The distinctive Eros theatre building forms the visual cornerstone of the Oval precinct, and is part of the area’s bid for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. A single-screen gladiator holding its own in the multiplex age, Eros is certainly an icon. But the heritage tag brings with it some challenges as well.
“Today, a heritage building is equivalent to a dilapidated building. Much needs to be done in order to ensure that Eros stays in good condition, but there are many hitches because it is a heritage structure,” says a source from the building management.
For example, the source says, although some paver blocks in the footpath surrounding the building are broken or have come off, the municipal corporation has not given permission to replace them, citing heritage structure rules. “These are not rules to safeguard, but actually impediments in the way of maintaining the structure,” he said adding, “Since Eros is a commercial building, tenants contribute for regular repair works. It would have been difficult had it been a residential building. So, if we get help in terms of financial resources it will be very beneficial.”
Eros cinema was the first enterprise to come up in 1938. While it included residential apartments initially, today it only houses businesses such as restaurants, cafes, banks and insurance offices.
So, has Eros cinema stayed the same or has it changed to suit modern times? “We have had to go with the change or it would have been impossible to compete with the multiplexes. We have now installed new sound systems and the Barco 2K digital projector, as multiplexes have done,” says P P Murlidharan, Eros cinema manager.
While the movie house has to move with the times, regular patrons are an unchanged aspect of Eros cinema; patrons who have enjoyed every new release in the theatre for years now. “More than 15 per cent of the crowd comprises our old patron base. Apart from them, college students frequent the theatre as many colleges are located in the vicinity,” added Murlidharan.
Structurally, however, many parts of the building dating back to early days are in very good condition. “We have only just started replacement work of the original stall seats. That, too only because it would be convenient for viewers to have seats with holders.”
The original chairs were a product of the American Seating Company. They were installed by the Indian firm, Pen Workers Seating Company, before the theatre began operations in 1938.
Anmol Kashmiri, one of the current partners of Pen Workers Seating Company, shares an interesting fact — two chairs from the balcony area were sent to the American firm by them, as a goodwill gesture and token of appreciation for the excellent product quality. In contemporary times, there are niggling problems like a lack of civic sense amongst people that proves to be a deterrent for smooth functioning.
“Some people’s lack of civic sense is capable of defiling anything, whether it is a small house or a heritage structure. Some people used to spit paan inside the hall. Almost every day, the cleaning staff at Eros would be engaged in cleaning the paan stains,” says Murlidharan. The problem continued until people were checked at the entrance for tobacco products which were then confiscated from them.
There are some bitter memories but the good outweighs the negative for someone who has been the manager for 23 years. Murlidharan says, “Every premiere show in Eros is a fond memory as it used to be like a grand celebration. It is also great to have house-full shows that run for weeks together. Rangeela, for instance ran house-full for 17 weeks, that too, only on pre-booked tickets.”
Echoing these sentiments, Janak Rawal, who has been the watchman at Eros since 1975, says that he never realized how so many years flew by. “I still remember my early days at Eros. Unlike today, throngs of people lined up outside every day to get tickets. It used to be a laborious task, controlling the crowd,” he reminisces.
Remembering the days spent with the staff at Eros, Rawal said, “Unlike today, movie banners had to be manually made. So there was a company artist, who used to make the banner from scratch with the help of a private artist, using a poster for reference. They used to start one night before the release, but still make a painstakingly exact replica. Many of us in security liked to keep them company and see the painting take shape.”
Rawal recounts, “Although the movie The Exorcist ran for over 20 weeks, it gave many people a good scare. There was an ambulance stationed near the theatre for ladies who became unconscious after watching horror scenes. One night after the movie was screened, I entered the empty hall to clean leftovers of eatables, only to hear weird noises in the hall. I was so terror-stricken that I ran away and sat at the theatre’s entrance all night. Only later did I discover that rats were making the noise,” he says with a laugh.
Occupants of the Eros building and patrons of the theatre are, of course, enthused about the proposal and would like to see the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble as a World Heritage Site.
Well-known social activist and former advertising professional Gerson da Cunha, who lives in one of the Art Deco buildings near Eros, says, “If the nomination gets finalized, it will not just earn recognition for Mumbai but will ensure proper protection of the heritage site. Nowhere can one find such a beautiful and unique blend of both architectural styles. This status will strengthen the hands of those who have contributed to preserve the precinct till date. It will also ensure that nobody tries to tamper with these sites in the name of development.”
Talking about his experiences in Eros cinema, Da Cunha says, “I used to visit Eros regularly during my days as a journalist in the Press Trust of India (PTI). Mainly because the choice of films screened during the 1940s to ’60s, was great. As a journalist, on most days, I would go for the 9.30 pm show with my friends. Even after I took up advertising, I have frequented Eros cinema as most ad films were screened in the mini theatre for the approval of clients. So, I have had both happy and sad moments depending on whether our film was approved or not.”
Virendra Bayani, one of the partners of Mahavir Gas Service, which has had its premises in the Eros building since 1973, says, “It will be a symbol of pride for us if the Oval precinct gets a world heritage site status. I have my commercial agency here and I cater to most of the restaurants in the vicinity. As a result of the heritage status, tourist inflow will increase, which in turn will boost business for the restaurants, thereby elevating sales of gas cylinders.”
Shirin Netarwala and Shernaz Icecreamwala have been visiting Eros cinema for over 10 years now.
“It is important that the place gets nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage Site, because here is one of the few places in Mumbai, which has buildings of great architectural splendour. Also, the Oval is a green gift we are fortunate to have, and it should be well protected,” says Netarwala.
Icecreamwala says, “I think it is a great place to watch movies with friends and family. Shirin and I always love to come here whenever we find time. It has a certain charm.
Bharat Dattani has an even longer association to look back on. He says, “I have been coming to Eros for 40 years now. I love its ambience and style. I can never forget the times I have spent at Eros with friends and family, especially my wife with whom I used to come here regularly when we were both young and newly wedded.”
You can support the bid by voting. More votes mean more support for this site as India’s official nomination for the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Go online and vote at: http://www.mid-day.com/heritage_support/