Flashback with Mumbai's first cinema halls
A walk along South-Central Mumbai where theatres presented Raja Harishchandra this week in 1913
The soul of a city lies in its past. In the answer to the question: What happened here? This answer lies with the witnesses that have stood the test of time, ripened and thickened with stories in their wrinkles. Perhaps, there is no history of Mumbai that can be written without writing about cinema; that which gives it the ambivalent distinction of being the city of dreams.
The leap of imagination, images in motion, set off this dream in this city over a hundred years ago, in 1913. The Indian journey with the reel found its first landmark with an informal screening of the first Indian silent film, Raja Harishchandra by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke.
Olympia Cinematograph, where Raja Harishchandra was screened for the first time, stood near Chandaramji School near Dubashwadi in Sikkanagar, Girgaum. Pics/ Bipin Kokate
On the cine trail
The remains of those days were what we set out to find. Raja Harishchandra was screened for the first time at Olympia Cinematograph in Girgaum for friends and family on April 21 and then officially, on May 3 at Coronation Cinematograph and Variety Hall. What do those places look like now? Armed with addresses and names from a hundred years ago, from archives of newspapers like the then existing Bombay Chronicle and advertisements dug out by historian Rafique Baghdadi, the hunt began on a sultry April morning.
The Sandhurst Road confluence where Coronation stood. This building that stands opposite Cosmopolitan Restaurant near Prarthana Samaj, Girgaum, was built five years after the screening
At the onset, Baghdadi informed that the screening of Raja Harishchandra is closely linked to the arrival of a road in 1910, which in a way brought cinema to Mumbai. The Sandhurst Road, which is now a railway station, stretched from Girgaum Chowpatty to Dongri and soon housed many thriving theatres on it including Olympia and Coronation and also American-India and The New Alhambra. “The major part of the exploration will be on this road. Though a lot of it is now called by different names. We also have to keep in mind that earlier addresses were less complex than they are now. Like phone numbers were even single digit,” he explained, as we were swaying between optimism and pessimism about finding anything.
Majestic cinema has now become a shoppinng complex and stands near Girgaum Church
“Each of these theatres have interesting stories,” he went on, “American-India, owned by PB Mehta were the first to use the advanced cinematograph and were the first to run fans in the cinema hall.” Given our climatic conditions and the closed halls, it must have been a remarkable progress in the cinema watching experience, possibly comparable to the arrival of online booking.
Cosmopolitan restaurant (in pic) that stands near Hurkison Das Hospital and Prarthana Samaj, Girgaum. Coronation Cinematorgraph stood here on Sandhurst Road
The first stop was Majestic near Khotachiwadi. It wasn’t difficult to locate with the name floating around like the disproportionate names of people. Majestic Shopping Centre, other places in the area with Majestic arbitrarily written on it, shy with memories of flamboyance.
Publicity poster of Raja Harishchandra
Not pricking the hurt anymore, we moved forward to Girgaum Church (St Theresa’s), the once competitor of India-America Cinematograph as the landmark of the area. We walked the area asking if anyone had ever heard of this theatre; especially the older shops, hoping to land a story a great-grandfather told a father. Nothing. If only the church could speak.
The Girgaon Court near Sandhurst Road where Coronation stood. Dilip Kumar had proposed to Madhubala here
Next, we headed to the junction of Sandhurst Road and Khetwadi Road and found a building that came up in 1917, as proclaimed on its wall. This was the area of Coronation. Baghdadi said, “Interestingly, the four legendary theatres lasted from 1910 to 1917.” The other witness to the cinema, the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, stood in all its glory with marble tables and summer day reverie. Coronation, said Baghdadi, was also used for other shows like dance by Miss Irene Delmar, comical sketches like The McClements and food jugglery shows by Alexandroff.
Rafique Baghdadi on the cinema exploration walk. New Alhambra once stood at Memonwada in Dongri
He then brought out more treasures from the chest of history. “On the day of the screening of Raja Harishchandra, there was a show by Ms Gauhar Jaan elsewhere in the city with tickets priced at R5. And, on that day, there was an advertisement in newspapers for the best Bombay mangoes and Godrej safes,” he says, making us wonder that for some brands, a 100 years was not really that long ago.
The road near Girgaum church that connects Prarthana Samaj where American-India cinematograph once stood PICS/Bipin Kokate
Our next hunt was a tricky one. We went out looking for Dubash lane, which few people seemed to know but luckily they knew Chandaramji High School, established a few years before Olympia Cinematograph.
Our final stop was to locate New Alhambra that took us to Dongri which took around 20 minutes. Here, at the opening of Memonwada a theatre once stood that brought to the city cinema from all over the world. All that stood there now were buildings, some which were being brought down and some beautiful old houses with slanting roofs from which several pigeons fly aflutter, to lead us to the soul in cracks of concrete.
Although Ramchandra Gopal (Dadasaheb) Torne is said to have made the first film, Shree Pundalik (1912) before Dhundiraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke made his, Phalke is regarded as the father of Indian cinema. It could be because unlike Phalke, Torne sent his film overseas for processing. Torne’s Pundalik was 22 minutes long and Phalke’s Raja Harischandra ran for about 40 minutes.
Alam Ara, directed by Ardeshir Irani, that released in 1931 was the first Indian sound film. Irani recognised the importance that sound would have on the cinema, and raced to complete Alam Ara before several contemporary sound films.