Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
There are two kinds of cab drivers in Mumbai. One reacts with a semi-smirk when a man calls “Pila Haus” as desired destination. The other, more decent kind, nods with a slight but visible stiffening of the neck. The name Pila Haus is a colloquial distortion of ‘play house’ which was what the British dubbed this area bordering Kamathipura because of the various theatres flourishing there. Today swallowed in one of the world’s most famous red light areas, these theatres have either been demolished, or converted into cinema halls. Gulshan Theatre, for instance, was converted and re-baptized from the hugely popular and historic Bombay Theatre in 1972. Here’s its memory lane tour, with our feet firmly in the present.
“Actors, dancers, singers and musicians from abroad, London especially, used to perform in these theatres for Europeans,” theatre director and producer Sam Kerawaala remembers of the theatres in Pila Haus. “It was a posh area then.” One written account talks of a Bombay Theatre being set up in 1750 (one of Mumbai’s first) for British clerks and army officers, with entry restricted to Europeans only.
At Rs 13 and 15 for a ticket, Phool Aur Kaante is playing through four shows at Gulshan Talkies to almost full houses. The morning 10 o’clock slot however, is reserved for a film genre locally referred to as ‘sexy film’, read: B grade semi porn. Ajay Devgan — today’s minimalism maestro —
jumps, hits a wall, rebounds with three flying kicks, and ultimately uses his boot to stall a goon’s knife as it approaches actress Madhu’s throat. An all male crowd dressed in a mix of lungis and faded, torn trousers roars at this 1991 stunts as if it was just invented. Away from its history, Gulshan Talkies is stuck in a time warp of its own.
“I remember watching Parsi Gujarati plays in Bombay Theatre when I was a child,” says 74-year- old Pervez Dara Mehta, an old hand. He recounts that Parsi theatre groups dominated the Bombay theatre scene between the late 18 and early 1900s. “Some plays would begin at 10 pm and go on till two in the morning – with upto six ‘oncores’.” He tells us of a popular Parsi theatre genre called “seria-comic”, which encapsulated extremes of tragedy (seriousness), comedy and the in-between in a four-hour production.
The collapsible entrance gates to Gulshan theatre are shut during intervals for crowd control. Sherbet, anda pav and chewda vendors declare their wares through these gates. Sherbet is priced at Rs 2 and a popcorn packet costs Rs 3. Inflation has passed this place by. Like the sex workers, charas vendors and slot machines down the road which supposedly provide the cheapest rates in the city, the cinema halls comply with this once “posh” area’s current brand equity.
“Bombay Theatre was a prized performance space for Tamashas,” says Madhukar Nirale, owner of what was the famed Hanuman Theatre. “Maybe it was because of the quality of the hall – cushioned seating and many fans…” Nirale maintains that the popularity of these performances in the area came about in the 1930s to blossom post-Independence: “It was probably because of the markets in adjoining areas. The working class connected with Tamashas, given their religious themes and local flavour.”
Shouts of protest emerge from the audience’s lips in the 725-seater as the movie cuts a scene abruptly during reel change. The projection comes with white scratch lines running over Ajay Devgan and Amrish Puri’s faces during intense scenes. Forty-six-year-old Fahad Mohammed is watching this film for the twentieth time. He loves the fact that it revolves around a father-son relationship. But he isn’t the only one who’s seen the film before. “The fact that I can watch this film on big screen as easily as I could have seen it on TV feels good,” says 23-yearold Khalid. As the audience disperses, the usher swears at a drunk who’s fallen asleep and refuses to budge. He’s then unceremoniously dragged out by hair and limb and thrown on the street. He still refuses to budge.
This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/4miw