Kicking off a new series with a visit to the iconic SoBo single-screen, with a history of 130 years, which got its newest facelift less than a year ago.
New Excelsior cinema: Successful revival of a grand, old habit
Mumbai - 14 Jan 2018 8:00 IST
New Excelsior, a popular entertainment hall in the bustling Fort area of old Mumbai, has undergone several transformations in its 130-year history. From a performing arts theatre to the largest single screen in the country, its metamorphosis has been unique.
New Excelsior started life as a drama theatre called the Novelty back in 1887. It had the honour, after Watson’s Hotel in July 1896, of screening the films shot by the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, through their magnificent film camera, the Cinématographe.
Bharat Gothoskar, founder and owner of Khaki Tours, which conducts heritage walks across the old city, revealed that the Novelty was the original opera house of the city. “It opened in 1887 as competition to the Gaiety theatre which is now [the shuttered] Capitol cinema," he said. "This was the pre-cinema era. It was a performing arts theatre. In 1909, they demolished the Novelty to build the Excelsior theatre.”
Gothoskar said that on one occasion New York stage and Hollywood screen legend John Barrymore attended a rehearsal of Hamlet, starring Jal Khambata, being staged by Wadia Theatricals, a branch of the Indian film studio Wadia Movietone, best known today for their Fearless Nadia films, in 1935. The Excelsior was demolished in 1975 to pave the way for a newer theatre and rechristened New Excelsior.
Across the street from the theatre is Cafe Excelsior whose history is tied in with that of the cinema house. The cafe opened in 1919 and acquired its name because of the theatre opposite it. The cafe’s manager, Nityanand, recalled a time before the makeover when the theatre was situated in a ground floor tenement and contained a garden restaurant.
Prior to its latest makeover, the New Excelsior had fallen victim to competition from the growing number of multiplexes and dwindling audiences. “There were no crowds at all," Nityanand said. "Shows were being cancelled because of lack of [patrons]. Because nowadays everywhere there are multiplexes, people don’t need to come [all the way here]. At one point, it was one of the best screens in Mumbai.”
Today, the New Excelsior is well on its way to recapturing its former glory. The single screen stands proudly with its modern facade and billboards of the latest films, has a cosy cafe inside, partners with the online ticketing website BookMyShow, and promises free Wi-Fi to patrons. The interiors are as plush as in any multiplex, but one foot inside the large auditorium, which can seat 596, and you see the largest curved screen in the country.
The theatre was taken over last year by filmmaker Subhash Ghai and is now called Mukta A2 New Excelsior as part of his chain of theatres in 15 cities across India. Last February, it was relaunched as the 50th screen to open under Mukta A2 Cinemas.
Rahul Puri, managing director of Mukta Arts, said the company has a long history with the iconic theatre. Ghai’s films from Karma (1986) to Khal Nayak (1993) had their premieres at the New Excelsior. So when Mukta took over the theatre, they didn’t go in and upgrade it to a multiplex.
“We were very cognizant of the fact that we were going to keep it a single screen," Puri said. "[But] when we were renovating it, that [multiplex] experience had to be incorporated in the theatre. It is very difficult anyway for a single screen to compete with a multiplex, because [of] a lack of content [and] infrastructure issues. But if you can deliver to customers a sense that they are getting something more than a movie, then that’s something that will keep them coming back.”
The renovation process took around 98 days. Architect Sohil Kapadia of Mns Designs has worked on several cinema projects across India but felt a special connection with this particular property as he himself had grown up in South Mumbai. He realized the significance of tying the cinema to its previous history.
“Coming from an architectural world and understanding the importance of Art Deco [style] and the vintage era was [vital], specifically in South Bombay,” he said. "We definitely put a lot of effort in convincing [our client] that we should not go absolutely in the modern, we could go in the post-modern, which is a combination of today’s digital world along with an Art Deco style.”
Going into the renovation, Kapadia’s company visualized the cinema's design in 3D to show the client. And while a lot of the original theatre was revamped and the seating was reduced from its original capacity of 1,100, certain elements were retained.
“There is this stained glass mirror with a gold-plated design which is the first thing everybody said we should remove," said Kapadia. "It looks a little vintage [and] cannot be imported or manufactured in India. It was rather important to enhance it with specialized chemicals which don’t damage the glass and to create a frame around it. We left the lobby ceiling, the stained glass mirror, and the railings with the wooden and metal parts which were existing.”
The marbled lobby has two levels, with the BookMyShow cafe on the lower level and a concession stand upstairs. Sepia-toned framed photographs of old Bombay adorn the upper wall of the lobby while two large doors, marked ‘Gold’ and ‘Elite’, mark the entry into the auditorium. Additionally, the auditorium, at the lower end, has marble flooring and the entire seating was redone to give more leg room for viewers. The plush red seats, with comfy back pillows, are like the ones found at the best multiplexes.
However, the New Excelsior does not have a balcony seating area unlike many other single screens. Kapadia said, “This particular cinema, surprisingly, though it was made in that era, the concept of a balcony was non-existent from Day 1. They had the whole balcony area converted into a projection room.”
The New Excelsior has an interesting mix of old meets new, both in its decor and in the films it screens. On certain Sundays, the theatre screens old favourites like Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), 1942: A Love Story (1994), or a Mukta Arts classic like Khal Nayak. An added bonus for viewers is the original cast and/or crew stopping by to speak before the film begins. But during the week, current Indian and Hollywood films are available for your viewing pleasure.
Rahul Puri reiterated the feeling of balance in the revamping of the theatre — keeping the heritage alive but also introducing contemporary elements into the design. “You have got all of the modern amenities of the cinema, but the feeling of the cinema is very nostalgic," he said. "The big marble plinth where the concessions are, all the gold metalwork with all the embellishments, there is a feeling of scale [and] grandeur. Ultimately, that feeds into the theatre, because when you come in and sit down, you have got this massive screen, you have to feel that you have come to a grand theatre. I think that was very much what we wanted to do.”
From the inception of cinema in the country, Mumbai (then Bombay) was dotted with theatres which fuelled the public’s fascination for the new medium. However, Gothoskar, who covers the New Excelsior in a heritage walk called Freretown, points outs that the theatre built in the 1970s was not originally Art Deco. “This is not a classic Art Deco building of the 1930s and 1940s, the way the Eros, the Regal or the Liberty is," he said. "All of those are genuine Art Deco buildings. Some of them have been altered. But they [all] go by the classic principles of using geometric patterns, which is not the case with this building.”
Over the years though, people have begun to identity the Art Deco style with cinema theatres, especially those in South Mumbai. But today, to stand out in the crowd of theatres which populate the island city, a theatre must have its own identity.
Puri believes the New Excelsior gives you a real multiplex experience without actually going to a multiplex and paying multiplex prices. And they have their own touches, like a curtain rising before the film begins. It is a nostalgic nod to its past.
Puri is quite aware of the stiff competition that any single screen faces in today's multiplex era. “A multiplex will offer everything from the content to the popcorn to the sound to the screen. The only thing they can’t offer is the legacy. I think this is the way forward for the single screens.
"Realistically, can you do this to every single screen? Probably not. But if you pick and choose the right ones, there are possibilities of those single screens holding their own.”
The New Excelsior is already showing the way. Situated at walking distance from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (earlier, Victoria Terminus) and round the corner from Sterling multiplex and the now-shuttered New Empire, the New Excelsior is becoming the go-to choice for audiences who like to experience the joy of watching cinema the old-fashioned way, in a grand theatre on a big, big screen.