Mayfield, of being one of the very few car-owners for miles around other than for Mr Copland. Incidentally, in addition to cinemas, cars, too, were a difficult-to-resist temptation for Caruppiah who, by the time the late 1940s arrived, owned four cars (Hudson Hornet, Humber Hawk, Standard Vanguard and Hillman) and a couple of British Army surplus Dodge trucks at the same time. Among the other cars he had owned earlier was a tiny "Bug" Fiat that he had fitted with an exhaust by-pass that made it sound like a racing car and gave it a power boost that used to startle the more staid drivers whom he overtook!

Caruppiah not only carried out all the minor civil and mechanical work on Mayfield and some neighbouring estates but also acted as Copland’s driver whenever called upon to do so. By the time 1935 arrived, Caruppiah had added another four children to his family. In September 1935, his father Alagu died. In what was probably a quite unique gesture at a time when there was a huge gulf between their white "masters" and the local population, Copland released a small burial plot on high ground on which Caruppiah built a granite tomb for Alagu, with a steel chain enclosure and an engraved headstone. Copland had his own name added to the headstone as a mark of his regard for Alagu. The coffin was made by Sammy-baas (one of Caruppiah’s employees) entirely out of Burma teak of which Caruppiah always had a stock. The granite work was done by a couple of South Indian artisans who had come to work at the Sri Dalada Maligawa! The heavy steel chains have now disappeared and some of the lettering on the headstone has been adversely affected by weathering but the rest of the tomb, including the stub columns on which the chains were hung, is still intact.

Whilst living at Mayfield, Caruppiah’s wife, Parvathy, kept bothering him to build a compact house in Hatton for their growing family so that they could get close to a decent school or two. Hatton was then a rather small town but had two passably good schools – St.John Bosco’s and Methodist High School. Caruppiah, having accumulated savings of about Rs.3,000/-, purchased a quarter-acre block of land at the point where the road to Mayfield takes off from the main Kandy-Hatton road. Telling Parvathy that he was building a house, he quietly went about constructing a cinema! Parvathy repeatedly asked to see how the work on the house was progressing because it seemed to be taking rather a long time to complete. When he could no longer give any more excuses, he took her to see the partly-completed edifice. When she protested at the excessive size of the "house", he just said: "We have five children and will probably have a few more; so we shall need a large house". In fact, by 1953, as foreseen by him, Caruppiah and Parvathy had become parents to six boys and five girls.

Not having had much schooling and no formal technical training, Caruppiah made full use of his good powers of observation and recall. Whenever he used to get a chance to visit a large building or small bridge, he used to memorize the configuration of steel trusses and girders in relation to their spans. By virtue of this skill, he was able to fabricate all the steelwork required for a typical cinema hall without the benefit of detailed drawings. It was always fascinating to watch him cut out the polygonal gusset plates required at the junctions of trusses where the steel structural members from different directions had to be connected. The holes in the steelwork were not drilled but punched out using a very heavy C-shaped steel punching tool. All connections were bolted because welding with acetylene/oxygen torches was far too slow and expensive.

Caruppiah was wedded to high quality work. He bought his concrete mixers, tools, structural steel and other building material from the most reputed firms of that time, such as Colombo Commercial Co, Walker Sons & Co, Walker & Greig, Brown & Co, Hunters, Abdul Cader Rawther & Co and A.C.Paul. For other quality items, he went to Apothecaries, Cargills, Millers and so on. His lawyers were M/s Julius & Creasy, Sri Lanka’s top law firm. When it came to high construction standards, he designed, built and used a rotating drum-shaped device to wash away the silt from the aggregate and sand that he used in making compressed cement-sand blocks and concrete mixes. He made himself a superb, manually-operated cement:sand block-making machine that was used to make solid blocks of consistent dimensions and density for his cinemas and his own house. When in Colombo, he used to lunch at the Pagoda or have an early afternoon "high tea" at the Grand Oriental Hotel.

Quite early on after starting work on his first cinema, Caruppiah ran through all his savings much more quickly than he had anticipated and was compelled to go to a well-known money-lending estate owner (Mr V.Sandanam of Gondennawa Estate) to keep his project going. Although the rate of interest charged, on account of Caruppiah’s lack of collateral, was three per cent a month, Caruppiah’s financier had great faith in him and allowed the debt to grew to Rs.60,000/- or so by the time the cinema was completed and equipped with Westrex 35mm film projection equipment. Caruppiah then went, with great expectations and hopes, to get films on hire from Ceylon Theatres Ltd (hereinafter referred to as "CT"), which, in 1936 was the only big importer of English, Tamil and other movie films. He got the shock of his life when he was told that CT was not willing to hire films out to him but would be interested only in leasing the cinema, named Princes Theatre, at Rs.250/- per month for ten years with an option for a further five years. Although Caruppiah was paying interest of several times that amount on the outstanding loans he had taken, it was Hobson’s choice for him. This left him a bitter man.

