If the far-sighted plan of the Kapur clan had been approved in the 1990s, Rex would have been not just Bangalore’s but India’s first multiplex

You’ve heard the phrase ‘the magic of the movies’, it’s nothing new. But a movie theatre, too, can bring you a magical experience. I had one last week. Turned me into a regular Alice falling down the rabbit-hole, it did. You’ll never guess what happened, so I might as well tell you.

I was invited to a seminar at Rex Cinema, the last surviving single-screen hall in the Hollywood archipelago around M.G. Road. (Newcomers to our city may not know that Blu Moon, Blu Diamond, Galaxy and Plaza bit the dust; Lido and Symphony morphed into multiplexes; BRV’s lease ran out; Liberty, Opera and Imperial were early casualties; and they all used to specialise in English films.) Down Brigade Road I hurried, turning sharply into the gate (I was late), racing through the parking lot, up two steps to the doorway where a grey-haired face from the past recognised me. “You know where it is?” he asked, with not the slightest doubt why I was there. When I hesitated he continued, “I’ll take you.”

We walked in the darkness past the closed doors of the auditorium from where a faint, muffled soundtrack issued forth. Turn right, down the long corridor leading to the toilets — familiar ground, for I had been to virtually a million screenings here, and I believed I knew every inch of the building. Then we stopped at a large blue door on the left wall at the far end of the corridor. It had always remained locked. “Go in,” he gestured.

I pushed apart the panels of the heavy blue door, expecting to find a room with people in it, but stepped out into empty space instead. A few feet ahead of me was another door in a distempered wall, which I opened. Here it is at last, I thought, the seminar room. And what do I find? Myself in the compound of an ancient bungalow on Rest House Crescent Road! If I’d stumbled upon a pair of Bart Simpson’s shorts that said “Eat me” I couldn’t have been more thunderstruck. Not in all my 35 years in Bangalore had I known that the theatre had a secret passage.

I later learnt that the theatre manager lived in this bungalow once upon a time. Right now, I could see a computer printout with the word ‘Now Showing’ in block letters, taped onto the facade. ‘Seminar’ was too formal a word for what was in progress in the living room — a combination of academic discussion and reminiscence. The exercise was organised by teenaged students doing an oral history project. Academicians spoke of how old cinemas were democratic urban spaces whereas multiplexes shut out the lower classes. Old-timers remembered the films they’d seen at Rex (and others in the archipelago), and Premchand’s encyclopaedic memory knocked the socks off everyone. He had also brought film strips with him — to show the youngsters, in particular: a 70 mm strip (of frames of Sigourney Weaver in Alien) and a 35 mm strip with black lines indicating the soundtrack. A wide-eyed student, who had evidently grown up in the digital era and had never seen a projector, could not visualise the strip rolling, and asked where the soundtrack was “encoded”!

Lapping it all up was owner Anil Kapur who shared his own memories. He said casually, of the bungalow, “My parents were married here.” As for the theatre, he used to bunk classes and sneak in there until his uncle caught him at it one day. The truant grew up to join his uncle Kamal Kapur in the business, and today he is one of the directors of the company. I felt the evening would not be complete until I had embarrassed AK by announcing to the gathering that, in the 1990s, he had dressed up in a Batman outfit as publicity for the movie. Many in the audience had fallen for the act, believing this was Michael Keaton in the flesh despite the rather shaky American accent that AK had endowed the superhero with.

Mamaji was recalled by many — that polite, frail man who looked as if a sudden gust of air would tip him over, but who ruled the place with an iron fist. He would open the counter only when a long queue had formed, so that it would tempt passersby to buy tickets for what appeared to be a highly popular movie. He identified touts and kept them at bay. Once, a tout managed to get in and occupy a seat. Mamaji walked up to him and slapped him hard. He left quietly, without a squeak.

The inevitable question at the end of the evening was, “Multiplex or not?” If the far-sighted plan of the Kapur clan had been approved in the 1990s, Rex would have been not just Bangalore’s but India’s first multiplex. Now that the mall-multiplex formula was all-pervasive, AK wanted to be unique. His personal vision for the property that stretched from 12 Brigade Road to 169 Rest House Crescent: a cinema built in the colonial style with a few rows of cheaper seats for the common man, a rooftop garden, a meeting place, walkways, trees aplenty... Sounded like a pipedream.

As I listened to him I hoped it would turn out to be more than a fairytale set in Wonderland.

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