Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Thamada Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

The Gilded Cesspool - Yangon - is dubbed so for simple reasons: gilded because of the numerous shimmering gold pagodas which dot the landscape. In fact, the city's architectural repertoire in general warrants the twinkly connotation of things gilt. Diamonds and pearls omitted. Above the business of the street stand many buildings worth looking at if you can take your eyes off where you step. Down there, at toe level, where the spilled gutter mingles with the pavement, where you mind your stride for fear of being eaten by the street, that's the cesspool. The Gilded Cesspool.

Given this duality, and the citywide feeling of structural decay, there are few places that can qualify as "world class." Here is one of them. Yes, of course, it's a movie theater:

Ladies and gentlemen, Mingalar Group's crown jewel and the cinematic pride of the country, the Thamada Cinema.

A mother-daughter hawker team set up shop beside the Thamada

The 43 bus barrels past the Thamada Cinema on the way to downtown.

During the course of my travels around Myanmar I found theaters which I admired on multiple levels, some even more than the grand Thamada. Ones which, thanks to some endearing trait or another, made me think "well gee whiz, isn't this a relic worth holding on to." A handful of those come to mind. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts, the Thamada is in a class of its own. It is the begin all and end all of Myanmar movie theaters, a structure which should be showcased for the world to see, on par with the Shwedagon Pagoda, Mandalay Palace and the myriad temples of dust-strewn Pagan. That is to say, a national treasure.

Movie poster on the curved front wall of the international style Thamada.

translates to "president" in English. In 1950, when the Thamada burst into the ranks of Yangon's movie theater elite, a name like that would have held a certain amount of political zeal. Despite the emergence of ethnic factionalism, things were looking promising after the casting off of more than sixty years of humiliating British-colonial rule. Myanmar, then Burma, was coming out of World War II badly damaged, but ready to move forward. Hopes were high that the country would enter the world stage, find its wings and soar to new heights via state-driven industrialization policies, the likes of which were being pursued across post-colonial Southeast Asia. A building like the Thamada, then, embodied the spirit of the times. This was the new Burma, after all, not the medieval one nor the one subdued by foreign powers. The nation's capital yearned for a movie theater which could represent the progressive outlook of a burgeoning modern society. Sleek international style architecture was employed to achieve this end.

As time passed, the hopes of a society gradually gave way to stagnation. But through it all the Thamada Cinema has prevailed. That's thanks to the the Mingalar Group, who, aside from some apparently very strong political connections, has gone all out to keep the Thamada in pristine condition, with seemingly all its original bells and whistles, plus the necessary technological updates.

My debut visit to the Thamada was an event that's forever branded into my memory. Yangon was being battered by one of its notorious electrical storms and all the hundreds of Thamada movie-goers for the 12:30 show crammed into the lobby for shelter. In front of the theater, Alaungpaya Pagoda Road swelled to the depths of a small creek as rainwater raced towards lower ground. We, the high and dry anticipants of film, stood, sat and squatted placidly within the high-modern opulence of interior Thamada, mesmerized by the violent weather outside. Scored of peaceful faces, young and old, but mostly young, crowded this elegant waiting space. The freestanding staircase was full of sitters, leaving only a narrow path to the upper lobby, where dozens more lounged in meditative silence. The unfinished black granite walls, softly curved, and speckled concrete floors, enhanced by the the human form at ease throughout, made for a divine spectacle.

When the doors to the auditorium finally opened, we were funneled through a dark corridor, curving in such a way that the room's interior could not be seen until we had entered completely. Once inside, the auditorium expanded circularly, more like an opera house than a movie theater, or a four-story flying saucer. My assigned seat was up in the balcony with the hoi oligoi from where we looked down our noses at the plebs below. I was fascinated by this place. Never had I been part of a movie-going experience like this one. Before the curtain went up, the Thamada jingle played over the sound system. What I wouldn't do to have a copy of that on record. I didn't understand the lyrics for the life of me but I'm guessing it went something like "en-joy your-self at the ci-ne-ma, have a good time at the ci-ne-ma, la dee dee, la dee da."

Neon night and stretched head-lights.

Believe me, I wish I could bring you shots of the Thamada interior, but the watchdogs were growling and bearing their teeth. I can tell you this though: if you visit Yangon and neglect to see a movie at the Thamada Cinema you are missing out on one of the premier cultural events in town. You might as well forget to go see the Shwedagon Pagoda as well. In fact, if you have to choose between the two, choose the former. It's more fun, just as ritualistic and you won't get wet if it's raining.

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