Being a broad-minded Hindu, in recognition of the fact that two or three senior Sinhala "baases" had been part of the construction team, he organized a "pirith" ceremony when the Princes’ building work was completed. He followed this precedent after the completion of each of the other four cinemas that he built over the next 17 years.

A photograph that was taken on the day that the first film was screened at Princes shows Mr Copland, Mr (later Sir) Chittampalam A.Gardiner (the Chairman of CT), a couple of other guests and Caruppiah standing outside the cinema. As a mark of his enormous respect for Mr Copland, Caruppiah can be seen standing a short distance away from the main group of distinguished invitees.

From the time that he got involved in borrowing money to build cinemas, Caruppiah’s stress levels built up and he began to smoke more and more cigarettes. It was not long before he was finishing off every day at least one whole tin of SPORTSMAN containing its standard complement of fifty cigarettes. Despite being a severe asthmatic like his father, he could not give up the pernicious weed until he fell seriously ill in 1955, by which time far too much damage had already been done.

Caruppiah had taken the precaution of building quarters for his own family along one side of the Princes cinema and quarters for a manager at the rear end. By late 1940, he moved his family from Mayfield to the cinema quarters but continued with his contracting work as before. His eldest son was admitted to St. John Bosco’s and the three younger boys and one girl entered what was then the Methodist High School, which was re-named "Highlands" shortly thereafter.

Several years after leasing Princes to CT, Caruppiah came to learn that Mr Mohideen Cader of Olympia Theatre was beginning to get a fair supply of films from overseas. By now, the Second World War was in its early stages but this did not deter Caruppiah. He scouted around and found an abandoned remnant of a rubber estate overlooking the town of Nawalapitiya. Without a second thought, he bought this land to build a cinema on it, intending to get films on hire from either CT, which had a big selection, or Mr Cader. He borrowed another Rs.150,000/- or so from Mr Sandanam, who continued to have enormous trust in Caruppiah, and built his second cinema, named Midland Theatre. Here, there were better quarters than at Princes for his family and that of the manager. So, Caruppiah decided, in 1942, to move the family from Hatton to Nawalapitiya, where the boys were admitted to Kathiresan College (where Mr J.G.Rajakulendran, State Councillor, was the Principal) and the eldest girl attended St. Andrew’s College.

As was his usual practice, Caruppiah organized a sizeable "pirith" ceremony prior to the opening of Midland. The rather grand "mandapaya" was made largely by Caruppiah himself. There is a good picture of it that shows the chief prelate, the Caruppiah family and a few relatives and employees posing in front of the "mandapaya" which was built on the cinema’s stage.

By using his better bargaining position now, Caruppiah was able to get films on hire for Midland from CT. The early evening shows were of English films to cater to the British estate superintendent population and the quite large number of Sri Lankans in the area who were fluent in English. Because the British wives of the expatriates were required to help in the war effort, they were sent back to the UK with their children. This left most of the male expatriates with nothing to do in the evenings and that induced them to come in to see any English language films that were showing. These films reminded them of home and, no less importantly, gave them an excuse to drown their sorrows at the cinema bar.

Being now at a loose end of sorts, Caruppiah bought a piece of land in Talawakelle in 1942 to build a cinema there before anybody else got around to it! However, he sold it off after a short while because he saw a better opportunity suddenly crop up in Kandy.

Caruppiah had not lost his determination to compensate himself for the virtual loss of Princes in Hatton. He got his chance when, in 1942, the Kandy Municipal Council (KMC) called tenders for the lease of the quarter-acre site of the municipal land on which Empire Theatre, which belonged to CT, was located because their 30-year lease was coming to an end. CT had been paying a quarterly lease rental of only Rs.1,000/- for this site, which was centrally situated, almost within touching distance of the Bogambara Prison. There is no indication of whether anyone else bid for the next 30-year lease but both CT and Caruppiah submitted their tenders in sealed envelopes. Incidentally, the Municipal Commissioner at this time was Mr William Gopallawa, Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s uncle, and later Governor General and, later still, President of Sri Lanka.

