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Regal: The first of SoBo's grand Art Deco theatres

85 years ago to the day, the Regal was opened at what was called Wellington Circle by Bombay's governor Sir Frederick Sykes. We look at the making of the great Colaba institution and what it represented all those years ago.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Sonal Pandya

At the corner of Old Custom House Road in Mumbai, opposite the Prince of Wales Museum, sits a landmark everyone in Colaba, and the city, knows by sight — the Regal. It was once a glamorous theatre destination where the biggest Hollywood films were released and the leading names in cinema and music attended the special events that the theatre hosted.

A lot has changed in the 85 years since the Regal was inaugurated. Colaba has become a largely tourist area with the main attractions being the Gateway of India and the Causeway with its sellers of trinkets and mementoes. The arrival of multiplexes in the 1990s marked a drastic shift in the ways Indian audiences viewed cinema. And now, the advent of streaming and digital services have turned viewers' attention to their mobiles and laptops to watch content.

Today, the Regal’s footfalls aren’t what they used to be. You can go and watch the latest Hindi release like Andhadhun (2018); yet there are more empty seats in the 1,200-seater theatre than filled.

Jal Tata, director of Globe Theatres Pvt Ltd, the company that owns the Regal, told us, “To fill up a big house, it requires considerable amount of pressure and the picture has to be a super-hit. If 200 people came, it would be miserable, it would be 1/6th. If 100 people came, it won’t even be 10%. Whereas a multiplex could be a 200- or 250-seater, so they get full houses and the same thing has a miserable income here.”

The balcony at the Regal. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

“The economy does not favour us at all," he continued, "because one picture is the deciding picture. Now if that picture flopped, you’re finished. We have only four shows as compared to 15-20 shows of multiplex cinema. For single-screen cinemas, that is the difficulty. Yet you survive just to maintain that old value.”

But there used to be a time when Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck would stop by to see how their films were doing at the Regal.

Founded by Globe Theatres, Regal cinema was built on the old Saluting Battery site purchased by the company in 1932. When viceroys, governors and royals arrived at the Gateway of India, the gun volleys were fired from here.

Globe Theatres was co-run by Framji H Sidhwa (Jal Tata’s grandfather) and KA Kooka. The company, which originated in Rangoon in Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), had theatres in Kolkata and Chennai as well. It owns the Capitol cinema building, which was built as the Gaiety theatre in 1887, opposite Victoria Terminus (now renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus). The Victorian building is a Grade I heritage structure.

In 1932, Globe Theatres used the services of Structural Engineering Works Limited (then Bhagat & Sons, Engineers) to construct the city’s first luxury theatre. An advertisement in a booklet celebrating the theatre’s 25th anniversary stated, “The Regal Cinema was the first of its kind in India to have a gallery supported on a 70-foot clear span girder with supporting columns, thus enabling a clear unobstructed view to the patrons.”

Courtesy: Globe Theatres Pvt Ltd

RB Balsara, who works at Globe Theatres Pvt Ltd, told us that the Regal’s balcony “is one [entire] piece. There are no pillars or anything.” It looks across to a large screen which is 50 feet in length and 22 feet in height.

The Regal was the first air-conditioned theatre in Mumbai. Back then, it also had an underground car park for its patrons. A major attraction used to be a soda fountain, which had a separate entrance from the main road.

The Art Deco building was designed by Charles Frederick Stevens, son of the renowned Gothic architect Frederick William Stevens, who designed the Victoria Terminus. The interiors were done by Czechoslovakian artist Karl Schara "with dominant sunray Cubist motifs in pale orange and jade green" according to the book, Bombay: The Cities Within by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi.

Sidharth Bhatia, founder and editor of The Wire online news portal, connects the rise of the Art Deco style in 1930s India with a few other elements.

