Established in the early twentieth century, the original iconic movie theaters of Mumbai—India’s cinema capital—were once integral to the city’s social fabric. South Mumbai still houses some of the earliest theaters, and its citizens are trying to preserve them.
In the cinema district, spanning Lamington Road and Grant Road, almost half of the twenty theaters have shut down. The Novelty Cinema—which released its first silent film on January 1, 1900—was once among them, and has since been converted into apartments. Others are shuttered and dilapidated, mere reminders of bygone days.
These theaters were once venues with red carpets and silver jubilee shows—1,000-seat halls that would be packed to capacity. One theater, the Naaz, was so popular it even had a soundproof room for parents to attend to crying children without disturbing other moviegoers. At the Maratha Mandir Theatre, Mughal-E-Azam—an epic Bollywood drama—opened in 1960 and played for six years straight. Interviewed in 2012, the managing director remembered the premiere, when “Dilip Kumar came on a horse. There were elephants all over the place.”
That golden era of Indian cinema turned from black-and-white classics to color action films, giving rise to a proliferation of multiplexes, which took over around the turn of the twenty-first century. Several of the old theaters, however, are still open. These days, they tend to screen soft porn, Bhojpuri movies, or old Bollywood films. Business has ebbed for years now, though numbers rise in the summer, when many people come in for the air-conditioning.
A number of the owners have held fast to their passion. Interviewed in 2016, R. P. Anand, of Naaz Cinema, which closed in 2011, said that at the age of eighty-four he still walked into the theater at 3:00 p.m. every day and sat there until evening. Sanjay Vasawa, of the Edward, told an interviewer that he considered the theater home: his father not only spent countless hours working there, but resided in the green room as well, bedding down once the patrons had cleared out. And at the Alfred, manager Huzefa Bootwala said in 2016, at the age of sixty, that he had worked at the theater for thirty-six years. “I will continue working here until the theatre closes, or until I die.”