Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Indra Theater - Nakorn Sri Thammarat, Thailand

Last week, at the invitation of a professor of philosophy from one of Bangkok's finest universities, I gave a talk about Thai movie theaters - past and present - and the nature of my work. It was a relaxed, informal talk, given to an active little class of about 25 students, all of whom politely endured a lecture in woefully bad Thai.

Before the students arrived, however, the professor and myself sat around talking movies, movie theaters and all things related. One bit of the conversation stood out in particular, so while its still fresh in my mind let me circumvent the actual order of my research to bring you this interesting missive from the annals of Thai movie theater history.

The Indra Theater, long abandoned in the heart of Nakorn Sri Thammarat

Said professor hails from Nakorn Sri Thammarat, southern Thailand's 2nd biggest city. A city which, in decades passed, surged with energy thanks to a quintet of massive stand-alone movie theaters huddled together in the heart of town.

The professor's invitation for me to speak to his class was inspired by a photo I posted of the Indra Theater - one of the downtown cinema halls in which he often took sanctuary as a youngster. Predictably, the Indra was the main focus of our talk.

From the many Hollywood classics the professor recalled watching at the Indra, our conversation evolved into one about the erstwhile profession and forgotten talents of the live movie dubber, once a staple of the Thai cinema industry. These live voice actors would entertain movie-audiences in real-time, lending Thai language to foreign films and dialogue to Thai films shot on 16 millimeter (which lacked an in-film audio track).

By many accounts, the dubber was the most important component of the Thai cinema spectacle. A good one could be more of a crowd pleaser than the actual movie stars in the film.

The key to being a good dubber, I've been told, the most important trick of the trade, was the ability to improvise the on the spot, tweaking the characters, or even the plot to make it slightly more relevant to the local audience. For instance, if the dubber was from the same town or region that the theater was in, he or she might speak in the local dialect, or even adapt characters in the film to represent local personalities.

The Indra Theater and its streetscape.

No story of a dubber at work has ever been more insightful than the one that the professor related to me last week before the start of his class.

The year was 1973 - a particularly volatile year in Thai history, best remembered for large scale student protests against a corrupt, dictatorial regime and the violent military crackdown which ended them. Into this context of heightened political tension, with the flames of "people's power" burning hot, Sidney Lumet's iconic police drama "Serpico," starring the wildly popular Al Paccino in the title roll, opened at the Indra Theater.

Thai version of the Serpico poster

Serpico, for those who aren't familiar, is the Hollywood account of real life New York cop Frank Serpico's political lynching at the hands of the New York City police department. In the film, as in real life, the upstanding bobby refused to take kickbacks from local criminal organizations, the going trend among many in the NYPD of the times. By shunning the practice and serving as a whistle blower against police corruption in general, Frank Serpico drew the wrath of the entire New York police bureaucracy. He almost got himself killed in the process.

According to the professor, Nakorn Sri Thammarat in the early 1970's had a similar problem with its own police force. Many officers had a acquired a base reputation for corruption, extortion and other forms of constabulary graft. Local grievances against the police were high on account of it. So when Serpico made its premiere at the Indra Theater, sympathetic crowds showed up in droves.

The ticket booth and lobby of the Indra Theater, now littered with debris.

Among Nakorn Sri Thammarat's more famous dubbers of the time was a man named Sirichai. According to the professor, Sirichai was a master at rousing a crowd. Whether the movie was foreign or Thai, for example, Sirichai always reserved his southern Thai accent for sidekicks and supporting characters, much to the amusement of the southern Thai audience.

But Sirichai's greatest talent was his deft ability to tweak a film's plot and characters to sync with contemporary Thai issues. He had a penchant, moreover, for using his role as dubber to address the day's top political scandals, both at the national and local level. And corrupt politicians were his number one target.

With Serpico, making political satire for Sirichai was like shooting fish in a barrel. It turned out to be his voice-over Magnum Opus.

Refuge from rain in the Indra's abandoned lobby

The crooked cops in the film were all given names corresponding to Nakorn Sri Thammarat's most notorious lawmen. The crowd, well aware of who was who among the city's police ne'er-do-wells, reacted with cheers and hysterical laughter at the associations the dubber made. The on-screen cops and the cops on the streets of Nakorn Sri Thammarat, if only for a few hours, became one and the same in eyes and ears of Indra Theater patrons. From the rank and file right up to the top brass, no corrupt member of the local police department was spared Sirichai's adaptive lampoonery. The crowd went wild, apparently, and because the film's initial dubbing session was recorded on tape for use in later screenings, multiple crowds were exposed to Sirichai's crusades. 

The Indra auditorium. Ghostly voices of Sirichai's Serpico can almost be heard echoing throughout. 

Not everybody got a kick out Sirichai's antics, however. As the professor explained, the dubber's satirical Serpico adaptation got him slapped with a libel lawsuit, which he ended up being found guilty of. 

But as so often happens in these sorts of cases, the lawsuit martyred him, making him into a local hero and even more popular among movie-goers in Nakorn Sri Thammarat.  

The sign for the Indra Theater, stashed away inside the ticket booth.

Sirichai's career as a movie dubber came to a close with the decline of Nakorn Sri Thammarat's stand-alone movie theaters, as it did for all of Thailand's once illustrious voice actors. But for this local personality, the experience he had gained from working a crowd of movie-goers was parlayed, ironically, into a career in politics.

Sadly, he died prematurely, before his political career had a chance to bloom.

Today, it's hard to imagine that the now-abandoned Indra Theater played host to this fascinating episode in Thai cultural history. Sirichai's Serpico.


Traveling to these theaters and digging up this history is very fulfilling, but it ain't cheap. You can to play a role in their continued documentation get a great little memento at the same time. Here's how:

For a small donation of $6, you'll be mailed these two original movie tickets from Nakorn Sri Thammarat, Thailand. The white and blue ticket was a VIP ticket to from the Wirote Rama Theater, which is still standing the heart of downtown. The yellow ticket was for open air movie screenings held throughout the province.  

Supplies are limited, as no theaters in Thailand print such tickets any longer, so get yourself these unique movie theater keepsakes while supplies last. Just click the Paypal button below:

Ticket for the Wirote Rama Theater

Ticket for outdoor movie screenings in Nakorn Sri Thammarat

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