Once upon a time at Metro...
Circa 1938: Bombay was like the city it is today. It was bursting with possibilities and was the hub for writers, artists and activists. It was also the era when the Art Deco architecture, characterised by angular shaped buildings with facades, gained precedence. Reflecting the fashion of the times were the cinema theatres such as Regal Cinema and Eros Cinema.
On June 8, 1938, they were joined by a new up-market cinema called Metro, which opened with the screening of the Broadway Melody of 1938. It was acquired by popular American entertainment studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Corporation in 1936 on a lease for 999 years at a nominal rent of `1 per annum. The site was once a stable for the Auxiliary Force India (AFI).
Live the movies
What set the theatre apart was its scale and grandeur; it could seat 1,500 people thereby being one of the largest city theatres, and was air-conditioned. The cinema complex was designed by MGM and Bombay architectural firm Ditchburn & Mistri and boasted of street-level shops, offices spread across six levels and a huge parking space among other features. The local newspapers announced its arrival with the statement:
“Where The Lion Roars!” Located on the edge between the Indian township and the European district, it awed citizens with its soda fountain, marble flooring, 15-feet high aluminum, cut-glass chandeliers, American fabrics, furniture by Wimbridge & Co., aluminum railings imported from the US and high steel-framed windows. Besides, there were Art Deco murals and designs from Hindu epics in the lobby, which were designed by professors from the Sir JJ School of Art and executed by their students.
Class, all the way
Author and city historian Deepak Rao recalls that Metro Cinema was the first American theatre in Mumbai, a fact which was resented by the other theatre owners, most of whom showcased British cinema. They even held demonstrations to make their displeasure felt over Americans establishing a cinema house. But soon, the city fell under the spell of the new theatre. “Metro Cinema was classy and one of the most beautiful theatres in the city. If you were part of the MGM club, you could watch movies at cheaper rates on Sundays. They also showcased fantastic animated films,” informs Rao, chipping in, “When the Prohibition was relaxed, cinegoers could even carry along beer upstairs, and watch the crowds pass by!”
“There were many rows for seating; it had a commoner’s entrance manned by a Pathan who made everyone walk in a straight line. The tickets mentioned that the right of admission was reserved,” recounts Rao. There was also a dress code, which emphasised that people had to be appropriately dressed to visit the theatre. “The ushers were well-informed and everything was done systematically. During intermission, one was handed a cardboard stub to produce for re-entry.
Prior to the screening, they would have Metro news snippets that would include world news, old clips, boxing matches, World War footage and more,” he tells us. Over the years, however, the cinema became more commercialised and lost its inherent charm, feels Rao. He also minces no words when he says the cinema has been “butchered”. While a lot of places across the city have undergone a name change, Rao admits he’s glad that the street behind Metro Cinema is still called Cinema Road. Some things, thankfully, have survived the passage of time.
Fit for a King
Historian Rafique Baghdadi recounts that the cinema looked palatial. “It could bowl you over with its luxury and it resembled a Maharaja’s Palace frozen in stone. The staircase was beautiful and it had a soda fountain and a beer bar. Many soldiers would drop by, and schools would also bring their students for certain movies.
For children below 15, concessions were offered to adults who accompanied them,” says Baghdadi, who watched several movies at Metro, post 1956. “You felt small from the moment you entered. People would be in their best clothes. They wouldn’t show any Hindi movies, though. There was a certain ceremony to proceedings; the curtains would take their own time to rise, there was a hush. The marquee would be on in the evenings, and it was picturesque,” he recalls.
Metro screened American classics including Gone With The Wind and Westerns. “Movies starring popular stars like Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and Rock Hudson were screened here. It offered a 3D view of the city,” says Baghdadi. Tickets costed as less as 10 annas for the lowest stall.
“You had to go early to stand in line and a burly Pathan would put you in order. I would carry comic books to read while waiting,” chuckles Baghdadi. However, time has led to many changes, and not all for the best. Baghdadi rues the fact that since it has become a multiplex, it has lost its earlier comfort factor and the “experience” of going to the theatre.
The Metro Marquee
> The staples were popcorn, wafers, chicken rolls and sandwiches.
> The advertisements highlighted Metro’s air-conditioned environs with the tagline: “Every seat a cool retreat”.
> It had a First Day First Show on Thursdays (movies were screened almost as soon as they were released abroad) that would be watched by students from St Xavier’s College.
> Some of its big draws were the soda fountain, teak clad columns, white marbled floors and two 15-feet high aluminum and cut-glass chandeliers.
> Till Independence, the cinema showed social differences among its benefactors, with separate balcony seating arrangements for the ‘upper classes’.
> In the 1950s and perhaps earlier too, the cinema complex would host Western dance Championships.