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From Play House to Movie Theatre – By Rafique Baghdadi

Movie theatres in the city of Bombay – cinema’s birthplace, are written on the wall – ironically, walls plastered over with film posters.  The threat is clear by the fact that over the last few years, the number of theatres has dropped from 125 to 100. It is a nice round figure no doubt, but does nothing to cheer the film buff, unlike the cricket fan’s deafening applause when a batsman reaches the century mark.

The history of Bombay’s theatres goes back to 1770.  And it is a fascinating history that spans two and a quarter centuries.  Bombay’s first theatre – naturally called Bombay Theatre – was built at Bombay Green (now Horniman Circle, hub of the business district) in 1770 mainly through subscriptions.  Its career was brief. The ground upon which it stood was granted by the Government unconditionally and the manuscript of the building rested with the trustees. Unfortunately, the proceeds from the shows were not sufficient to keep the building in proper repair.  In 1818, Bombay Theatre had become so dilapidated that the Government was obliged to make a fresh grant for its renovation, on condition that it was used solely for public theatrical entertainment. The renovated building finally opened in 1819.

No further theatres were built in Bombay till 1845.  In that year, another unsuccessful venture, thanks largely to the generosity of Jagannath Shankersett and a few enthusiasts, was attempted.  It was known as the Grant Road theatre but the more formal name was Shankersett Theatre and also the Royal Theatre. It was inaugurated on February 10, 1846.  It may be shabby now but this theatre, boasting an unsuspected longevity and a saga of multiple names, still exists in the form of a cinema hall known as Gulshan Talkies, near the Delhi Durbar restaurant on Grant Road.

Another well-known theatre in the early years of the 19th century was the Artillery Theatre at Matunga.  Here was staged a grand play with the rather extraordinary title Miss in Her Teens & The Padlock plays by David Garrick.  The Governor and Bombay’s elite were present on that first night more than one hundred years ago. The play was pronounced an unqualified success.  Little is known of the theatre’s subsequent activities. It, too, probably died a speedy death.

In course of time, several other theatres sprang up, the most notable being Novelty, Gaiety and Empire.  At these houses, local dramatic talent – which was sparse – was constantly replenished by visiting companies, both dramatic and operative, from abroad.  They had a great influence on the growth and development of local dramatic talent and it was during this period that the city saw some of the world’s finest artistes perform.

In 1865, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati and Konkani plays were regularly performed in the city.  There were six theatres for local performances at the junction of Falkland Road and Grant Road.  This was in addition to the rebuilt Gaiety Theatre, opposite Victoria Terminus, (CST) and two other theatres on Kalbadevi Road.  The most up-to-date theatres in the Grant Road neighbourhood were the Grand Theatre, which was built in 1907 and run by a well known Parsi actor-manager, and Appus Theatre, which opened a littler later.  The Parsi theatre connection is significant because early Hindi films drew heavily from its florid rhetoric and unabashedly imitated the genre’s melodramatic style.

Grant Road was the hub of the theatre district.  At the corner of Grant Road were two other theatres facing one another – Ripon and Victoria.  Ripon was given a face lift in 1925 and is now a cinema theatre called Alfred Talkies, while Victoria retained its original building but changed its name to Taj Talkies theatre (it is no more).  A little ahead of Taj Talkies, on what is now Maulana Shaukhat Ali Road, is Nishat Talkies which was once the Coronation Theatre.

Beyond Taj Talkies, going west towards the Foras Road junction after crossing Arab Gully and the Parsi Fire Temple, was another landmark.  This was Daulat Talkies, sadly extinct, but it has bequeathed memories of rather splendid, if brief, days of fame. It was formerly known as Baliwala Grant Theatre, after its owner Khursetji Mehrwanji Baliwala who also owned a theatrical company called the Victoria Theatrical Company.  Baliwala was a great comedian and he was the first to take his company on an overseas tour to Burma, Ceylon, Thailand and England.

At the beginning of this century, the main European theatres were Novelty and Empire.  There was also Tivoli which occupied the site where The Times of India building now stands so imposingly.  Subsequently, it yielded to the renovated and improved Gaiety which was bought by a local dramatic company.  Gaiety, now Capitol, opened on December 6, 1879.

Bombay revels in recalling how the Lumiere Brothers brought the first cinema machine,  The Cinematograph, to Bombay in June 1896, and held the first cinema show in a room in Watson’s Hotel on 7 July 1896.  Some 200 persons who were present had paid a fee of Rs. 2/- (a princely sum for entertainment in those days!) per head.  An advertisement in The Times of India of that date trumpeted the event as “The Marvel of the Century”, “The Wonder of the World” and other such hyperbole.  The hype (then) and nostalgia (now) seem justified, going by contemporary reports. There was a heavy downpour that day, for it was in the middle of Bombay’s monsoon, but  the city’s monsoon fury did not dampen the enthusiasm felt all over the city on that historic day.

The first show at Novelty theatre (site of the present Excelsior theatre) was on July 14, 1896. Two shows a day were held here and the admission fee ranged from 4 annas (quarter of a rupee) for the gallery to Rs. 2 for the orchestra stall and dress circle.  Special boxes were reserved for families and ladies in purdah. These were merely casual shows and there were no regular cinema screenings until much later.

