“They’re mainly about sex” says Podisingho quite frankly, when we ask him what kind of films he projects at the Rio Cinema where he works today.
A film projectionist since his teenage years, T.G. Podisingho takes his job with the utmost seriousness. The first time we went to speak to him, we picked a bad time – a film had just begun to show at the cinema, and he had work to do. So even as we stood in the middle of the room, he completely ignored our presence until the last of the end credits had faded into black. Even then, it took until he had switched off the projector and carefully put away the reels, for him to look our way and inquire what we wanted.
Everything about Podisingho has a wonderful sense of contradiction. He is an elderly gentleman of about 74 years – but is a newcomer at the Rio and in Slave Island itself, having moved just a few months ago to take on the job of projection operator at the old cinema. He is soft-spoken and gentle but told us of his quick temper, which often led him to move from theatre to theatre in the past. He has retained all the charm and trappings of someone from a bygone era, with his traditional dress and polite manners, but the films he projects at the cinema are mostly pornographic: a sign of how things have changed for the old Rio since its heyday.
Despite it’s decrepit state, The Rio is one of Slave Island’s most well known landmarks. The first cinema hall in Sri Lanka to screen 70mm films, its opening ceremony was graced by the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, accompanied by her young daughter Chandrika. Older workers at the cinema spoke wistfully of days when the demand to see its screening films – then the popular English films of the day, the very first of which was Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific – was so high that there was often fighting at the ticket stand.
Today it is dusty and mostly deserted, its jail-like grill barely ajar for its current clientele to slip in as discreetly as they can. At any given time, the large hall and balcony with their row upon row of old fashioned red leather seats are mostly empty – pock marked at random by lone viewers, rendered anonymous in the reddish semi darkness, waiting for the blue film of the day to begin.