Last day, no show

Alfred came up in 1880 as a drama theatre. Photo: Vivek Bendre   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

It’s matinee time and a vendor outside the 100-year-old Alfred Theatre in Kamathipura busily slices hardboiled eggs and tosses them into a butter-layered pan. A crowd emerges during the interval and the vendor deftly spreads the crimson eggs on the bread and sells them for Rs. 10 apiece. Soon, the vendor moves his cart to the adjoining theatre, New Roshan Talkies. Inside Alfred, which is screening the 1979 film Chunauti, the theatre’s manager sizes up three slim bundles of notes — mostly tens and a couple of hundreds — and estimates that the theatre is about half-full.

The oldest theatres of erstwhile Bombay, most of which are located in South and Central Mumbai, have seen better times — red carpets, silver jubilee shows, 1,000-seater halls packed to capacity and houseful boards announcing their filled coffers. But this burden of nostalgia is all the owners of these theatres now have and want to quickly shed. In India’s cinema capital Mumbai, the iconic cinema theatres that were built 80 to 100 years ago are desperate to shut shop.

Business is bleak, and has been bleak for years now, they say. Some have already downed shutters, the latest being Star in Mazgaon that came up in the 1940s and Alexandra in Kamathipura that dates back to around 1918. The harshest blow, however, was the closing of Minerva, revered as the Pride of Maharashtra, where Sholay ran for five consecutive years.

“These theatres had re-runs of old films even in the past and we visited them precisely for that reason, to be transported back in time. I watched Mughal-e-Azam at Naaz, Kohinoor at Opera House and Alladin aur Jadui Chirag at Alfred,” says film buff Ronak Brahmbhatt, 45.

Today, it’s mostly daily wage workers, urchins and beggars who go to these theatres where the tickets are priced between Rs. 18 and Rs. 30. Owners say the crowd increases marginally in summer, when many people come in just for the air-conditioning.

In the city’s erstwhile cinema district stretching between Lamington Road and Grant Road, at least seven of the 20 theatres have closed, including Majestic, Swastik, Diana, Apsara, Novelty and Naaz. Opera House was also shut down but is undergoing renovation and is set to reopen later this year.

It’s not that the theatres aren’t trying to stay afloat. “We change movies every three to four days, but attendance is still poor,” says Huzefa Bootwala, manager at Alfred, which came up in 1880 as a drama theatre called Ripon, a name that’s still etched on the 1880 edifice. Some theatres have tried to hard-sell old-world charm to an audience that gets the latest releases on mobile phones, but failed. The Deepak in Lower Parel reinvented itself — turning the theatre into an international film centre to showcase world cinema, but it’s struggling to survive. Punit Shah, the owner, lists the hurdles: lack of government support, huge taxation and lack of subsidy. Shah inherited the theatre from his father and says if he had a choice he would move out.

A faded cut-out of the 1975 hit Jai Santoshi Maa sits atop the locker at Edward Theatre in Kalbadevi, which the manager points to as he narrates the theatre’s dream run — the film ran to houseful shows for 48 weeks, women thronging it, performing prayers and singing bhajans. “The entertainment tax was 31 per cent even then, but it didn’t pinch. The theatre was flush with funds,” says Sanjay Vasawa, theatre manager, showing the account books. “We sell tickets for Rs. 30. Earnings for last week were Rs. 19,700 and we paid Rs. 9,700 in taxes,” says Vasawa. Add to that other expenses such as staff salaries and electricity bill, and it doesn’t take a wizard to do the profit-loss math. There is no budget or infrastructure to screen new films.

But there’s a catch. The government’s development control regulations prohibit these theatre owners from using the property for anything but screening films. “They don’t allow us to leave the cinema business. I own this place; it’s my fundamental right to do the business I want,” says R.P. Anand (84), owner of Naaz theatre, which was once the country’s film distribution hub. Located at Lamington Road, Naaz shut about five years ago. Sitting in his office amidst silver jubilee trophies, Anand says his theatre had a soundproof room where mothers could take their babies if they started crying during the film. “This was the cheapest entertainment the common man could afford,” he says.

And although times changed, with multiplexes, piracy, and umpteen other entertainment avenues, the government rule didn’t. After repeated representations, the government allowed theatres to redevelop, but on the condition that 40 per cent of the space would be reserved for screening films. Given the mammoth size of the theatres, earmarking 40 per cent would roughly translate to 400-seater theatres, still bigger than the normal multiplex size, says Nitin Datar, vice-president of Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association, adding that business would still remain commercially unviable given the taxes and the overall nature of the film business.

These theatres were once integral to Mumbai’s social fabric. “They are as important to Mumbai as local trains,” says Madhushree Dutta, who co-authored a dossier titled ‘Cinema Theatres in Bombay/ Mumbai’. She says the government needs to encourage the theatres and reduce taxes, adding that such properties cannot be seen just as real estate. Besides, Mumbai is unlike any other city, as conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah says. “No other city can claim to be a film nagri. Imagine if this was Hollywood and there were these historic art deco theatres. It would have been proud of them and tried to save them.”

Meanwhile, the owners still cling to the remnants of their erstwhile passion. Anand of Naaz walks into the empty theatre at 3.00 p.m. every day and sits there alone until evening. Vasawa of Edward says the theatre is home, literally, as his father worked here and lived in the green room. At Alfred, Bootwala, 60, says he joined the theatre when he was 24. “I will continue working here until the theatre closes, or until I die.”

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 2:36:06 AM |

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