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Imagine paying Rs 20 to watch a film!

Imagine paying Rs 20 to watch a film!
By Dominick Rodrigues

Over a century ago, they attracted vast numbers of customers that included sailors docking in Mumbai from ships sailing around the world. But today their charm fails to work its magic due to the inevitable blitz of modern technology and megaplex structures.

'They' are the cinemas of old situated in Mumbai’s Grant Road area, whose once notorious yet famous red light area known as Falkland Road, flourished in providing entertainment ranging from drama and
mujras
to screening movies alongside the flesh trade and shops selling their variety of wares.

It's business as usual for the residents of the Falkland Road where, as night falls, streetlights highlight women practicing the oldest profession in the world. One cannot say the same for the area’s numerous cinema houses – also called theatres, talkies, movie houses – that often gave actors their big ticket to fame.

A walk along Falkland Road and its surrounding lanes/
gullies
– that once comprised cinema theatres such as Taj, Daulat, Alfred Talkies, Gulshan, New Roshan, Silver, Moti, Nishat and Royal – accompanied by cinemas owners/managers revealed an interesting story. The once-bustling street is now barely a shade of its former self. 'There were around 125 theatres in Mumbai with majority of them being in the Grant Road area,' says a representative of the Cinema Owners & Exhibitors Association of India whose membership, covering the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat and Goa, has dwindled to 500 from 1,200 three decades ago.

'Once upon a time, our cinemas used to run houseful [and] illegal blackmarketeers were scalping ticket buyers for big bucks. Today, even those blackmarketeers probably have had to take up alternative occupations with the cinemas drawing barely 20 to 25 per cent viewers,' says Huzefa Bootwala, manager of Alfred Talkies which was built in 1920 and today sells tickets for Rs 18 [stalls] and Rs 20 [balcony].

'Alfred Talkies, which was built by the British, had even elephants performing, besides its dramas that were held on its wooden stage and watched by locals and sailors whose ships had docked at Dockyard Road, Reay Road and Reti Bunder. Then movies came, bringing crowds of viewers till the last decades of the millennium where television, cable television, VCD and DVD movies coupled with air-conditioned multiplexes drew them away,' rues Bootwala.

To add to the loss, costs of maintaining the cinemas are not making it feasible to continue running them. 'Expenditure on ushers, booking clerks, cleaners, electricians, projector operators eat away our profits and force us to dig deep into our own pockets. No wonder even big theatres nearby like Minerva, Apsara and Novelty have shut down alongside Taj and Daulat cinemas in our area,' adds Bootwala.

An old-timer recalls Silver Talkies – which was said to be built in 1868 and is still running – at Falkland Road as being the oldest theatre in the area where nautanki was the entertainment. Today, manager Rajiv Singh laments the low audience [less than 10 per cent], which means no profit, where ticket rates are Rs 22 [balcony] and Rs 20 [stalls]. 'The government says that even if you build a complex here, you need to have a movie theatre within it,' he points out.

Imperial Cinema, which still runs three shows daily with English movies dubbed in Hindi, gave Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan his ticket to stardom when his movie Zanjeer completed 50 weeks at the box office in the '70s. Built in 1905, this 107-year-old structure was more famously known for its two stone elephants, which had become a landmark address for the locality.

'Cinema entry rates in those days were not even five naya paisa. Then, in 1980, the rates became Rs 2.20 [balcony] and Rs 1.05 [stalls]. Now it's Rs 35 [balcony] and Rs 30 [stalls] to watch films like Men in Black III and CID Jasoos (Detective D) on bugs-free, comfortable, rexine-cushion seating,' says another theatre manager.

'Once upon a time, movies of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar to the Rajesh Khanna era used to run houseful and celebrate silver and even golden jubilees in these theatres,' he says.
An even stranger fact, he said, was that most of the theatres like Silver, Moti, New Roshan, Gulshan, Alfred and Royal had a dargah beneath their stage where Muslim holy men were buried. Even today, according to him, the theatre staff pay their respects by giving chaadar.

'Maharashtra government is focusing on promoting culture and insists on Marathi films being shown 11 days of the year – when even English or Hindi films draw hardly any crowds – or the police will not renew our licence,' laments Bootwala while pointing out that entertainment tax is also a burden on such losing proposition cinemas.

'Rajasthan government recently announced that no entertainment tax would be charged for cinema theatre admission rates upto Rs 50 and we feel the same should apply to Maharashtra as these are old properties, which have witnessed a lot of cinematic history down the years. While all theatre owners feel redevelopment is the answer to our problems, no developer/builder is willing to develop our properties. A multiplex has to have a cinema with two thirds seating capacity of the old one, while also ensuring adequate car parking area also. So the fate of our cinemas lies in the hands of the government,' adds Bootwala.

Falkland Road, which was constructed between 1866 and 1868, was named after the 10th Viscount Falkland (1803-84), Governor of Bombay from 1848 to 1853. Avid Marathi memory lane trodder N M Harlikar said the Falkland Road was renamed Pathe Bapurao Marg after the well-known poet who wrote
Shringar Geet
.

'Not many people know that the Royal cinema site was the venue for countless fairs and carnivals [whose star attractions were the Maut ka Quva or Well of Death] for years before the advent of cinema,' says Rusi Arya, partner of the Royal cinema.

Lamenting the lack of support from the government for cinema-owners, he said people like him continued to run the cinema houses more as a tradition even in the face of losses. 'The cinema industry is in the doldrums and does not need taxing as it is no longer a lucrative business. Out of the mainly 256 theatres in Mumbai presidency, about half have vanished. And of those converted into multiplexes, tell me how many are running?' questions Arya.

'In the earlier days, we were synonymous with success. During the 1950s, we showed popular English movies like Flash Gordon and Captain Marvel. Today, we are down and out as we have to pay exorbitant taxes and suffer huge losses. So if the tax holiday is gone, how will cinema survive?' he asks. Arya asserts that Royal is the only theatre that was built originally for films. Today, it charges Rs 15 for stalls [front to middle rows] and Rs 20 for dress circle, which comprises the rear end seats of the cinema as there is no balcony seating.

A short distance away is the Alexandra theatre, which has since closed down. 'It was our favourite movie haunt where we paid a few paise to watch great movies like Hatari [in which John Wayne showcased the African Safari], The Miracle and the numerous Lone Ranger cowboy westerns and Tarzan movies featuring Olympic champion Johnny Weismuller,' recalls that area’s resident Leo Martin, an avid movie-goer.

'Shahpur Irani [owner of the old Alexandra Cinema] and his father Ardeshir Irani produced the famous film Aalam Aara. But today Alexandra is closed down. Theatre-owners even held a one-day strike and downed shutters for a week from 2 March 2011 demanding abolition of entertainment tax and also a change in the clause where theatre owners can demolish their cinema halls if they want,' says Arya.

Quoting statistics of 2011, Ram V Vidhani, owner of Excelsior Cinema and President of Cine Owners and Exhibitors Association of India, stated that eight states of India, including Rajasthan, Assam, Uttaranchal, Chhatisgarh [up to Rs 50 admission rate], Madhya Pradesh [up to Rs 30 admission rate], Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh are charging zero per cent entertainment tax.

'Out of the 1,080 single screen cinemas in Maharashtra, only 631 are in working condition and struggling to make ends meet. The masses come to single screen cinemas where they can whistle and clap, which normally does not happen in multiplexes. But single screen cinemas are on the verge of death,' says Vidhani.
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