Go forth and multi-plex
Some old cinemas cling on to life in an age of plush, multi-screen entertainment
If you like to indulge in nostalgia, take it that you have become old. I have no qualms about becoming old so I will exercise my right to visit the past with a lump in my throat.
Like they say, old habits die hard. I was always fond of viewing every new release, in fact I am the First Day, First Show kind of person, in new cinema halls every time.
I recently visited a newly opened plush multiplex operated by a world-renowned chain. This visit opened a floodgate of memories [or is it bees from the beehive, because that is a more popular phrase these days] of cinema halls of yore. Those, we frequented as students in short pants and then in oddly fitting trousers worn for the first time during college days.
I came to Mumbai nearly 40 years ago. It was Mumbai for us Marathi-speaking Maharash-trians even then. The era of multiplexes had not dawned and there were umpteen single-screen theatres spread all over Mumbai, from Colaba to Borivali.
The first name that immediately comes to mind is that of Strand. Strand was one of the most prestigious South Mumbai theatres, and screened Hollywood masterpieces. Who can forget ‘McKenna’s Gold’ that was screened here! For the records, it is the longest running Hollywood English language movie in the town. As far as I remember it went well over 42 weeks without any break! ‘Taking of Pelham 1,2,3’ and ‘Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox’ were others, just to name a few. During the imposition of a ban on import of Hollywood flicks somewhere in 1970s, it showed a few Bollywood extravaganzas too, but it was closed thereafter, to be reopened only for a short while. It has been defunct now and Kwality head honcho Ravi Ghai has bought it according to newspaper reports.
Near CST in SoMu (not SoBo, as they like to say) there was, just ahead of GPO, one whose name has been erased from the chronicles of Mumbai cinema halls. This was ‘Rex’. It screened only English flicks as well, but was never considered upmarket.
It gave way to a cheap market, the likes of which flourished in that area in those times. Another one that was brought down to build today’s Manish Market was ‘Radio’. Yes, that was the name of a cinema hall. It exhibited ‘C’ grade Hindi movies, the delight of front-benchers.
There is another group of theatres that never run fresh stock. They always thrive on reruns. They abound around central Mumbai especially in Kamathipura. Today’s Gulshan at one time was Pila House [mutilation of Play House] that boasted of staging Bal Gandharva plays in its heyday. As electricity had not arrived then, they were lit by Petromax lanterns!
Out of eight or nine cinema houses here, Daulat and Taj have downed shutters. Royal, Nishat, Alfred, Moti and Silver are still holding on to their lives by a thread.
It’s only a stretch of a kilometre or so apart but it makes a lot of difference between the elites and the plebians. On the other side, on Grant Road, stood magnificently, Minerva, Apsara, Naaz, Swastika and a whole lot, that screened brand-new Bollywood masterpieces in their full regalia. Opera House and Majestic were only a stone’s throw away.
Majestic stood apart, as it had the privilege of screening the first ‘talkies’ ever produced in India, Alam Ara! It also showed Sant Tukaram, the first Indian movie to win international prizes and praise. I distinctly remember its red building standing grandiosely on ample ground, at Girgaum cross road, which was brought down for renovation. A new building had an auditorium planned for screening movies. But the Police Commissioner of Mumbai scrapped plans citing that there would be “traffic snarls” as the reason. How right he was, if you see the traffic conditions of today.
Opera House has an old-world charm even today, and is a heritage site. It staged plays in the past and was a favourite haunt for Prithviraj Kapoor’s Drama Company. His famous play Pathan had several performances here. The speciality of Opera House was that once it opened a new release, it always ran for at least a year or so! If it ran only for 25 weeks, your product was considered below par.
Navrang, the Dilip Kumar starrer Ganga Jamuna, Roti Kapda aur Makan, Amar Akbar Anthony and Do Rastey ran here to packed houses for years together.
How many know that Swastik was once Pathe; Apsara, Lamington; Naaz, West End; and Alankar, Kamal? Swastik screened the Shantaram classic Shakuntala, starring Jayashree, for many months. Apsara opened in its new avatar with Raj Kapoor’s Sangam, which made box office history in the mid-1960s.
Ganga Jamuna at Tardeo, the first-of-its-kind twin-screen theatre, came much later -- and eventually went into oblivion. I think it opened with the Dev Anand starrer when he began his downhill course, Prem Pujari. It bombed even in those days.
The first multiplex of Mumbai in the truest sense was a triplex at Andheri -- Amber, Oscar, Minor. One remembers seeing Rajanigandha at Minor over there with the heart going out to simpleton Amol Palekar, who introduced a new path-breaking trend for a typical Hindi cinema hero (of course, not for Vidya Sinha who looked like a mother of two even then!). Alas, the Rahejas probably did not get wind of the coming multiplex revolution, and converted the complex into the first multibrand upmarket retail outlet, called Shoppers’ Stop.
Lotus, Satyam, Sundaram, Sachinam, Geeta alias Kumkum, Kismet, Broadway... there have been so many casualties over the years. Some came back to life in their new avatars but most of them went into oblivion without even a whimper.
I do not know whether it is a bane or a boon, as the void has been filled by so many multiplexes that have mushroomed all over the city in the last decade or so. But that exotic experience of moviegoing has been lost due to extreme commercialization. Perhaps it reflects similar changes in many other aspects of life, too.