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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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.