“Cinema, the jazz age, global movements in cultures, for example, the Egyptian tombs were opened, luxury liners, all that came simultaneously,” he told us, filling in the background of the city at the time. “We look back and realize that it’s the whole purpose of glamour. Glamour is critical to Art Deco. The [Second World] War hadn’t yet started. The Indian professional, commercial, mercantile elite had come of age and they saw themselves somewhere as a link between New York, London, Paris, Beirut, Bombay and then Hong Kong, Shanghai, etc.”

The wood-panelled walls of the Regal. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Bhatia said Art Deco was immediately picked up in Mumbai as an aspirational form of self-expression. When the British first arrived in India, they had made a statement by constructing architecture in their own style.

“Now, from the 1860s to the 1930s, it was the Indian engineer, the Indian architect, the Indian designer, the Indian contractor, and Indian money... everything in Art Deco in Bombay has been made by Indians, barring an architect or two. No British money is engaged anywhere. So Regal, and cinemas in general, are all Indian money, mainly Parsis.”

In their book, Mehrotra and Dwivedi stated, “For its time, the Regal was one of the finest cinemas in the city, constructed with unconventional simplicity at the beginning of the building boom in Bombay.” Bhatia said most of these buildings from the construction boom were built on reclaimed land.

The Regal cinema opened for business on 14 October 1933. It was inaugurated by Bombay's then governor, Sir Frederick Sykes, and the film to be screened on opening day was The Devil’s Brother (1933), an MGM film starring legendary comedians Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

From the beginning, the Regal was identified with old Hollywood and a classier style as it largely showed English films and hosted events like classical music recitals.

“Early photographs show people coming there dressed up," Bhatia recalled. "First, it’s South Bombay, and second, it’s English cinema, so the gentry went there. I suppose Regal had that charm associated with it.”

He even remembered a full line-up of Hollywood stars framed and displayed on the walls leading into the theatre. In those days, each cinema hall was associated with a Hollywood studio. For instance, Eros was linked with 20th Century Fox, Metro with MGM, and New Empire with Universal.

The large screen at the Regal. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Jal Tata explained that during the 1950s, the theatre tied up annually with a studio to show its films. In 1953, there were certain renovations made to the theatre to accommodate CinemaScope, which began that year.

“Robe (1953) was the first CinemaScope picture in the world. That played here and at that time only one studio had CinemaScope and that was 20th Century Fox. So there was a contract with Fox for 1954, so they played continuously Cinemascope pictures for one year. But by the end of the year, other studios also had [CinemaScope].”

Once upon a time, the Regal hosted live performances on weeknights. Before the city drifted away to the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), some of the world’s famous musicians took the stage at the Regal.

According to author Navin Ramani in the book Bombay Art Deco, the theatre played host to "Rabindranath Tagore (for recitals of his poems), The Bombay Symphony Orchestra founded by Mehli Mehta (father of the celebrated conductor Zubin Mehta), violinist Yehudi Menuhin, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and the opera singer Marian Anderson". Even prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, president Rajendra Prasad and Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser watched shows at the Regal.

“People like [the pianist] Claudio Arrau and many others [like the violinists] Isaac Stern and Ruggiero Ricci, so many classical concerts were held here. The only alternative they had was the CJ Hall [Cowasji Jehangir Hall] which was opposite the Regal. But that was not air-conditioned, so some of the foreigners could not bear it,” Tata explained.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

The live performances continued until the 1970s when other alternatives like the Tata Theatre at the NCPA, not too far away, became available. The Regal also hosted the third Filmfare awards, presented by the actor David and, of course, there was the time Hollywood star Gregory Peck stopped by.

“[Stars like Gregory Peck and Danny Kaye] normally stayed at the Taj hotel. I remember Gregory Peck coming because his picture called Twelve O'Clock High (1949) was running at that time. He was on his way from London to Colombo to make a film called the Purple Plain (1954),” Tata remembered, saying he met the actor by chance at the Regal.

If you grew up in South Mumbai, like I did, and you walked into the theatre, it is almost certain that a wave of nostalgia would hit you, just as that familiar smell of popcorn permeates the air. Like most theatres, it has a full-body scanner frame you have to walk though. But once you climb the staircase, with wooden panelling on the sides, to get to the upper-level foyer, you feel you are in a grand old theatre.

