This three-tiered 19th century theatre stands as a remembrance of a landscape in decadence in the midst of colonial architecture
“Most people who come to this theatre don’t mind stealing a few things from whatever is left in this place,” says Sanjay Vaswa, the manager of Edward Talkies. “I have replaced brass taps with plastic taps. They will steal that too but at least it is affordable to replace them,” he says pointing at the kind of clientele he receives nowadays. Lost in time and soaked from its leakages, this three-tiered 19th century theatre with faded white with blue and gold trimmings stands in the narrow bylanes of Kalba Devi as a remembrance of a landscape in decadence where old, forgotten films are screened.
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The theatre which now plays only re-runs started off as a drama theatre which catered to the Indian tastes with their Gujarati and Parsi plays while its neighbours, Metro, Regal and Eros had largely British audiences. There are no land records to prove when the theatre was built but it is roughly estimated that it was somewhere close to the late 1800s. “The theatre was built between 1870-1920. According to the Laughton survey of 1844, this place was a slum area and in the next survey of 1918, the theatre was already there. When King Edward visited Bombay in 1910, this theatre was renamed in his honour,” says Sanjay who sits below a framed portrait of the earlier owners- Bejan Barucha and his German wife Gertude. The couple had leased the hall from Jehangir Billimoria who had migrated to Pakistan after partition. Sanjay’s father was the supervisor and a personal bodyguard to Bejan Barucha from 1946. Sanjay grew up at the theatre, in the rooms behind the theatre and spent many afternoons watching a film after school, sometimes bunking school too. “I have spent most of my childhood at this theatre. I used fall asleep while watching films. Later one of the staff members would carry me home. I have watched ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ 28 times continuously. I was even suspended from school for that.”
Edward also had its share in the freedom movement. “Mahatma Gandhi addressed a congregation of grain merchants in 1921 during non-cooperation movement. At that time, Edward was one of the sophisticated places for gathering,” adds Sanjay. The theatre which started off as a play house was designed to resemble an opera house and also looks like a wedding cake. On the sides are smaller opera boxes which remain closed now. The Orchestra seats or lower stall seats around 250 people while the arc-shaped First Class on the first floor seats 136 people while the topmost level, the Dress Circle has 115 seats. While it gets a fresh coat of paint every year, the owners have always ensured that there are no structural changes are made to the existing structure. ”It is not possible to make structural changes to these thick 18-inch limestone walls. The beams supporting the theatre are the load bearing structure and haven’t rusted even after 100 years,” adds Sanjay.
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Theatre to Talkies
After the advent of motion pictures, Edward changed its license from theatre to talkies and started playing devotional films. Films like 'Bhakt Prahlad' and 'Jai Santoshi Maa' were a big hit with the audience. “Jai Santoshi Maa ran for 48 weeks. Women came with diyas and performed aarti. Every day, one gunny bag would be full of coconuts and the staff would distribute it as prasads.”
Once known as a re-run theatre where TV serials like ‘Flash Gordon’ and ‘Captain Marvel’ would be screened to regulars, now mostly plays Bhojpuri films. “Unlike old Hindi films, Bhojpuri films have a market now. The income is very low so we cannot afford to buy new films. But there are four heroes I can always depend on for income- Ajay Devgn, Mithun, Govinda and Sunny Deol. No matter how bad the film is, people do turn up to watch their films regularly,” says Sanjay and goes on to explain the process of re-running a Hindi film. “After running a film from sometime, I give a gap for few months. For example I got good collection from shootout in Lokhandwala in 2008. I gave a six-month break and ran it again. Then I gave a two-year gap and got good collection when I ran it. But the best footfall comes from Mithun’s films which still has a loyal audience.”
But the single-screen theatres, no matter how historic, are a dying breed. The theatre’s woes are far from over as it is burdened with hefty entertainment taxes and competition from multiplexes. The theatre now tries to sustain its income by giving it out for shooting. But that too is mostly dicey as the shooting gets cancelled very often. “It is a long and tedious process. The filmwalas book the theatre, only to cancel few days before the shoot and then request a re-booking after six-months,” he says, showing the letters of bookings and cancellations. But before a shoot takes place, Edward gets a temporary makeover. “A night before the shoot, the whole theatre is cleaned with caustic soda to remove the stains and fresh paint is applied behind the seats to hide paan stains.” But then as Sanjay laments, the charm of watching films is lost forever.