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A walk around South Mumbai's historic Grant Road

Mumbai historian Rafique Baghdadi relives the nostalgia around Grant Road that is dotted with several standalone cinema halls that once thrived with crowds and big releases

  “As we pass this road, the world changes,” a smiling, bespectacled man said. The man, lean and almost frail with age, turned and added to the small group of about a dozen people — some from France and some Indian — trailing him, “You need to walk a bit faster to catch up with me.” This magic road, with some stalls that sell CDs of Hindi movies from the 1990s and rare music albums, was a few hundred metres from Grant Road station where the group was waiting in front of B Merwan, an Irani café that had closed down once. And perhaps only this new lease of life could explain the hypnotic aroma emanating from the café’s vigorous kitchen.

A participant of the walk takes a photo of Alfred Talkies in Grant Road. Pic courtesy/ Tushar Satam
A participant of the walk takes a photo of Alfred Talkies in Grant Road. Pic courtesy/ Tushar Satam

Film posters on walls at the compund of Imperial Cinema. PICS/Tushar Satam
Film posters on walls at the compund of Imperial Cinema. Pics/Tushar Satam

Apart from this enticement of B Merwan, around them was a world frozen in time — the Grant Road station with its entrance as a reminder of space for horse-drawn carriages and houses with protruding balconies and slanting roofs — and with them was Rafique Baghdadi, the man in question and a smiling raconteur of these houses and walls, with stories from many years ago. Baghdadi is a lover of this Mumbai, which he fears, will soon disappear. This walk was to discover the living history of once thriving theatres that still stand in the nooks and paths of Grant Road in part neglect and part shame of showing cinema no one wants to watch — not art films, Korean semi-porn dubbed in Hindi and such.

Earlier entrance of Imperial Cinema
Earlier entrance of Imperial Cinema

Emmanuel Church built in Gothic style, near Girgaon
Emmanuel Church built in Gothic style, near Girgaon

The walk, a tribute to cinema in the city, which completed 100 years, was organised by Alliance Francaise as a part of a series that began on Sunday, September 20, called Heritage Days. Before the walk, Baghdadi mentioned that the Bombay he was going to talk about was the city that grew around mills. “The story of rise and fall of the mills is the story of the rise and fall of Bombay,” he said. After a while, after we had crossed lanes with Art Deco houses set up in 1937 by fish-eating Saraswat Brahmins and the Anglican Emmanuel church and spotted Queen Mary School, the alma mater of Shabana Azmi and Shobhaa De.

Royal Opera House, also known as Opera House is India’s only surviving opera house. It is now shut.
Royal Opera House, also known as Opera House is India’s only surviving opera house. It is now shut.

Jyoti studio
Baghdadi then stopped at the end of a nondescript bridge with a ramshackle property beside it that looked like a garage. “This was the office of Ardeshir Irani, who directed Alam Ara, the first Indian film with sound. Saadat Hasan Manto had worked here and so has Prithviraj Kapoor.” A sign on the pavement then drew our attention, which mentioned Irani. Baghdadi informed that a song from the film Alam Ara, de de khuda ke naam pe, (give in the name of god) became so popular that in the following days, people would sing the song when asked to pay in eateries. The raconteur added that the day the movie was released on March 23, 1931, Bhagat Singh was hanged. He added that this could be an interesting way of looking at the politics of the time but it is hardly mentioned.

The group that trailed Baghdadi
The group that trailed Baghdadi

Imperial Cinema
Our next stop was Imperial Cinema. Amidst a busy commercial space at Lamington Road, the complex stood like a relic. Though apparent from posters of Bhojpuri cinema and soft porn that the theatre was functional, it wore a deserted look. Baghdadi enthusiastically took the team to every corner and asked the team to note the elephant signage on its gates and walls, which was the signature of the owners of the compound, Mathuradas-Govardhandas family.

Rafique Baghdadi, Local historian
Rafique Baghdadi, Local historian

“There has been a downward slide of these standalone cinemas for years now. It is not clear what exactly led to the fall but it is a culmination of factors like taxes and such,” he said. A solitary man lay in front of the closed ticket counter. The foyer was flooded with water of morning rains and there was no crowd for the movie, the kind that allegedly draws crowds at night.

Cinema street
The walk continued, past huge buildings with slanting roofs that guard the sky of Grant Road, past smaller theatres that either have ceased to exist or now remain as a caricature of an opulent past. One after the other theatres, which now look like they never existed, were crossed — Gulshan Talkies, Moti Talkies, Topaz, Shalimar and Plaza theatre (not to be confused with a cinema hall in Dadar that shares the name). At Plaza, Baghdadi pointed the group to the entrance where, with a slight craning of the neck, one could see an endless foyer that resembled courts of royalty in cinema. “Plaza cinema had the longest foyer,” Baghdadi informed.

Alfred Theatre
The group finally reached the end of a pavement. Ahead was Alfred Theatre with its distinct and splendid European architecture. It played a Hindi movie, Vishwatma, from a decade ago, featuring a young Sunny Deol in a poster that was handmade. “Once crowds thronged here,” Baghdadi said, as if he could reminisce a different time — a world of hits and mad crowds on that road, with sly ticket blackers wearing handkerchiefs around their neck and discreetly announcing discounted prices. “Alfred Theatre in a way represents everything that is Grant Road. Even all this may not stay for long,” he said, and offered to take whoever wanted to go to Sarvi for mutton kebabs. “Manto frequented this place,” he said, and we followed.

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