The magic of the single screen

By Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

Updated: 26 October, 2020 08:17 IST

The delights of watching films in a single screen cinema have always had a special place, laced with nostalgia, but its closures have consistently chipped into a crucial arm of the city's heritage and its status as India's film capital

I had to request my autowallah to slow down. It was only after I was able to crane my neck did I notice, much to my horror, that Deep Mandir, the once-popular single screen cinema of Mulund, was gone. In its place were barricades and scaffolding announcing the arrival of a mega residential complex. It meant that this longtime suburban landmark had been wiped off, like so many of its ilk that is staring at their demise, worsened now due to the post-pandemic economic slowdown. Its quiet end was a tragic contrast to its glory days, when it played a huge role in the social life Mulund's citizens.

The single screen cinema stood along the suburb's stretch of LBS Marg that overlooked the green expanse of another landmark – pharma giant Johnson & Johnson's office. Once upon a time in the 1980s and early 90s – it used to be a popular stretch where Mulund folk would hang out with friends and family. They'd watch a movie, stroll down the tree-lined road's broad pavements, step into the well-maintained public garden and end the evening with a snack at Hot Plate, another favourite but now-gone al fresco eatery.

Memories came flooding back as I continued the remainder of my ride in the autorickshaw. Mulund had its handful of single screen cinemas in the pre-multiplex era, but only two – Mehul and Deep Mandir – were the family-happy kind of places. While the former would screen only Hindi releases, Deep Mandir would show the odd English flick. And it had better seats and served yummier popcorn! Of the many films I had watched there, it was Charlie Chaplin's The Kid that left an indelible mark. It had introduced me to the delights of this master and his craft. I was amazed at how such emotions could be depicted on screen without dialogues. It was enough to get me curious enough to watch all his classics on the home VCR [remember it?]. Then, there were Big B's hits of the '80s – Agneepath, Hum and Shahenshah – that introduced me to the aura of a superstar. Cinematic schooling at its best, I'd say.

What I also enjoyed during these visits to Deep Mandir was observing the ecosystem that co-existed around every screening. The buzz of the canteen during intermission, the soda-vending machine, the bright faux Art Deco design, the squeaky, cushioned seats, the ushers and their blinding torches, the grumpy ticket-checker at the entrance, and the staff at the box office who worked with clockwork precision. However, what gave me the ultimate thrill was standing on my toes to pick my seat [from the seating chart] for the show. No joy came close to this feeling.

As I stepped into college, I was able to experience the delights of these cinemas in SoBo as they grew to become part of our post-lecture lives - Regal, Liberty, Metro, Eros, Sterling, New Excelsior and New Empire. Soon, it became increasingly obvious of their role in the city's cinematic sensibilities. By now, my Mulund hangouts began to fall into neglect. Yet, both drew in the crowds. Sadly, the multiplex had arrived around this time, and it offered enticing comforts that many single screen cinemas couldn't afford to. Many began to fade away, while others went in for makeovers to stay alive, backed by the city's heritage groups and well-meaning friends of cinema. Deep Mandir had shifted to screening only B-Grade films; a dance bar operated in the same building, and soon enough the vibe of the area was no longer the same. "Shady and un-cool" was how a school friend chose to label this transformation.

Deep Mandir was en route my daily commute, and I am sure that I would have witnessed the actual demolition of this landmark had it not been for the pandemic and my work from home existence. I am glad, I was spared that sight. So many like it have met with the same fate either due to mindless real estate expansion, or the aftermath of an unsympathetic post COVID world, not just in Bombay, but the rest of India, and in major world cities. The popularity of OTT platforms is sure to make things tougher.

If the show must go on, we, especially in this film-mad city, ought to pay attention to this fadeout and work towards saving these cinematic gems that have enriched our lives and cities for over a century.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana

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First Published: 26 October, 2020 07:21 IST

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