Rio Cinema, Colombo’s iconic movie house
Slave Island is perhaps Colombo’s most fascinating neighbourhood with African, Indian, Javanese, Burgher, Moor and Malay heritage at every street corner. You can hear it in the music, see it in the colours and taste it in the food. No longer a prison island in crocodile-infested waters, it is a diverse vibrant community that is unique in Colombo. But it may not be there much longer. The whole quarter is being swallowed up by the skyscrapers rising around it. Buildings are demolished, rotting away or simply forgotten. One of these is the iconic Rio Cinema, the social hotspot of Colombo during the golden days of Sri Lanka cinema. For a place that had so much history written into its walls, the movie house is just barely alive. Today, after 54 years in existence, the cinema is a run-down ghost building with dark corridors showing seedy films. We go to Slave Island to meet owner Ratnaraja Navaratnam to talk about the history and the future of this iconic cinema and the neighbourhood where he grew up.
The opening screening of this state-of-the-art movie theatre was the highlight of Colombo’s social calendar.
It was the year 1965 and the opening screening of Rio Cinema was the highlight of Colombo’s social calendar
For a place that had so much history written into its walls, Rio Cinema is just barely alive
We meet owner Ratnaraja Navaratnam to talk about the history and the future of this iconic cinema
South Pacific – The first movie shown in Rio was “South Pacific”. It was the year 1965 and the opening screening of this state-of-the-art movie theatre was the highlight of Colombo’s social calendar with ministers, movie stars and diplomats kitted all in attendance. A journalist from the Ceylon Daily News waxed lyrical about the venue, writing: “As for being an average theatre, the Rio is not…The seats are unobstructed, large and comfortable, upholstered in foam rubber and creamy-beige rexine, with satinwood arms…the movie vertically operated screen is a beauty.”
Family business – “It was my grandfather Appapillai, who started Navah Cinema in 1951 and then Rio. The theatre is still in the same family,” says Ratnaraja Navaratnam who manages Rio Cinema today. Locals know him as Thambi, it means little brother, as he was the youngest of his siblings. Rio brought to life some of the greatest movies of all time like Sound of Music and West Side Story through its 70mm screen – 35mm was the norm in those days – and surround sound. Much has happened since it first raised its curtains to the public. Business started going south when the Sri Lankan ‘National Film Corporation’ took over film distribution, and major international studios such as 20th Century Fox started to boycott the country.
Black July – During the 1983 riots, the cinema was looted and completely burnt down. Forty years of work went up in flames overnight. “My father was very hurt. More than the financial loss, he felt betrayed. He had done so much for the society and for this to happen in his own neighbourhood was very saddening,” said Ratnaraja. Black July, as it would later be known, marked the beginning of a civil war between Tamil militants and the government of Sri Lanka that lasted nearly 30 years. It also drove an exodus, as a great number of Tamils left Sri Lanka for the shores of other countries. The Navaratnam family moved to Australia, but till today, holds on to fraying threads of what used to be an incredible landmark on the face of Colombo.
After 54 years in existence, Rio Cinema is a run-down ghost building showing seedy films
Once Ceylon’s super luxury cinema and social hotspot, now a deserted place
Little is left of the glory of the golden days when Rio brought to life some of the greatest movies of all time
Spirit of Slave Island – “I never left Slave Island. I was born here. These days it is more harmonious. Slave Island has a vibrant population, with Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil people all living together. You find the mosques, temples, and churches all within each other’s reach. People co-exist without any problem at all,” says Ratnaraja emphasising the sense of community in the place he grew up in.
Future for the past – The future of the Rio, or indeed of the whole Slave Island is uncertain. Much of the area was marked for a controversial ‘beautification’ drive under the Rajapaksa government and the results are glaringly obvious with Chinese and Indian backed real estate wrecking the tight-knit community.But in recent years Colombo’s creative crowd has rediscovered Rio and the run-down cinema has become a popular venue for pop-up exhibitions, music gigs and even the prestigious annual art festival Colomboscope is using the barren walls, desolate hallways and iconic roof as a canvas for poetry, dance, music, and art. Who knows, there may be a future for the past?
“In Slave Island you find mosques, temples and churches all within each other’s reach. Here people co-exist without any problem at all.”
Sunlight filters through the dark desolate corridors
During the 1983 riots, the cinema was looted and completely burnt down
But in recent years Colombo’s creative community has rediscovered Rio Cinema
The run-down cinema has become a popular venue for pop-up exhibitions, music gigs and even the annual art festival Colomboscope
Want to discover more hidden gems in Slave Island?
Find more local favourite places in Colombo with the iDiscover Colombo Guide featuring four handcrafted itineraries that show you the honest and authentic places in the city’s most historic neighbourhoods: Fort, Cinnamon Gardens, Slave Island and Pettah. Comes with a free app that is packed with background stories and insider secrets!
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Words by Abdul Halik Azeez
Halik is a visual artist and writer who uses everyday life in Sri Lanka as his inspiration. He likes to spend as much time as possible walking the streets and encountering the unexpected. Find him on Instagram @colombedouin.
Photography by Kesara Ratnavibhushana
Kesara has been documenting cities for close to 20 years. His photographic practice is based in Colombo but also works internationally. His hometown is changing, rapidly, sometimes faster than even Kesara – a quick adaptor – can keep track of. He spends hours walking the streets recording its history and urban reality. Check out his website.