CT had decided to bid three times their existing lease rental rate, namely Rs.3,000/- per quarter, assuming that no one was likely to submit a higher offer. But Caruppiah had a stunning surprise for everyone when his tender was opened and it was revealed that he had bid Rs.11,111/- per quarter! Now, under the terms of the lease agreement, CT had to demolish the Empire building and clear the site within a period of six months from the date of expiry of their lease. However, instead of doing so, the members of CT’s Board of Directors used their influence with the all-powerful Governor of Ceylon to prevent the KMC from insisting on the ending of the CT lease and demolishing the Empire building. CT’s Board then included Mr Chittampalam A.Gardiner and probably M/s A.L.Thambiaiyah of Cargo Boat Despatch Co, A.A.Page of Millers and Fonseka of Julius & Creasy. They had apparently succeeded in convincing the Governor that, it being war-time, it would be an irresponsible squandering of resources to pull down a cinema that was showing English films for the benefit of the British soldiers who were stationed in Kandy, where Lord Mountbatten had the headquarters of his South East Asia Command (SEAC). It was also urged that, with a war going on, it would be highly improper to divert valuable building materials to construct a new cinema to replace the Empire, which was still in reasonable shape. Thereupon, Caruppiah was told firmly that, as a first step, he would be given a piece of bare land (where the Kandy Market came to be built very much later) and that he should build a temporary cinema there. He was told that he would be allowed to move to the ex-Empire Theatre site and build his permanent cinema there only after CT moved out! Moreover, the 30-year lease period would cover both the temporary and the permanent Wales Theatre sites. Caruppiah was so upset that he did not hesitate to confront poor, and probably helpless, Mr Gopallawa and accuse him in rather forceful language of favouring the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor!

Caruppiah was compelled to bear with this grossly unfair decision that had been taken against him but, being an extremely resourceful individual, went all over Sri Lanka looking for abandoned buildings from which he could extract steel columns, beams, trusses and other materials that he required. In this way, with the greatest difficulty, he built the first Wales Theatre on the land given to him temporarily and got this cinema functioning in 1943/1944.

Although not blessed with a cunning business mind, he used his morally superior position on this occasion to insist that the collections at Empire and Wales should be aggregated and shared equally between CT and himself until such time as he was given the Empire site, which was lawfully his. At this time, in the early 1940s, just as in the case of Midland, English language films were shown at 6.00pm and Tamil and Hindi films, for the local population, were shown at 2.30pm and 9.00pm. The better collections here enabled him to reduce his debts to some extent by making modest instalment payments of the capital component of his loans together with the interest charges.

By 1945, the initial 10-year lease of Princes was coming to an end but CT had failed to remember that it had to give notice before the expiry of nine and a half years that it intended to exercise the option to get the lease extended by five years. Thus, Caruppiah, much to his satisfaction, was able to take advantage of this lapse and get full possession of Princes in 1946.

Caruppiah and his family continued to live in Nawalapitiya until near the end of 1948 when the circumstances described below compelled him to move to Kandy.

By 1947/48, the elections to Parliament were being fought. Mr R.E.Jayatilleke (Ms Anarkali Aakarsha’s grandfather and Chairman of the Nawalapitiya Urban Council) and Mr K.Rajalingam were the chief contestants for the Nawalapitiya seat. Caruppiah’s eldest son, Nadarajah, worked actively and rather noisily for Mr Rajalingam. This so displeased Mr Jayatilleke’s driver that he came up behind Nadarajah one day and hit him on the head with a wooden pole whilst the latter was getting on to his Triumph Tiger motorcycle. Nadarajah’s skull was slightly fractured as a result. Around the same time, unknown characters pelted the Midland Theatre roof, where Caruppiah and his family lived, with a volley of stones which ceased only when he fired his shotgun a few times over the heads of the primitive "missile-launchers". In due course Jayatilleke’s driver was given six month’s rigorous imprisonment.

