cinema in india

Hope for Mumbai’s single screen cinemas after New Excelsior gets a shiny makeover

Subhash Ghai’s cinema chain has renovated and relaunched the iconic Mumbai theatre with new amenities and fewer seats.

Novelty, Excelsior, New Excelsior and now Mukta A2 New Excelsior: the iconic single-screen cinema near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai has died and been reborn several times over.

Built in 1887 to compete with Gaiety in the neighourhood (later called Capitol), rebuilt as Excelsior in 1909, and renamed New Excelsior in 1975, the 1,100-seater has been renovated and reopened by the Mukta A2 Cinemas chain. The company, owned by filmmaker Subhash Ghai, owns and manages 50 screens in 15 cities across India. Their latest acquisition has fewer seats (596) but retains its ambition of delivering the latest Friday releases to Mumbai residents who prefer the simple and affordable charms of the single screen to the seductive but expensive multiplex.

Single screen cinemas across India are shutting down in the face of competition from multiplexes, but they can be rescued with a flavourful mix of old and new styles, as the new New Excelsior proves. On February 9, the cinema was relaunched with swanky interiors, refurbished seats, an improved sound system and a cafeteria run by the Book My Show company. Ghai’s frequent collaborators, including Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff and Pyarelal Sharma, as well as Gulshan Grover, Satish Kaushik and Abbas-Mustan, posed for cameras at the launch.

“I used to come here to watch movies and then I premiered some of my own films like Karma and Khalnayak,” Ghai said. “I have lots of fond memories of this theatre and I want to keep its charm intact.”

Gulshan Grover, Anil Kapoor, Subhash Ghai, Pyarelal Sharma and Jackie Shroff as the reopening. Picture by Scroll staff.
Gulshan Grover, Anil Kapoor, Subhash Ghai, Pyarelal Sharma and Jackie Shroff as the reopening. Picture by Scroll staff.

Ghai might not be making as many movies as he used to, but he sure knows a thing or two about leveraging his brand equity. As founder of the Mukta Arts company, Ghai has been astute about branching out from production into allied activities, such as the Whistling Woods International film school in Mumbai and the Mukta A2 Cinemas chain.

New Excelsior’s convenient location – it is a stone’s throw from CST and part of the bustling south Mumbai business district – makes its rebirth especially attractive for distributors of English and Hindi films. The revamped theatre is a single screen with the feel of a multiplex. The walls are covered with inscriptions that seem to have been prompted by ancient Egyptian art – The Great Gatsby meets The Mummy. The cinema has an 84-foot screen, which Ghai claims is the biggest in the country. New Excelsior will have five shows a day, starting with the February 10 release Jolly LLB 2.

Rahul Puri, Ghai’s son-in-law and the managing director of Mukta A2 Cinemas, said that all efforts were made to retain memories of the original theatre. “New Excelsior Cinema is a heritage property with a very old-fashioned single screen to which we have added modern comforts in terms of seating and even a cafe,” Puri said. “We wanted to keep the soul of the theatre, so a lot of the interiors remain the same as before.”

The relaunched New Excelsior. Picture by Scroll staff.
The relaunched New Excelsior. Picture by Scroll staff.

New Excelsior’s legacy is marked by decline and revival. The colonial-era cinema was one among several structures to be built in Mumbai’s Fort neighbourhood in the 1860s. Built in 1887, its original name was Novelty, and in keeping with the times, it was a venue for films and plays. In 1909, Novelty was razed and replaced by the Excelsior Theatre.

In 1975, yet another change in nomenclature and ownership took place: the theatre was now called New Excelsior, and its operations were handed over by its original Parsi owners to a new set of partners associated with the Hindi film trade.

“We re-opened the theatre on March 5, 1975, with the film Amar Prem,” said RV Vidhani, one of New Excelsior owners and a director of the lobby group Cinema Owners & Exhibitors Association Of India. “Rajesh Khanna was a superstar at the time. We are now reopening the theatre with his son-in-law Akshay Kumar’s film Jolly LLB 2.”

During its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s, New Excelsior, along with its neighbours New Empire and Metro in Dhobitalao, was a destination for fans of Hollywood. Those were the days when the South Mumbai cinemas were attached to distributors – Metro showed MGM titles; New Empire was linked to Warner Bros; New Excelsior screened titles from the British studio Rank Organisation.

Vintage photographs of Bombay. Picture by Scroll staff.
Vintage photographs of Bombay. Picture by Scroll staff.

Veteran film critic Rashid Irani has fond memories of visiting New Excelsior as a child and then an adult. “It was a three-storeyed structure with a second balcony on the top floor, and I remember bounding up the wooden stairs to watch films,” Irani said.

New Excelsior was also the venue for one of the best ever festivals of French cinema held in Mumbai in 1967, according to Irani. “Here, such films as Au Hasard Balthasar, Soft Skin, Pierrot Le Fou and The War is Over were shown,” he said. “I also remember they had a beautiful garden cafe downstairs, where they served rolls, chicken broth, and the first sizzlers in Mumbai, supplied by the Paradise Café in Colaba.”

New Excelsior’s decline began in the 1980s. As cheaply produced video cassettes flooded the market, several single screen cinemas in Mumbai started losing business and were unable to screen the latest films. Some of them, such as the neighbouring New Empire, screened soft-core English and Hindi films to stay afloat. The advent of multiplexes in the late 1990s sent single screen cinemas into further decrepitude.

The revival of New Excelsior proves that with a new look and sensible ticket pricing, single screen cinemas can continue to resist the march of the multiplex.

Vidhani retains the cinema’s ownership, and he was thrilled with its revival. “I am happy to co-manage the theatre with Mukta A2 Cinemas,” Vidhani told Scroll.in. “It’s a good sign. We have redesigned the theatre to make sure that the single screen theatre moves with the modern sensibilities of the multiplex style of more comfort and amenities.”

The new cafeteria. Picture by Scroll staff.
The new cafeteria. Picture by Scroll staff.
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.