When an Old Cinema Shuts Down, a Million Memories Die With It

One of Mumbai’s grandest Art Deco theatres, Eros, is being turned into a multiplex and large retail outlets and its fans are distraught.

I saw my first ‘A’ certification movie at Eros in Bombay. I was not an A, but a lucky confluence of a kindly uncle, a sudden spurt in inches which shot up my height and a distracted doorkeeper allowed me to get in.

The film was Blow Hot, Blow Cold, a ‘boldish’ movie that had scenes of nudity and murder and starred the famous Swedish star Bibi Anderssen, though the Censors had probably lopped off most of the ‘hot’ scenes. Still, word of mouth ensured that it was a big draw and the posters must have helped too.

After that, I saw many other films in the landmark cinema – Woodstock, where an Indian rock band played too in the foyer, Abba, the band in which the four Swedish singers wore white spandex and swayed to their hit songs – this time the audience joined in – and Towering Inferno, the first of the disaster films where the big screen made us feel we were in the skyscraper while the fire raged.

And then how can one forget The Exorcist in the 9 pm to midnight show, after which no one in our group wanted to go home alone, and everyone walked to the office and stayed up all night. There were many more over the years, in that elegant, Art Deco edifice facing Churchgate station.

Those were the days of buying tickets from black marketing touts, of first day-first shows and cheap snacks inside, unlike the usurious prices charged today.

And now, Eros, the cinema that houses many memories of mine, and those of countless others, is being demolished. There goes another beautiful structure, falling victim to rapacious builders. Is that so? Twitter says so, and the mandatory couple of hours of outrage has happened, so it must be true.

A green curtain covers the entire building of Eros Cinema, behind which work is going on. Photo: The Wire

Well, yes and no.

Eros, like Metro and Regal, was built on land reclaimed from the sea in the early 1900s which created many new precincts in Bombay, including Marine Drive. Land was auctioned off to residential buildings and institutions and cinema houses. Regal came up first, near the Gateway of India, and the other two followed, all built in the Modern style, very much in vogue around the world, especially in coastal cities. Eros, built in 1938, was the most handsome of them all, shaped like a ship since it was on a corner, with a ziggurat on top, and facing strategically across Churchgate station, one of the two busy suburban train termini, the other being Victoria Terminus. For the tens of thousands exiting the station, it loomed large, a veritable symbol of Bombay and its modernity, of a new city taking place just before independence, and the city’s most handsome cinema.

Eros was built by Shiavax Cambatta, a cosmopolitan, well-travelled Parsi, who was inspired by the statue of Eros he saw in Piccadilly in London. He decided to build a picture palace that would be the “pride of not only Bombay but also of the entire East,” wrote the Bombay Chronicle.

“As much as this building was about exhibiting moving images in its interiors, its exterior also had a grand, almost cinematic quality. The streamlining on the building’s curved facade gives the impression of a magnificent ocean liner, a symbol of voyages and cosmopolitan travels in the modern age”, says an essay in Art Deco Mumbai, a website devoted to the architectural style that shaped 20th-century Bombay.

The interiors of the cinema itself had friezes, air conditioning and plush seats. And the patrons could also enjoy fine dining with an English band made up of ladies providing the musical accompaniment.

Churchgate, where Eros was located, was also the venue for a whole street of new restaurants, serving cuisine that ranged from Chinese to Italian and the much loved ‘Conti’, a kind of faux Continental, where the city sophisticates went to dine and dance to the many jazz bands that played.

The south Bombay cinemas only showed Hollywood films and there was an informal arrangement – Eros showed Warner Bros films, Metro was for MGM and Regal had a tie-up with 20th-century box. Naturally, these cinemas were for the ‘gentry’, in the parlance of the film industry, the English-speaking ‘upper classes’.

Hindi films, which were far more in number, played in the Grant Road stretch, where most of the halls were concentrated.

To counter this, Habib Hoosein, a cotton trader whose real passion was cinema and who owned cinemas in Bombay and Poona decided to build a 1,200 seater, grant picture palace which would be the ‘Showpalace of the Nation’ and screen only Hindustani films and also commemorate India’s independence. Liberty was inaugurated in 1949, with the premiere of Mehboob Khan’s Andaz.

As Bombay spread towards the north with new suburbs coming up, more and more cinemas came up in the Art Deco style.

Pulling in large audiences for their films was every producer’s dream, but not all movies could manage it. Those who did advertised every milestone – 100 days, Silver Jubilee (25 weeks), Golden Jubilee (50 weeks) and finally, Platinum (75 weeks). Some went over and beyond – Mughal e Azam, Sangam, Pakeezah and Sholay.

‘Mughal e Azam’ playing at Eros Cinema. Photo: Nrupen Madhvani/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Those were good times for single-screen theatres. But then things began changing. Multiplex began springing up around the country. The government came up with a policy that favoured multiplexes – a tax holiday for the first three years, and then only 25% for the next two years. Soon, all over the state and also the country, multiplexes began proliferating while the number of single-screen cinemas dwindled.

The big cinemas, already reeling under a tax structure that barely gave them anything on every ticket sold, saw a new future for themselves. Many smaller cinemas shut shop and were bought out by new developers who had a simple plan – a shopping arcade below and small screens, with seating up to 200 people, on top. One by one they went, picture palaces which had given so much pleasure to millions of others, where people cried, laughed, danced, and romanced in the cool darkness of a cavernous hall, being replaced by another venue to shop, eat and maybe see a film with a few score more in a small cinema. It was just not the same.

The bigger halls held out, especially in south Bombay, but in the early 2000s, Metro Cinema was the first to succumb and was acquired by Adlabs, which opened many multiplexes. It soon became popular and Excelsior and Sterling transformed too.

Now it is the turn of Eros and since 2019, passers-by have been seeing a closed cinema and after the lockdown, a green curtain covering the entire building, behind which work is going on. That was generally ignored till, a few weeks ago, a covering went around the famous Ziggurat and that seems to have touched an emotional chord.

What was going on? Was it finally shutting down, is it being demolished? Will another of those chrome and glass skyscrapers come up?

Enquiries show that the cinema has been acquired from the Cambata family by another group. The lower level will be dominated by a famous high-street British clothing brand and a sporting goods store. On the upper level, there may be one cinema with 300 seats. None of this is confirmed, only reports and rumours.

Rules mandate that since this is in a heritage precinct, the facade cannot be disturbed, so it will still look the same from the outside, but the inside has been changed – in fact, according to a source who managed to sneak in, completely gutted. “I saw bags of cement, and the movie hall, where the seats and everything else have been ripped off.” The murals may have gone, he says, since the walls were covered in cement too. No one from the group or the original owners will comment.

Bas-relief work showing a person getting hair and make up done. Photo: Yash Gandhi

A major part of Mumbai’s history is being ripped off and soon, we will have one more of the template retail, food, and movie experiences. Government policies have done nothing to encourage these heritage structures. Coming generations won’t care because they won’t know.

Across Eros, the Metro is being constructed and a board says, ‘Mumbai is Upgrading’. For those who spent several pleasurable hours watching movies in the grand cinema that was Eros and now can see its shuttered doors, that remains a moot question.