About this time, the film scheduling personnel of CT had got into the habit of giving preferential treatment to CT’s own cinemas and other independent film exhibitors and were sending films to Princes and Midland only after they had been screened elsewhere and had largely lost their earning potential. Moreover, the physical condition of the 35mm celluloid films had deteriorated excessively during their long circuit elsewhere. Requests for better films fell on deaf ears. In a fit of imprudent anger, Caruppiah, despite being contractually bound to CT, told them that he did not want their films and entered into an arrangement with Olympia Theatres Ltd to screen the latter’s films. CT promptly sued Caruppiah for a Rs.2,000,000 in damages, which would be equivalent to many hundreds of millions of rupees today! His lawyers, M/s Julius & Creasy, had to decline to act on Caruppiah’s behalf because CT was an older client of theirs. He then went to M/s F.J.& Saram, who retained the renowned Mr H.V.Perera on Caruppiah’s behalf. As Caruppiah had plainly violated his contract with CT, the matter was eventually settled by his paying Rs.28,000 to CT and re-validating his commitment to the contract that he had breached.

Caruppiah next embarked on building his third cinema, to be named Murugan Theatre, in Norton Bridge where the Laxapana Hydropower Station was being constructed, thinking that the construction camp nearby would blossom into a town later. His expectations turned out to be quite unfounded and he had to close down this cinema after running it for around four years. He eventually sold the building to the Education Department for Rs.20,000, which was a fraction of what it had cost him to build it.

While all this was going on, Caruppiah bought a house in Anniewatte in the outskirts of Kandy so as to get away from Nawalapitiya. This was in 1948. Nadarajah, his eldest son had given up his studies by this time and, so, the next three boys were found places at Kingswood College. The three older girls gained entrance to Girls’ High School.

After some time, Caruppiah began to be more and more dissatisfied with the poor constructional quality of the Anniewatte house as well as the fact that there were no indications that the collapsed Anniewatte tunnel would be repaired any time soon, making it necessary to take a long roundabout route to get the children to school. Fortunately, he was able to buy a house in rather poor condition on Halloluwa Road (now George E. de Silva Mawatha). He demolished this house and built a new concrete flat-roofed house consisting of two floors below road level and one at the level of the road itself. As the site was rather steep, the two lower floors were designed by him not only to serve as living spaces but also to act as strong buttresses to stabilize the almost vertical side of the hill below the road. This house was ideally situated as far as the girls were concerned, being just above and next door to Girls’ High School to which they could walk in less than a minute.

During this period, there was a lot of publicity for Mr D.S.Senanayake in the papers and even young children in the villages were very familiar with what he looked like. It happened that Caruppiah had such a close resemblance to Mr Senanayake that, in the smaller towns, children who saw him driving through used to shout "DS! DS!" The recognition was almost unavoidable because there was no air conditioning for cars at that time, the glass shutters were always lowered, and one had to drive fairly slowly through the narrow crowded roads, with resulting high visibility.

With nothing much to do after closing down Murugan, Caruppiah was on the look-out for a site in Colombo to provide a little competition to Elphinstone Theatre, which was CT’s premier oriental film outlet! It turned out that, in 1949/1950, he was able to purchase a 1½-acre block of land, containing a number of business premises, directly opposite the Tower Hall. His joy at getting hold of such a superb property, so close to Elphinstone, at a cost of just Rs.150,000/-, was rather short-lived because he was not able to get any of the tenants to give up their rented shop spaces. He was left with no option but to sell this land at a small loss after about a year of wasted effort and expense.

Meanwhile, CT had been on the look-out for a suitable site in Kandy for a cinema to replace the Empire. It took all of nine years (from 1943-1952) for it to get a nice piece of land on Peradeniya Road and build the Kandy Regal Theatre there.

Although Caruppiah had gone through a lot of hardships that had toughened him quite a lot, he had a very soft spot for his children that was exposed only on the rarest of occasions. In a particular instance, the Principal of Kingswood College, Mr P.H.Nonis, went to see Caruppiah in the second half of 1950 to ask him whether he would have any objections to his 15-year old son’s name being forwarded to the 24-member Headmasters’ Conference to be considered, with the names of boys from the remaining twenty-three schools, for a single travel award that was being offered to attend the Eighth Annual Mirror Youth Forum in New York in December 1950. At the mere thought that his son might have to travel 20,000 miles by air all alone made Caruppiah burst into tears. Mr Nonis told him that, if the boy was selected, about which there was no certainty, the airlines would look after him well as he was a minor. Caruppiah reluctantly agreed.

As things turned out, Kingswood was selected, by which time Caruppiah had got reconciled to the idea.

