Ghost Town: The Forgotten History of Grant Road’s Cinemas

March 19, 2012 8:23 am

Alfred Talkies. Photo: Michael Edison Hayden.

It’s a Wednesday evening and an insane woman is shrieking and pounding the metal hinges of the front gate of Alfred Talkies with bruised fists. A small mustachioed security guard appears unfazed: He urges her to get lost, softly, repeatedly, in a bored monotone. Past the gate, it’s Rs18 for a standard seat, Rs20 for the balcony, and Rs5 for a stale bag of unnaturally yellow popcorn. Inside the theatre (which sports a proscenium stage wide enough for the Royal Shakespeare Company to perform Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II), the 6pm show is already underway. Rows of working-class men (and only men) partake in a scratchy print of the 1972 film Lalkar starring yesteryear Hindi movie stars Dharmendra and Mala Sinha. The men arrive alone and sit alone. The evening feels, by modern standards of entertainment, a little weird.

You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Alfred Talkies, or for that matter, having spent much of your free time in Grant Road. The inland area is dominated by electronic shops that advertise batteries, laptop parts, splitters, sockets, and diodes. Spotted between those are gambling centers with one-way mirrored storefronts decorated with playing card images of jokers and jesters. “PLAY, WIN, VIDEO GAMES,” one declares. But if you bother to look closer, embedded in this setting are many of India’s oldest and most historically significant buildings. And what’s become of them ought to be considered a public shame.

In the nineteenth century, Alfred Talkies was called the Ripon Theatre. It was one of the first Bombay theatres to regularly produce European and domestic drama in local dialects. In 1925, the theatre was renovated and renamed in order to accommodate the growing demand for motion pictures. Today, a tour inside of the theatre is disappointing. You can still appreciate the wide verandahs, only now they overlook a smoky, garbage-strewn alley populated by giant rats and pariah dogs. The delicately carved newel posts now help to lead you to a stinking, piss-soaked men’s room. And the theatre’s once elaborate wall decorations are painted over cheaply with what appears to be lead paint, and little concern for historical preservation or heritage.

Cultural spillover from Falkland Road’s nearby red light district is, of course, a big part of the problem. Even before Independence, the area became a notorious centre for drugs and prostitution, and its pervasiveness can be witnessed in the decline of what should be Grant Road’s proud historical heritage. Many of these once great theatres (including allegedly the Alfred) serve up soft pornography, or what’s more commonly referred to with a wink and a nod as “morning shows”—because of their early timings.

Raj Amit Kumar has taught cinema at City University of New York and Southern Illinois University and has presented conferences on India’s theatrical soft porn films. He describes soft porn gatherings in areas like these as being a “floating phenomenon”, a tradition that moves from one theatre to another in a pattern better understood by regulars. Many of India’s soft porn films are often shown near transient locations like train stations where people come and go or stay for limited amounts of time—a label that fits very well with Grant Road. “Most of the films you’ll see [at these theatres],” says Kumar, “begin already as soft porn films or titillating action films that do manage to pass through government censorship, but are then illegally spliced with clips from edgier, more overtly sexual material.” The end result is akin to a kind of cinematic Frankenstein.

Gulshan Talkies, just across the street from the Alfred, is one of the theatres currently promoting morning shows. When I visited in the afternoon, however, the theatre was selling tickets to more wholesome material. The Rs15 ticket bought me a visually scratchy, audibly tinny screening of the 1995 film Nishana, which among other things, features a surreal, near-operatic Hindi version of the Suzanne Vega hit “Tom’s Diner”. The theatre, when I entered it, was pitch black, and my hand came in contact with several bald heads and sweat-soaked shoulders, as I looked for a seat. The seat, when located, felt like it was nearly ancient, although it was too dark to verify this intuition by eyesight.

The lobby at Gulshan advertises several posters of scantily clad women along with a sign that reads “Daily Morning Show at 10.30”. One of the morning shows on display is called Raat Ka Jalajala, which translates roughly to “Earthquake at Night”, a sentiment with sexual double entendre. From what little I was able to ascertain from the posters, this retitled package finds the bulk of its material from a C-Grade Danish vampire film called Nattens Engel [Angels of the Night]—but the slice and dice nature of morning shows makes it too difficult to verify such a thing as fact.

What I’m sure very few customers (or for that matter, employees) of Gulshan may know is that, according to the reference book Bollywood Showplaces, they are getting their daily dose of pornography in what is speculated to be the oldest cinema in all of India. It was built in 1853 by Jagannath Shankarseth under the name “Grant Road Theatre”. There, by request of Bombay’s governor at the time, Sir Bartle Frere, Augusto Cagli’s Italian Opera Company once gave rousing performances of Verdi, Rossini, and Donizetti. Like its neighbour the Alfred, it was revamped in the 1920s to accommodate the advance of cinema. Some time in the 1960s, it was given the ominous concrete slab face it has today.

When I spoke to Nazir Hussain, owner of the more culturally relevant Liberty Cinema [near Bombay Hospital], he told me “all of the [old] cinemas are in trouble”. Trouble is a kind word for some of what I saw and experienced. This article doesn’t even mention the Imperial Theatre on Lamington Road, for example, whose grand entrance was once guarded by life-sized stone elephants, supporting an elaborate archway that poured into a courtyard, but now consists of some trashy posters and a rusty iron gate. It, like its Grant Road neighbours, has undergone invisible changes through the years as wealthier areas of the city have developed rapidly—hungrily chasing the new, commercial, and modern.

To say that the historical theatres of the Grant Road area are in trouble is almost an understatement. They have, more accurately, spiraled into the abyss.

Michael Edison Hayden is an American journalist, playwright, and screenwriter currently living in Mumbai.