For six decades, Maratha Mandir Cinema has stood its ground like an aging superstar. Here’s his story
On a Sunday morning, outside Maratha Mandir Cinema, a small group of people are haggling at the ticket counter only to be informed that all 289 balcony seats are fully booked. Luckily, I had bought my ticket way in advance and watched the film along with members of the working class, groups of students, some couples and few families, some with their luggage by their sides. Most of them were quite familiar with the film and repeated the dialogues and hooted during the song sequences. Some even dozed off in between and asked their neighbours to wake them up for some special scenes. For the uninitiated, this is a Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge screening which has been running at the theatre for the last 17 years.
Once upon a time
This aging superstar has seen many ups and downs in its career spanning six decades. Started in 1958 by Golcha Properties, the 1102-seat theatre became famous with the release of the legendary film, Mughul-e-Azam. Seven weeks prior to the film release, there was major chaos during advance booking. “It was so chaotic that the police had to be called in. There was a huge queue that had waited for hours to secure a ticket of the movie. People would only rest to have lunch after some other family member gracefully filled in for them,” says 72-year-old peon Karbari, who has seen the theatre through its ups and downs, right from 1958. The theatre has screened a number of hit films, some celebrating silver and golden jubilees like Coolie, Mera Naam Joker, Sarfarosh and so on. “For the first few days, Meena Kumari’s Pakeezah had a lukewarm start but with her demise during the first week's run, the film picked up,” he adds.
Karbari came to Maratha Mandir cinema as a star-stuck 16-year-old. Recalling the heydays of the theatres, he says, “It was one of the finest theatres in Bombay. The hall had comfortable seats and an A.C. system – a great luxury in those days. The walls were lined with huge mirrors which complemented the polished teak panels and the chandeliers and the plush blue carpet gave it a royal look. There was a landscape garden right in front and around the theatre which later gave way to the broadening of roads."
The premieres during that time would be a huge affair. Royal invitations were issued by K Asif for the premiere show of Mughul-e-Azam. Swords, lancets, spears and armours that were used in this film were displayed at the lobby and a forty-foot cutout of ‘Shehenshah Akbar’ was kept at the garden outside the theatre. The theatre was decked with 30,000 bulbs and crowd stood outside waiting for the stars to show up. And when the stars arrived, there was a thundering applause.” Even the entry of the stars would be a meticulously planned event. “For Mughal-e Azam which released on 5th August, 1960, the film print came on an elephant. Even Dilip Kumar wore his battle costume and came on a horse.” But the most dramatic entry was that of Madhubala. When she arrived, the crowd surged forward to catch a glimpse and the barricades broke. “She was mobbed from every side and people were trying to hold her hand. There was a lathicharge to control the crowds but to no avail. And then she spoke. She requested the people to let go of her or else she will be injured. Immediately the crowd dispersed and she went inside theatre.”
Wheel of fortune
During the 70s, the theatre went through a very dark phase before it was restored to its former glory. The theatre went into liquidation as the owners Golcha Properties defaulted on municipal taxes and rent. “On 3rd November 1979, we bought it from Jodhpur high court. The theatre was in decrepit condition and the ceiling had gaping holes. The theatre was full of pigeon’s excreta and they would occasionally fly to screen and sit on screen. No self-respecting audience would be seen at that time except few beggars who would come to have a laugh. We immediately put up a board and started work on the theatre,” says Desai.
For 21 days, the workers continuously worked in two shifts to restore the theatre to its former glory. The wood was polished and the windows were fitted with Belgian glasses. New chandeliers were brought in and the grand staircase leading to the hall was fitted with tube lights and eight -paneled glasses. “We installed a Dolby digital sound system and used an innovative design to cut out the echo. White jute was dyed in orange and used for acoustical effect. So when Dilip Kumar slapped Anupam Kher in ‘Karma’, the ‘thappad ki goonj resounded all over the theatre,” says Desai.
Back to the future
Now, the theatre screens the latest releases but the morning shows at Maratha Mandir had become so popular that DDLJ grossed more than some of the newer releases screened in the theatre. It is quite surprising that a film as old as DDLJ is still managing to attract people even after so many years. But Manoj Desai, the man behind taking the theatre to ‘The Guinness Book Of World Records’ is quick to add that the low prices helped to attract audiences. The theatre is located very close to the railway station and the state transport bus stand. Visitors to the city from the districts drop in to watch the film when they have time to spare before catching a bus back home. Almost 40 per cent of the viewers have been casual visitors to Mumbai. "We charge only Rs 20 for the film. It is better to watch the film than to pass time out in the sun or spend money in a restaurant," he adds. No wonder that people from all strata of society come to this theatre.
Like the other single-screen theatres, coping up with a 45% entertainment tax is getting difficult, says Desai. “This is a white elephant and I can sustain it only because my earnings from Gaiety-Galaxy is helping me balance it. But sadly, not every single-screen theatre has this luxury,” he concludes.