By 1952/1953, Caruppiah was required to begin to build the permanent Wales at the old Empire site, which had been vacated by CT. However, he was not able to complete the building within the stipulated period of 12 months from the time that the land had become free because he had made far too many commitments to keep going as rapidly as he used to do earlier. What the KMC did then was to expropriate the compensation that it would have had to pay to Caruppiah for having compelled him to build a temporary cinema, through no fault of his, and thereby effectively recovered a handsome penalty for the benefit of the KMC on account of late completion of the new Wales!

On several occasions, when Caruppiah’s bank balance at the Mercantile Bank on Ward Street was overdrawn, it was Mr A.C.L.Ratwatte, Shroff of the Bank, who showed much sympathy and helped him out with a temporary overdraft. Mr Ratwatte later became the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in the UK.

Caruppiah was on respectfully friendly terms with both the Asgiriya and Malwatte Mahanayakes. On one occasion, with their concurrence, he fixed a pipe along the periphery of the island at the centre of the Kandy Lake, fitted nozzles to this pipe at intervals, and connected the most powerful water pump that was available in Sri Lanka at that time so as to have a rectangular array of fountains that could be turned on for festive occasions. Unfortunately, he was not aware that water fountains require an appropriate design of specialized high pressure pumps and that those meant for agricultural or water supply purposes are not suitable. He had done the work at his own cost and was greatly disappointed at having to abandon the project.

An interesting episode occurred around this time. Mention has been made earlier in this story of the Hudson Hornet car that was in Caruppiah’s possession. It was hardly ever used and he was intrigued to be visited by a senior member of the Maha Sangha who was keen to buy this car. Caruppiah was astonished and inquired from this monk why he needed such a large car. The answer was: "We need to maintain our ‘thathvaya’ (status) when we have to visit Sir John". As Caruppiah was not at all happy about this explanation, he quoted a price that was higher than the price of the car when it was new, which immediately resulted in an immediate loss of interest in the matter.

Caruppiah fell ill in 1954/1955 and had to have a third of his stomach removed. Only his eldest son was told by the surgeon that it was a cancerous growth but that he was hopeful of a good recovery. Caruppiah’s health improved for about a year and the family was very happy with his progress. During this period, in August 1956, under the powerful persuasion of Dr Ray Wijewardene, he sent one of his sons to Cambridge University to study Engineering. At that time, it cost Rs.1,400 for the sea voyage to England and the total cost of university fees, clothing and all other living expenses had to fitted into a total of Rs.9,000 per year. Although it was a sizeable financial burden for him to bear, considering that the welfare of his other children also had to be taken into account, he was so appreciative of Dr Wijewardene’s interest that he committed himself to this undertaking without any reservations.

Sadly, the cancer returned in October and he was told that he had only a few more months to live and sort out his affairs. After making his Last Will, he wrote to his son in England giving the bad news and instructed him not to come back home for the funeral but to complete his studies before returning. Caruppiah died on 28 December 1956 at the age of 54.

Despite being a strong disciplinarian regarding the behaviour of his children, Caruppiah never pressed them in any way about their studies. His view was that it was the duty of the respective teachers to guide his children academically and get them to make the best of the opportunities given to them. However, all the boys, when they were at home, had to be on informal duty in his workshop nearby and, like highly-trained nurses in an operating theatre, hand over to him whatever tool or mechanical part that he was going to need next without his having to ask for it! As a result, all four of the older boys learned to be attentive and mindful whilst acquiring much useful practical knowledge of all things mechanical, including the use of a superb multi-function Swedish woodworking machine.

After Caruppiah was no more, his sons handed over Midland to Mr Sandanam in settlement of the substantial moneys still owing to him. The earnings from Princes never built up to anything much and this cinema was therefore, sold in 1971 to settle film hire arrears and other sundry bills. This cinema has now been converted by the new owner into a very successful wedding venue. The "permanent" Wales was allowed by the KMC to go beyond its lease period, partly to compensate morally for the unjust curtailing of the original 30 years to 21 years. Moreover, the KMC did not want to lose the substantial amounts of entertainment tax that were being collected from this cinema that the State Film Corporation had ruled should screen only Sinhala films. After a few more years, the KMC terminated the lease anyway because it required the land to expand the size of the parking area for its increasing fleet of vehicles of every kind.

Thus, at the lapse of about six or seven decades after he started to try to fulfil his dream of building a cinema, there was not even one left of the five that Caruppiah had designed and built. The saddest and paradoxical part of Caruppiah’s story is that he was so troubled and preoccupied about how to repay the large loans that he had taken that he spent his evenings smoking cigarette after cigarette worrying about his problems and never got around to seeing even one film in any of his five cinemas!

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