An old sign says, ‘This Way To The Cafe’. It refers to a small stall right outside the theatre, in the hall, which would be populated by audience members smoking and having some famous Regal tea and softies (ice-creams). Previously, the interval lasted 30 minutes and the movies were much shorter, so patrons could enjoy the food and drinks at the cafe next door.

The Oscar award etched mirror. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Two standouts of the interior design are the large Oscar trophy etched into a mirror on the stairwell leading to the balcony/dress circle seats, a reminder of its Hollywood heyday, while two bas-relief masks, one depicting tragedy, the other comedy, stand out on either side of the cinema screen. Jal Tata stated that the masks are a nod to Globe Theatres and, of course, British playwright William Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan playhouse, Globe theatre.

The dual faces of comedy and tragedy also make an appearance of the outer façade of the theatre. In their book on Bombay, authors Mehrotra and Dwivedi wrote, “On each side of the central neon ‘Regal’ sign, a grotesque bas-relief head representing tragedy and comedy was placed breaking the austere simplicity of the rest of the building. In its architecture, the cinema was a sensitive urban response to its prominent site. In addition to being a multi-use building combining a theatre with shops at street level, its outer façade occupied the entire site to create a continuity of the street edge as the building turned the corner.”

The neon sign is still the same and shines the same blue colour it did all those years ago. Of course, over the years, the theatre has had to change to keep up with the times. Regal cinema now has its own website where one can book tickets. The seating has been changed from numbers to letters since its ticketing moved online for booking.

Projectionist Mohammed Aslam at the Regal. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

In 2015, Balsara said, they upgraded their system to 2K projection. Projectionist Mohammed Aslam has worked at the Regal for 48 years and witnessed first-hand the shift from reel to digital. “People before me taught me,” he said proudly when we visited the projection room upstairs. Much of the staff has stayed with the company for years. Balsara joined Globe Theatres in 2001, while another office employee, Anil Wankhede, at the Globe Theatres office at the Capitol, has been there since 1982.

Even now, there are elements of the past here and there. The vintage lighting panel in gold has switches with a single round light switch in the middle. The original spool projector for the film reels has been preserved and a letter from filmmaker Cecil B DeMille hangs in a place of pride. DeMille wrote to owner Sidhwa to thank him for his letter and gifts in occasion of his film, The Ten Commandments (1956), celebrating 25 weeks, a silver jubilee, at the Regal.

The framed letter from Cecil B DeMille. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

The theatre has been shut down now and then for maintenance and they work through the night to fix certain elements like the sound. But caring for the interiors has been difficult. The struggle to maintain a single screen in a sea of multiplex theatres is tough. There are more costs than profits.

In 2015, the Regal was chosen as one of the venues for the 17th Mumbai Film Festival. The opening film, Aligarh (2016), was screened at the Regal in the presence of the cast and crew, from stars Manoj Bajpayee and Rajkummar Rao to director Hansal Mehta, in front of a houseful audience. Smriti Kiran, creative director of the festival, told us why they chose the South Mumbai theatre as its venue.

“Regal is cinema legacy," Smriti Kiran wrote in a text message. "Stepping into this space is like taking a step back into history. It used to be Mumbai’s most premium screening venue. Hosting our screenings at Regal cinema is our way of remembering a glorious era and also making our guests enter a space that has birthed and fulfilled many dreams, witnessed heartbreaks and endured through ruthless years of change.”

The box office window. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

This June, at the 42nd session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee in Manama, Bahrain, Mumbai's Victorian and Art Deco buildings, including Regal cinema, were collectively declared world heritage. They join the Elephanta Caves and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus aka VT on the list.

The Regal has remained a cinema institution for 85 years. These single-screen theatres were our first exposure to cinema, where we first fell in love with the movies and the unique experience of community they foster. Let us not forget them so soon.

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