In Mumbai many old single-screen cinema halls have been shutting down regularly due to economic reasons. Historically the most important of these was Majestic cinema in Girgaon. This is ‘the’ most important theater in India, because country’s very first feature film, Raja Harishchandra made by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke released in Majestic Cinema on May 3, 1913!
Not being able to patronize Majestic even once is my biggest loss. I feel bad today about being in the Majestic neighborhood for five years and not being able to visit it. It is like missing out on a most important chunk of cinematic history. In fact I have not had opportunities to visit so many other cinemas too in Mumbai. Now I do not want to miss a chance of seeing a movie in the surviving old theatres. More over renovation and multiplexisation of iconic Metro cinema has put me on alert.
In this mission titled ‘visit old theatres’ the list is very long. I decided to start with Imperial, an old beauty situated on Lamington Road near Grant Road station, Mumbai. Naaz and Swastik cinemas are its immediate neighbors. Naaz is very old too, but I have seen many films here. I could not make it to Swastik in time, though. Well, let us talk about what is in our hands, rather than fretting for what we have lost and will never get it back.
On Aug 22, 2006, I reached Imperial cinema around 3.00pm. Like Metro I did not come here to see a movie; but to see the theatre. The show timings here still have the same old schedule of 12.30pm, 3.30pm, 6.30m and 9.30pm. At the booking window my eyes widened with surprise at the price of the tickets. They were Rs. 20 for balcony and Rs. 15 for stalls. I felt as if ‘forward to the past’ has occurred to me. I was transported to an era of 70s. I got myself a balcony ticket for the film titled, ‘Murder Ka Nasha’, which when loosely translated into English would be ‘intoxication of murdering’. Well a close look at the poster of the film revealed that I was going to watch Basic Instinct-2, dubbed in Hindi.
There was enough time for me snoop around various corners and crevices of the old structure. The white marble steps leading to the balcony had become so smooth with over use that they felt like silk carpet under my shoes. There were so many parts in the architecture that were purely for beauty and had no practical use. But then a cinema hall has to be pleasing to the eyes and that’s what it was. This theatre is also called as ‘Haathiwala’ theatre, because in its compound there is a pair of life size concrete elephants overlooking a lane. The elephants are still in perfect shape, though a lot of structural area is damaged. The grass and moss is growing in the cracks, giving it an eerie look of a palace whose owner has no will or resources to maintain it. Although it is still a cinema hall in 2006, the settings are of a period film.
I entered the balcony. It looked very friendly and spacious. The seats were not modern; but comfortable. There were fans humming from the ceiling. In stalls too there were ceiling fans, as well fans on the walls. Observing every bit of detail, I took a seat under a fan. There were no seat numbers. The walls had pleasing molding designs. They had survived the time. The ceiling looked fine. The space itself neither was not too large to overwhelm you nor too cramped to make you feel claustrophobic. It was just right. Then my eyes fell at the back of the seat in front. Horrors! There was this very Indian ubiquitous patch of red splash. My knees nearly touched it! Without thinking I got up to find another seat. But I could not. All the seats had that symmetrical spit trade mark. Suddenly I started feeling all this amusing in place of irritating. I went back to the first seat. Slowly the seats started to fill up. I observed that finally about 100 people were in the balcony. Everyone sat separately. Everyone was male.
Lamington road is a business area dealing mainly in electronics and pirated music. Other most popular business here is prostitution. Yes I had noticed two dressed up elderly business women in the compound. After the movie started one of them walked in and went straight to a man sitting in an extreme corner. She spoke for a few moments and then walked away. It seemed to me that sitting in the corner may be a hint which this guy was not aware of. Basic Instinct is a very red light area film. But there were no whistles, no cat calls. Everyone was resting, making use of spare time or perhaps taking a nap. After all in today’s time if 20 bucks can get you 3 hours in a quiet place to relax, it is worth it. I also felt as if I was in a spiritual place where everyone had gathered to let go of their worries.
The intermission slide splashed on the screen. Suddenly I remembered that film ‘Taxi Driver’ made by Navketan, was premiered in this theatre… As my eyes panned away from screen, the walls and the moldings morphed into the period nearly 50 years back. Everything turned new. All the polish on the wood turned fresh. There were streamers hanging from the fans in place of cob-webs. The chairs were smooth and glossy. The crowd in the balcony had Dev Anand, director Chetan Anand, Kalpana Kartik, S D Burman, Talat Mehmood, Lata Mangeshkar, Johnny Walker and many more. They were all shaking hands excitedly and mingling with each other. Some held Coca Cola bottles, while others were being offered cups of tea and snacks. Some eager faces were peeping in from the door to get a glimpse of the super star Dev Anand. The interior of the Imperial cinema looked like a dressed up bride. Softly a band played ‘Jayen to Jayen Kahan’… With the notes of western music and Sharon Stone’s voice, the ambience slowly morphed back into the present. Intermission was over. As I had already seen the original version of this film, I decided to leave this Imperial theatre after touching the trunks of the elephants.