Peeling Back The Years At Regal Cinema



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Meher Mirza takes a look at the storied history of Regal Cinema, one of the last-standing single-screen cinemas in Mumbai.

Colaba is one of the most storied corners of Mumbai. A rich cultural mosaic chequered with the footprints of the Muslims, Sindhis, Parsis, Christians, Maharashtrians etc, it refuses to be flattened by dull consumerism. Throngs of tourists ribbon through its streets every day, gawping at its colourful bazaars that sit cheek by jowl with grand Colonial architecture. And on the itinerary of every tourist is Regal Cinema, the glorious pioneer of the Art Deco movement in Mumbai.

Casting off the city’s wearied Victorian character, the hip Art Deco movement swept through the city and became so entrenched in its fabric that Salman Rushdie, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, wrote (through the voice of the protagonist), “I actually grew up believing Art Deco to be a Bombay style, a local invention, its name derived, in all probability, from the imperative of the verb ‘to see’. Art dekho. Lo and behold art.”

Not only is Regal an exemplar of art deco, it is also a fine distillation of Mumbai’s hybrid character; it enfolds influences from around the world. The land was leased by the government to Globe Theatre’s F.H. Sidhwa and K.A. Kooka who, in turn, commissioned architect Charles Stevens to build this grand paean to the movies. Meanwhile, Czechoslovakian artist Karl Schara worked on the interiors, splattering the walls with Cubist sunburst motifs in pale orange and jade green. In 1933, it was finally thrown open to the public.

To watch a movie at Regal meant dressing up in one’s best; one could not just turn up in tattered, every day clothes.

The glamorous Regal has several firsts to its name. The Internet is thick with articles telling us that it was the first building in India (perhaps in Asia) to bask in that new-fangled luxury – central air conditioning. It ushered in Cinemascope to adoring film fans and offered basement car parking to its patrons.

Regal also rang in a new age of illumination by introducing Mumbai to neon lighting. In Cities of Light: Two Centuries of Urban Illumination, Sandy Isenstadt, Margaret Maile Petty and Dietrich Neumann write that, “The first Bombay cinemas like the Gaiety, Edward and Alexander had consumed so much electricity that BEST gave them discounted rates. But the Regal set a new standard for electrical consumption with its elevators, air conditioning and extensive lighting program for its facade and interiors. And its illuminations were designed with great flair and sophistication. Neon accentuated the clean Art Deco lines on the exterior. The auditorium lights came up gradually, creating an artificial sunrise for the audience. Even the design of the lighting fixtures and wall decorations celebrated the theme of illumination with …sunburst motifs.”

The public was suitably stupefied by all this grandeur. To watch a movie at Regal meant dressing up in one’s best; one could not just turn up in tattered, every day clothes. A soda fountain was installed, ice cream was eaten out of wine-shaped glasses and the posh balcony audiences had their own pantry. The best of Western cinema was screened here.

Busybee (Behram Contractor) wrote that Regal was one of his favourite theatres. “Regal was a cinema we went to regularly, or, I should say, more often than any other,” he wrote on Busybee Forever. “A neighbour, Homi Tata, was in charge of its air-conditioning plant, probably the first such plant in the city, and, when my aunt visited the cinema, because she was elderly and could not bear too much cold, he lowered the air-conditioning a little for her.”

Today, the dun coloured building has faded and softened, a tired husk of its former glory. It battles falling numbers, high taxes and stiff competition from shiny, new multiplexes. One of the city’s few remaining single screen theatres showing English movies, it has recently been dredged out of difficulties by partnering with the Jio MAMI film festival; an affiliation that we hope helps the cinema script a happy ending for itself.

Regal Cinema, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Apollo Bunder, Mumbai 400 005. Phone: 022 2202 1017

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