In this age of multiplexes, single screens all over the country have steadily shut shop over the last decade or so. The wide variety of movies on offer and the sleek atmosphere in a multiplex have rung a death-knell of the single screens. Also, the youth who form the majority of the movie-watching crowd find the single screen to be low-status. The age-old single screens have thus found the going to be really tough.
Liberty Cinema, the lovely Art Deco cinema hall, tucked in the south or the ‘town’ side of Mumbai too has been adversely affected by this multiplex surge and has decided to stop screening films as it has become commercially unviable. But fortunately for single-screen lovers the owner(Mr.Nazir Hoosien) of Liberty is an irrational businessman. The most obvious decision, here, would have been to convert the cinema hall into a multiplex like the stone’s throw away Metro Cinemas or sell the property situated in a prime land and mint money in hundreds of crores taking advantage of the absurd real estate boom in Mumbai. But, Mr. Nazir Hoosein is not your typical businessman. He instead plans to convert the place into a performing art theatre without making any major modification to the cinema hall. It would also continue to screen films but only occasionally.
Last month, a French film festival including a heritage walk was organised by Alliance Française de Bombay in Liberty Cinemas. The heritage walk, which I was a part of, was led by Mr. Nazir Hoosein himself. I have passed by the structure before and the Art Deco architecture with a giant piano carved on the façade has never failed to impress me. But I had never entered the place and had no idea of what I had in store. With the first step that I took into the movie theatre the whole atmosphere totally mesmerized me. I felt transported to a different era. The first thing that catches your attention is the nicely laid shiny red carpet all over the floor of the lobby. Then as you slowly start to notice the wooden finishes on the wall, the lights emanating from the ceiling and the huge mirrors on the staircase you realize that you are in a really special place. There is a lot of thought put behind every little thing to give the theatre an aesthetic look. I was amazed to spot that even a dustbin had a wooden finish.
It gets even better as you enter the main auditorium. It is a huge 1194 seater auditorium with obviously a large screen. The lighting immediately catches your attention. You that the auditorium is lit up only by rays of golden light escaping from behind those magnificient carvings on the walls and the ceiling. The golden lights, the red carpet and the red seats together give the theatre a majestic feel. The screen also has a golden curtain to add to the aura. Liberty should actually be added to the itinerary of every tourist to Mumbai as it is a lesson in art and history as well.
Mr.Hoosein shared interesting anecdotes with the people present. The name Liberty, he said, was because the construction of the structure was started by his father Mr. Habib Hoosein in 1947 just around the time India got independence from the British. It was also at that time the only theatre in the upmarket area to play Hindi films as Eros, Metro and Regal would play only Hollywood films. Liberty was the favourite place for the grand premiers of Bollywood in the 50s and 60s with films like Mughal-e-Azam being premiered there. Hum Aapke Hain Kaun ran there 125 long weeks of which 44 were housefull. The late painter M.F.Hussain famously saw the film there for more than 50 times and often broke into a dance when a song from the film played on screen much to the anger of other patrons. Film historian Rafique Baghdadi who was also present at the occasion told us how once during a French Film Festival organized there in the 70s the ticket for the bold 1969 French film La Piscine(The Swimming Pool) was being sold in black for a staggering amount of Rs.300 as it was an uncensored screening.
Another feature of Liberty is that it has been maintained in a tip-top condition. The owner deserves special kudos for it. You won’t make out that the place is more than 60 years old. Most old single screens I have been to have poor sound and projection, peeling walls and also uncomfortable seats which spoils the movie watching experience. But the sound and projection here was top quality. So was the seating arrangement with good legroom.
The ticket prices for a movie at Liberty begin from as low as Rs.55 for the stall and they can be booked online too. The mineral water bottles are sold at MRP and the popcorn for Rs.30. And yes, they do serve you at your place if you want to.
Now, I wonder why anybody would choose an over-priced and exploitative multiplex over such a gem of a cinema hall. One reason might be that the movie-going crowd is just unaware of Liberty and its grandeur. Thus, these little events like the heritage walk and film festivals would go a long way in making the destination popular amongst cinema buffs. Also as the management plans to show films only occasionally, film festivals in Mumbai like the MAMI organized Mumbai International Film festival which draws a huge crowd are perfectly suited for being held at a big place which celebrates the movie watching experience like Liberty. I really hope that does happen.
Till then I will make sure to drag as many of my friends as possible to this absolutely wonderful place for the little time that it is still going to show movies.