Curtain call not yet?
In a bid to return from the brink of extinction, the iconic Liberty Cinema is reinventing itself to make way for well-heeled audiences who will appreciate the venue and set the cash registers ringing once more. Life for this iconic theatre comes full circle as the swish set traipses back into its gilded interiors
We found ourselves back in the red carpeted interiors of Liberty Cinema last Sunday, after almost a decade. Much hadn’t changed, and yet, so much had. We remember our mum dressing us up before being driven in our Fiat Premier Padmini all the way to the southern tip of the city, and huddling us into the dress circle of this gorgeous cinema.
This time, we were in our best flip-flops and baggy pants; it was a humid Sunday morning and we could be least bothered. In the gilded hallways speckled with mirrors and art, we mouthed scrumptious beetroot crepes instead of popcorn and sipped wine instead of flat ‘fountain Pepsi’ from a tall paper glass.
Instead of scrambling for seats upstairs to get the maximum distance between the gigantic screen and the tiny us, we found ourselves in the seats up front, usually priced the cheapest in any cinema hall.
And instead of keeping shush while the screen held our attention, we were moving to the beat, chatting with our neighbours, cheering and clapping loudly. We gaped at the art scattered around, enjoyed the bluesy tunes being served with coffee cupcakes for dessert, and almost forgave the theatre for making us scrunch our noses at what smelt like pee, when we decided to peek into the balcony section.
Art works on display at Liberty Cinema during Music Matinee, organised by Indigo Live, on October 28. Pics courtesy/ Indigo Live
Liberty Cinema, in a bid to reinvent its slightly-tarnished street cred as well as get the cash registers ringing, has been opening up its sumptuous interiors to live performances that include theatre and music events, apart from screenings of world cinema. Add a healthy dose of old-world charm that has been meticulously preserved by owner Nazir Hoosein, its art deco architecture and a sense of nostalgia that creeps into the souls of most of those walking in, and we can feel the stirrings of what could soon become a landmark culture hub that had the guts (and common sense) to break free from its pre-defined role.
Down memory lane
In an entertainment scene that has been rapidly changing, Liberty Cinema that stands near Bombay Hospital, has survived a stunning 63 years in the business. It ran non-stop, often to packed audiences, till a month ago when 72 year-old Hoosein stopped screening commercial cinema to make way for alternative films and live performances, like last Sunday’s Music Matinee, an event organised by music network Indigo Live. There was an art exhibition, a brunch and a blues tribute gig. The turnout was poor, with about 50 people in the audience, mostly friends of those performing. “But being in a venue that has so much charisma and history was amazing,” recounts drummer Rahul Hariharan, one of the musicians who performed. “When I first told my grandma that I was performing at Liberty, she asked if I was starring in a movie.”
Called Liberty because its construction was started in 1947 — the year India became independent — the opulent cinema marked ‘the beginning of the showman’s consciousness of his product’, as the brochure printed in 1949 and lovingly preserved by Hoosein, reads. “At that time, we desperately needed an outstanding place for exhibiting Hindi cinema and this was it,” says Hoosein, whose father Habib Hoosein constructed the cinema in order to give deluxe treatment to Hindi cinema audiences. Automatic curtain controls, push back chairs, a modern marquee, wooden panelling of Canadian cedar and Burma teak, art deco motifs — Liberty became the ‘showplace of the nation’.
Hoosein, who had a career in motor sports, got involved in the theatre after his father passed away. “Seeing my passion for cars, my father had given the cinema to some of his friends to run,” he tells us. “Things were okay for a while, but soon started to deteriorate since these people were only interested in making money. Naturally, we started fighting. It took some time but I managed to get it back through legal means and business tactics.” At that time, the carpets were in shreds, some seats were broken and the cinema badly needed a paint job. What turned around the fortunes of the cinema, however, was the screening of Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994), which ran houseful for 44 weeks. The film played there for a total 125 weeks.
All seemed fine till the advent of the multiplexes in the post-Millennium era. With tax holidays being awarded to multiplexes and several cinemas in the vicinity running the same film, business gradually declined. “Cinemas have become unviable today,” says Hoosein in his characteristic way of enunciating each syllable. “The government interferes far too deeply with everything. Multiplexes were given tax breaks because they are supposed to be tourist attractions. That, in my humble opinion, is a load of rubbish.”
Since last year, Hoosein has been thinking of ways of keeping the tiered drapes in his cinema hall come up at regular intervals, without having to sell off the cinema to a big-budget company that would convert it into a multiplex, quite like the change that the neighbouring Metro Cinema underwent a few years ago. In the past couple of months Liberty has hosted a French film festival put together by Alliance Française, live gigs that included an event titled ‘Loudest Day of the Year’ by music company Only Much Louder and the theatrical play, The Class Act. “The design of Liberty is such that no matter where you sit, you can see the stage clearly,” says Dr Sharmeela Kazerouni, co-owner of Silly Point Productions that produced the play. “The stage doesn’t have an attached green room but still, this was the most surreal experience we all had. As a city, we need more performance spaces. Frankly, Liberty wouldn’t be my first choice when it comes to watching a movie. So we were all pleasantly surprised to see how excited people were to watch a play here.”
Music Matinee, the event held last Sunday, might not have seen a fabulous turnout, thanks to the exorbitant cost of the tickets (Rs 2,000) or the fact that Mumbai is too lazy to wake up in time for a Sunday brunch. But the organisers are hopeful that the word will spread. “It is exciting to get people to go for musical brunches in a place not traditionally known for music,” says Shom Jagtiani, director of Indigo Music. “There is so much excitement when it comes to reliving a Liberty experience — only now you can get wine and fancy starters instead of popcorn and a cola. We hope to come back here with diverse genres and give people a novel venue to hang out at.”
For Hoosein, the sudden transformation in the profile of the ones visiting his cinema is only good news. These are not the people who will sit in the stall seats and spit out a wad of chewed paan intermittently. “These people are appreciative of this place and these are the kind of people I want to cater to.”
Not everyone around is happy though.
“My dhanda is getting ruined because nobody comes to Liberty anymore,” says Ram Lakhan, who sells chana and peanuts right outside the theatre. He has been around for 20 years and, like the cinema, had his days of glory when Hum Aapke Hain Kaun drove audiences to the theatre. Business is slow now, he grumbles, but there is little he can do. He can’t move, because his license and permits wouldn’t allow him to. “And the 15-20 people who come to Liberty on Saturday and Sunday won’t even look at me, even if they like chana, because they are worried about what their friends will think.”
Tickets of Rs 350 in 1969!
>> Liberty Cinema has been screening alternative and world cinema for years now. When the price of black market tickets was the barometer of a film’s popularity, the 1969 Italian-French film La Piscine sold ‘black tickets’ for Rs 350 here while the actual ticket cost was little over Rs 3. All because there was a scene in which the actress was topless
>> Through the 125 weeks that Hum Aapke Hain Kaun ran here, Hoosein reckons, almost 2 million people watched the movie at his cinema.
>> The original architect of the cinema, MA Riddley-Abbot, an Englishman, died just as construction got underway. He was heading to London to visit home and his plane crashed. Construction was then overseen by a man named JB Fernandes, while a lot of the exterior and interior design was completed by WM Namjoshi, who also built the Maratha Mandir cinema