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The end of a Regal era?

Bhanuj Kappal
With Regal cinema threatened by closure due to mounting losses, Mumbai stands to lose another iconic art deco cinema and an important part of its cultural heritage

At one end of Colaba Causeway, opposite the Maharashtra police headquarters, stands a slightly run-down but still majestic building that has been one of Mumbai's most iconic landmarks since it opened in 1933. In its heyday, Regal Cinema was Mumbai's most glamorous film theatre, a place where the city's elite came to enjoy the latest Hollywood releases in air-conditioned luxury. Until the 1970s, when the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) started operations, it was also one of the city's premiere live performance venues, hosting poetry recitals by Rabindranath Tagore and musical performances by the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and opera singer Marian Anderson. Among its most famous patrons were Jawaharlal Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad, and then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Even today, though its glory has been diminished with time, it remains one of the megalopolis' most popular tourist spots. But its 85-year-long run might soon come to an end.

Last November, the Mumbai Mirror reported that Regal was on the verge of shutting down due to plummeting ticket sales and years of sustained losses. Kamal Sidhwa Taraporevala, the grand-daughter of Regal's founder, Faramji Sidhwa, told Mirror that “it's just a matter of time, Regal could close down any day”. Taraporevala declined to comment when contacted for this story. But last-minute miracles aside, it seems inevitable that Regal will follow in the footsteps of other iconic single-screen cinemas like New Empire and Eros, both of which closed down in the past five years. The loss of Regal would be another nail in the coffin of Mumbai's historic art deco theatres, an important-and sadly imperiled-part of the city's cultural and historical heritage.

“For me, Regal marks the beginning of the age of art deco in Bombay,” says Mumbai-based historian and author Simin Patel, who conducts walking tours of the city with her company, Bombaywalla. “It's the most significant first structure, and then you have Liberty (cinema) in 1949, marking the end of that era.”

Influenced by cubism, Fauvism and art and architecture from the Global South, art deco was an early 20th century design movement that combined a fascination with modernity and technology with elements borrowed from traditional and pre-modern styles. By the 1930s, when the Back Bay reclamation project wrenched large tracts of land from the sea and kick-started a new construction boom, Mumbai's professional and mercantile classes had fully embraced the art deco movement. In the shadow of the British Raj's imperial Victorian architecture, hundreds of new buildings popped up, designed with the bold geometric forms and colourful vibrancy of this new international style. For this generation of Indian architects-and the Indian owners who financed their creations-the adoption of the art deco style was a means of self-assertion, a sign of Mumbai taking its place alongside other cosmopolitan metropolises like New York, Paris and Beirut.

“I think art deco was Bombay's national style,” says Patel, adding that art deco wasn't just attractive to the city's elite, but also to its newly assertive middle classes. “These architects chose art deco as their design motif because they were like ‘To hell with neo-Gothic and Indo-Saracenic, we want this global style as our signature national style'. It's a kind of modernity that I think Bombay was ready for.”

In a sense, Regal is a perfect example of this transition from British imperialism to local Mumbaikar cosmopolitanism. It's built on the site of an old British Army saluting battery, which greeted visiting viceroys, royals and VIPs with gun salutes. In the late 1920s, the land was leased by Globe Theatres, the company founded by self-made Parsi businessman Faramji Sidhwa in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1915. Sidhwa and his partner Kaikhushroo A. Kooka hired British architect Charles Frederick Stevens-the son of Frederick William Stevens who designed the Victoria (now Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj) Terminus-to design the building. Czechoslovakian artist Karl Shara did the interiors, with its colourful cubist sunray motifs. The large Oscar trophy etched into a mirror panel on the stairwell leading up to the balcony is a nod to the theatre's long association with Hollywood, while the two bas relief masks representing comedy and tragedy on either side of the screen reference Shakespeare's Globe theatre, which also gave the company its name.

Regal was a pioneer of Bombay art deco, but that is only one in its long line of firsts. It was marketed as Mumbai's first luxury theatre, and the first one in India to be air-conditioned. When it opened, it had an underground parking lot and a soda fountain. In 1953, it became the first theatre in India to offer CinemaScope films. It also introduced Mumbai to neon lighting. In Cities Of Light: Two Centuries Of Urban Illumination (2014), Sandy Isenstadt, Margaret Maile Petty and Dietrich Neumann write that “neon accentuated the clean Art Deco lines on the exterior. The auditorium lights came up gradually, creating an artificial sunrise for the audience”.

“In the 1930s, all this was a very different and innovative concept,” says visual anthropologist and historian Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai. “Nobody had ever thought of using an elevator from the parking lot that would take you to the top floor, where there was a soda fountain. You'd be served ice cream in wine glasses. It was this very decked-up event that would take place over the course of an evening.”

From its opening day, when it screened Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy's 1933 film The Devil's Brother, Regal played host to the city's well-heeled, who came in their Sunday best to experience the latest Hollywood sensations. Gregory Peck once popped in to see how his 1949 film Twelve O'Clock High-then running at the cinema-was being received, and classics like The Sound Of Music, The Ten Commandments, Enter The Dragon and Titanic played to packed houses for weeks on end.

But the arrival of multiplexes in the late 2000s-and of piracy and Netflix more recently-heralded a change in the fortunes of this cinematic institution, as it did for many other single-screen cinemas across the country. Footfalls plummeted over the past decade and a half.

“In Maharashtra, the number of single-screen cinemas has come down from over 1,000 to 470,” says Nitin Datar, president of the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India. “In Mumbai, the number has gone down from 130 to 70.”

Datar says due to a combination of factors, including multiplexes, piracy, the rise of cable TV and now streaming services, the average occupancy of cinemas has come down to 15%. To compound the problem, cinema owners are also struggling with a heavy tax burden. “The average income for cinema owners is less than ₹3 per ticket after paying out government taxes, distributor and service providers' share,” he says.

Bullock carts outside Regal Cinema in Colaba, Mumbai, where Laurel and Hardy's ‘The Bull Fighters' was showing, 1945.

“The main problem is that you're forced by distributors to put on films on their terms, and if you do that, then you'll definitely face losses,” adds Manoj Desai, executive director at Maratha Mandir and the G-7 Multiplex, who remembers bunking classes to watch English films at Regal as a student. Maratha Mandir and G-7 survive by keeping ticket costs low and targeting mass audiences, but that's not a model every cinema hall can follow.

In June, Unesco awarded World Heritage Site status to the “Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensembles of Mumbai”, including the buildings lining Oval Maidan and Marine Drive as well as Eros and Regal cinemas. But with no financial incentives for conservation from the government, this heritage status comes with no added benefits to Regal's owners, who are also barred from using the land for other purposes by law. Some single-screen cinema owners have tried to adapt by undertaking expensive redevelopment to convert their theatres into multiplexes, like Metro. Eros has also reportedly submitted a proposal to turn the building into a supermarket with a 300-seater cinema.

“But in its new façade, Metro has effectively erased a lot of their original art deco design and interiors,” says Patel. “So how do you follow that kind of model in these cinemas without ruining their exquisite interior design and structural integrity?”

With restoration and upkeep costs prohibitive for individual owners, let alone those making big losses every year, it is imperative that either the state government or civil society intervenes to protect the cultural heritage that Regal and its contemporaries represent. “Regal is a beautiful theatre and I pray to God that it can keep running,” says Desai. “Single-screen theatres have their own charm and history and it would be really sad if the city lost more of them.”