A year of two later, two Italians named Signor Colonello & Cornaglia gave a number of successful shows in Bombay.  About the same time, Mr. Jamshedji Tata, India’s premier and pioneering industrialist, bought a cinema apparatus for private use and installed it in his home, the splendid Esplanade House.  Soon afterwards, some Europeans connected with Paris – India Motor Car Co. of Horny Road – started cinema shows at Novelty theatre. They were followed by many enterprising firms and individuals too. M/s Clifton & Co. (photographers who showed films at their studio in Meadows Street in September 1897); P.A. Andrews who held shows at the present Times of India building; and others like Khursedjii Baliwala Morera, Edaljee Patel and Signor Limbo, who showed films of local interest as well some scenes from the Boer War.  These were the early pioneers who brought the magic of cinema and the immediacy of reportage to India.

By 1907, regular cinema shows were established in the country when M. Charles Pathe opened a branch of his company for the production of films.  He also set up projection equipment in Bombay. Messieurs, Colonello and Cornaglia of Excelsior Cinema and P.B. Mehta of American India theatre held regular shows in their tents set up in the Maidan – Bombay’s shrinking green lung.  By 1910, many cinema halls had mushroomed in the city and people flocked to see foreign films. In the beginning, only foreign films were screened, with magic shows and live dance performances as additional allurements for native audiences not too enamoured of the foreign fare.  In essence, this hybrid mix continues to thrive – in mutated form of course – in Bombay’s formula films.

The time for a wholly indigenous film was imminent… It was on 3 May (Saturday) 1913 that the first Indian feature film (silent and 3700 feet long) was born when Dadasaheb Phalke made Raja Harischandra.  It was proclaimed a huge success. The film opened in Bombay at the Coronation Cinematograph and Variety Hall, on Sandhurst Road in Girgaum. An advertisement in the local paper, The Bombay Chronicle, touted the film as “a powerfully instructive subject from Indian mythology.”  It was so popular that it proved a veritable gold mine. One can imagine what a great event it must have been when Indian cinemagoers saw for the first time on the silver screen, a familiar story set in native surroundings and enacted by people like themselves.

March 14, 1931. The place – Majestic Cinema. The event – India’s first 100% “Talkie”, Alam Ara, produced by the Imperial Film Company and directed by Ardeshir Irani. Irani had summoned a sound engineer from Hollywood but he was found too expensive, with the result that Irani donned the sound recordist’s hat besides the director’s. The major movie theatres of Bombay were built and started showing movies between 1910 and 1940.  The Royal Opera House (the present Opera House, which has sadly stopped showing films) was inaugurated in 1940 and it is now counted among the heritage buildings of the city. On the occasion of the coronation of George V, the Imperial was opened on April 5, 1917. Alexandra opened on October 6, 1921 and Capitol on January 9, 1928.

The advent of the talkies proved to be a major setback for the dramatic arts in Bombay.  Drama’s loss was cinema’s gain. By about 1942-43, most of the playhouses had turned into movie theatres.  Excelsior showed the first Talkie film on February 21, 1928. The film was The Melody of Love. The Jazz Singer was shown on June 15, 1929.  The strategically situated Regal, towering majestically at the entrance of Colaba Causeway, was inaugurated in October 1933. Regal is the first cinema theatre in all of Asia to be centrally air-conditioned. Eros, opposite Churchgate which disgorges commuters by the thousands, opened on February 12, 1938.  Metro, the other landmark, screened its first film on June 8, 1938. Liberty Cinema is an Art Deco 1200 seater single screen movie theatre in Mumbai. Since the cinema was built in 1947, the year of India’s Independence, its founder Habib Hoosein decided to name it “Liberty”. Started on 2 February 1950, Liberty screens Hindi movies.  All the four above-mentioned theatres – which till recently screened only foreign films, and Regal continues to do so – were the last word in comfort and style. They cocooned their patrons in carpeted luxury and Art Deco splendour.

During this period, most of the famous theatres were owned by Parsis and Bohras.  At one time, the Bohras owned Imperial, Majestic, Alexandra, Globe, Broadway and Taj Talkies.  A few rather fancied lending their names to both the theatres and businesses they owned – like a Parsi gentleman named Mr. Wellington, who owned both the Wellington cinema and the Wellington Motor and Cycle Co.  The funnies name given to a theatre was the American Joosab Cinema owned by a Memon gentleman called Joosab. How this scion of the Muslim community known for its entrepreneurial ability acquired the American tag remains an intriguing  mystery. Today, this theatre has shed all its mystery and calls itself Moti. Alas, the pristine pearly splendour evoked by the name ill befits the squalor of Golpitha.

Architectural styles and naming eccentricities apart, cinema halls – like the city’s clogged railway platforms – were the first spaces that could be shared by the various strata of society and all communities on an equal footing.  Cinema is truly a democratizing art.

           Unfortunately, the saga of Bombay’s film industry which grew by leaps and bounds to mammoth proportions from its modest and halting beginnings is not so rosy any more.  At one time, cinema theatres drew packed houses for every film. But that long honeymoon has ended with the DVD boom and now, with cable and satellite T.V. Like all booms that went bust, many theatres have now closed, making way for shopping malls.  And without multiplexes, as in the West.

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