Is it just an abandoned bungalow? No, it’s the Mayor’s house. Or maybe it’s an ancestral property inhabited by a stubborn old man who refuses to give in to the demands of real estate players.
Every time I walked to High Street Phoenix in the neighbourhood I couldn’t help but wonder why nobody reformed a certain old and tattered bungalow on the way. While nearly every piece of property around it had metamorphosed, or was metamorphosing, into contemporary glass buildings, this one-acre plot with an open courtyard and two white elephants still stood there calling itself Deepak Cinemas.
Half-torn posters of Telegu, Marathi and sometimes failed Hindi movies were slapped on the low, sky-blue compound walls. And a short man in uniform atop a wooden stool guarded the dilapidated metal gate. The long queues of labourers and paan-chewing taxi drivers outside was justified when I saw the chalkboard by the little ticket window that read Rs. 20, 30, 40. I could picture the scene inside. Wooden chairs with almost negligible cushioning, high ceiling fans hanging from the sloping roofs and a wide screen really far away may have livened up the cinematic experience for all the men in the queue.
Although the movie prices were tempting, it was a theatre I could never visit, I would say to myself. Why couldn’t they simply rip this down and build a fancy multiplex with recliner seats and butter-popcorn vending machines? When old mills could become fancy malls and plush offices, why not this?
Tokershi Jivraj Shah, a Kutchi landlord who owned acres of land in the Lower Parel-Elphinstone area, started Deepak Talkies as a venue for circus shows and musicals until the arrival of the talkies in 1931. In its heyday it hosted many star-studded premieres and attracted the neighbouring mill workers every evening, the man at the ticket counter told me.
But come the new millennium and many single screen cinema houses failed to keep up with the multiplex boom. The fortunes of the only theatre in Elphinstone dwindled in the past two decades, and it started showing mass movies in Bhojpuri, Telugu and Marathi to stay afloat. What it really needed was a fresh lease of life. It needed to get rid of the peeled-off walls and bug infested seats. It needed to entice a sophisticated crowd that loved the experience of watching a good film.
And February last year marked the rebirth of this 89-year-old theatre. Complete with new seats, air conditioning and state-of-the-art technology, Deepak Cinemas was renamed Deepak - Matterden CFC. What I loved about it when I saw it reborn is what I exactly hated all those years ago. The sloping, tiled roof, the open courtyard before the theatre, the small ticket window outside, the cagey gate and film posters slapped on the wall outside – only this time they were placed in special glass cases pinned on the walls – and the newly painted white elephants.
I knew, at the gate itself, this was going to be a one-of-a kind movie experience. There were no daunting security women to frisk me, no aroma of pizzas, nachos and brownies in the air and no pesky red lights prying from the ceiling. The way to the screen was simple, earthy and nostalgic of my village home. It was a place I could sit for hours discussing Rush, The Bicycle Thief or Good Will Hunting with a fellow film buff. The careful restoration of the heritage decor and the small canteen that served piping hot chai nearly distracted my ulterior motive.
A small stairway on the side led me to the balcony (executive) section from where the 70mm screen looked even more glorious. The red cushion seats may be the same, but the cinematic experience of watching a movie in a not-so-multiplex movie hall was certainly atypical.
Just when I thought single screen cinemas had no future, the refurbished Deepak opened its doors for the Matterden Centre for Films and Creations and changed the game forever. Deepak aims to be for cinema what Prithvi is for theatre. With a vintage cinematic feel and ample ground for filmy discussions and workshops, this is where all the cinema lovers and makers will want to be.
Words and photograph by Mili Semlani for The City Story.
The City Story is an independent online publication that chronicles the heart of a city through its stories.