With the shutting down of New Empire, one of the few surviving Art Deco style single screen cinemas in the city, historians and film buffs remember the glory days and why these must be salvaged, somehow…
Earlier top film stars would be hailed as jubilee stars; today it’s all about entering the `200-crore club. This change in focus from quality to quantity transcends through several elements of Indian cinema — from the cost of samosas to the number of screens in each multiplex. While the latter might have made cinema more accessible, it has proved to be dead ringers for single-screen cinema halls. While some struggle to survive, others adapt and many have shut down. Recently, the city bid adieu to New Empire cinema hall near CST station.
New Empire cinema has shut down. Pic/Dhara Vora
City history lovers and architects might cry over the loss of this gem, though such is the apathy towards these venues that inspite of being shut for a week, no one noticed when the curtains came down, one last time.
Cinema, an art
City historian Deepak Rao says, “Going to the cinema hall would be an experience and an art earlier — from booking tickets in advance to waiting for the next big Western film to release. From the food to the hall, everything contributed to the feel.”
Film critic and city historian Rafique Baghdadi puts things into perspective: “Manto had once said, ‘If you really want to know about the condition of a place, you should check the state of its bathroom’. And, New Empire was a very well-kept and a lovely looking theatre. During my college days, the morning shows would usually be English films that were packed. They would even have broth on the menu at the food section.”
New Empire tickets and premiere show memorabilia from Deepak Rao’s collection. Pic/Bipin Kokate
The 1,000-seater theatre was made in the then-prevalent Art Deco style of architecture, and was one of Mumbai’s oldest single-screen cinema halls. Regal opened in 1933, Metro in 1938, Liberty in 1949, while New Empire originally opened in 1908 as a live theatre where you could even watch plays. It was renovated later in the Art Deco style in 1937.
Fritz von Drieberg of John Roberts and Company designed the theatre. “The original structure was made in the Baroque style by architect Arthur Payne with the interiors done by O’Connor and Gerard. It was the first theatre in Asia to have a cantilevered balcony. It opened with a grand performance by Batliwala and Company,” says Baghdadi.
Rao recalls the time when New Empire also screened World Boxing Championships before the movies, which drew in huge crowds. Apart from screening English movies it also once screened a French film.