Remembering Mumbai’s Grand Talkies

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REMEMBERING MUMBAI’S GRAND TALKIES

WORDS BY JOANNA LOBO AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

Once packed to the brim, Mumbai’s talkies are now a shell of their former selves.

Mahatma Gandhi once stood on the stage of Edward Theatre and gave a speech urging people to join the independence movement.

Decades later, as I stand on that same stage, I try to picture a crowded hall reverberating with patriotic chants and the voice of a frail, bespectacled man in a white dhoti. It’s not easy doing this in a hall with faded white, blue and gold walls, a cobwebbed ceiling and dim lighting.

“It used to be such a grand place,” says Sanjay Vasawa, the current manager. Sanjay was raised in the green room at the back (his father was the previous manager), and the theatre was his home. “I’ve watched every movie here, sat on every chair and learned everything about films from here,” he says.

What he didn’t know, his father told him. There were stories of the theatre starting out with puppet shows, its launch in 1914, live orchestra shows and Prince Edward’s visit, among others. When the theatre screened Jai Santoshi Maa, the film generated such religious fervour that women would perform pujas outside for patrons.

A few bulbs throw a dim glow over the faded red and gold walls. The only redeeming feature of the place is that it affords a great view of the heritage railway station.

Today, it screens B-grade and Bollywood films. Tickets cost as little as Rs. 25. As I walk out, the afternoon show – Houseful 3 – starts playing. There are eight people in the hall. “We don’t make a single rupee in profit,” says Sanjay.

It is a familiar tale of neglect, government apathy, financial difficulties and an inability to fill seats that can be found across the city’s talkies. Here, nostalgia can be found aplenty but it comes cheap. In the city known as India’s cinema capital, it is a tragic irony that its single screen theatres or talkies are struggling to stay alive.

In their prime, places like Royal Talkies, Regal, Liberty, Naaz, Alfred, Apsara, New Empire, Edward, Minerva, Alexandra and Capitol were filled with cinemagoers and movie stars. These days, they languish in the anonymity of a generation that’s grown up on air-conditioned multiplexes and overpriced popcorn. Many like New Empire, Capitol, Minerva, Alexandra and Apsara have downed their shutters. Others are evolving. Edward opened its doors to music events and Liberty hosts film festivals. Deepak, in Lower Parel, was once known for screening Bhojpuri films. These days, its aura is more cultured. I’ve attended discussions on feminism and watched international films there and yes, taken photos of the white elephant inside.

By and large, most talkies are located mainly in the south and central Mumbai stretch.

Right outside CST, on a small sidewalk, is Capitol, a dilapidated heritage structure that started in 1879 and is the oldest theatre in the city. I walk inside, but there’s nothing left to indicate this was once a performance theatre or that it showed Hindi films. The hall, balcony and even the projection room are just shells – everything has been sold off. A few bulbs throw a dim glow over the faded red and gold walls. The only redeeming feature of the place is that it affords a great view of the heritage railway station.

“I came here to watch Trishul,” says former Navy Commander Paranjit Singh Rana who conducts heritage walks featuring these talkies. “We could only get tickets in black. Suddenly we were in a police raid and I was caught for possessing a wad of black tickets!” He was let off only after showing his identity card. “That’s a movie I will never forget.”

On the lane near Capitol is the New Empire theatre that shut down in 2014 following heavy losses. “Saturday Night Fever was the most popular movie shown at New Empire,” says Rana. “After the show, you could find Travolta fans dancing on the streets.” It is another difficult task imagining this crowded street was once filled with Travolta fans grooving to Stayin’ Alive.

I move out of the station area, past Azad Maidan, to Dhobi Talao. My first stop is Metro, a theatre I’ve visited often for its proximity to the restaurants I love, Kyani and Snow Flake. In its heyday, this theatre was famous for its movie premieres and soda fountains. A typical premiere featured a red carpet, liveried ushers, a live band and fans lining the street. Raj Kapoor’s Bobby had its premiere here – the actor had his sons were received as guests at their car and were ushered in.

When the theatre screened Jai Santoshi Maa, the film generated such religious fervour that women would perform pujas outside for patrons.

A little ahead, towards Marine Lines, and around the corner from Sassanian restaurant, is Liberty theatre, one of the few that has managed to maintain its old-world charm and elegance. It opened in 1947 and exclusively screened Hindi films because most other talkies only showed English movies. It doesn’t show commercial films anymore although I’ve attended a few of Osianama’s film festivals here. Part of the building has been rented out to offices.

Inside, I walk on plush red carpets, admiring the sepia-toned photographs of old actors. Even the lift is classy, with mirrors and wooden beams! My favourite space here is the private screening room on the fifth floor with its leather seats, tiny tray tables, ashtrays and even a small terrace that looks out on to South Mumbai.

If you catch a show at this theatre, wait till the end. A heavy gold curtain descends after the last show of the day; a curtain call that seems to symbolize the slow demise of the city’s talkies.

Edward Talkies, 514, Near Metro Adlabs, Kalbadevi Road, Tak Wadi, Lohar Chawl, Kalbadevi, Mumbai 400 002.

New Empire, Murzban Road, Azad Maidan Fort, Mumbai 400 001.

Liberty Cinema, 41-42, Marine Lines, Mumbai 400 020.

 
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