Just outside the walled city of Amritsar, near Gandhi Gate, is a bit of movie magic that failed to cast a spell. It’s a large, abandoned cinema hall, the oldest in all of North India, whose story is an ill-fated tale with tragic twists and turns.
Chitra Talkies was built by a wealthy building contractor named Sardar Mahna Singh Nagi, who was born in 1864 in Lola village (now Dashmesh Nagar), in Amritsar district. By the time he was just 12 years old, Mahna Singh had lost both his parents. To make his way in life, he dropped out of school and moved to Amritsar, where he worked as a carpenter’s apprentice. At the age of 18, he joined the British-Indian Army as a carpenter and offered his services during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80).
Mahna Singh returned to Amritsar and gained some experience with a small construction firm in the city. He realised he had a knack for the industry and he left Amritsar in search of bigger contracts.
Mahna Singh was contracted to build a jail in Nagpur in Maharashtra, and, at the age of 27, he went to the Kingdom of Jeypore, a princely state in present-day Odisha, where Maharaja Vikram Dev III asked him to build a palace known as Moti Mahal.
The Making of The Cinema Hall
The movies came to India in the 1890s and were initially screened in portable tents, just as plays were staged by roving theatre troupes. The country’s first cinema hall was Elphinstone Picture Palace in Calcutta, built-in 1907 by a Parsi entrepreneur, Jamshedji Framji Madan, whose company, Madan Theatres Ltd, brought many of Bengal's most popular literary works to the stage.
Mahna Singh was a close friend of Madan and stayed at his home whenever he was in Calcutta. It was Madan who encouraged him to open a cinema hall in Punjab. So, in 1909, when a plot of land outside the walled city near Hall Gate (now Gandhi Gate) in Amritsar was being auctioned, Mahna Singh put down the winning bid – 23,000 rupees – beating many wealthy residents. It was on this plot that he built Amritsar’s first cinema hall, hoping to revolutionize entertainment in the city.
The design of his cinema incorporated both Western and Indian elements and since Mahna Singh had a construction business, it used bricks that were forged in his kiln and each one was engraved with his initials ‘MS’. The cinema hall also doubled as a theatre as it had a large stage area around the screen so that dramas could be performed, live.
It also boasted a two-storey gallery that could seat 2,000 people and several rooms to accommodate the actors. Restaurant and hotel arrangements were made for people visiting from other towns who came here to enjoy the theatre.
– The cinema hall was so big that it is still considered the biggest theatrical hall in all of Punjab!
In 1909, when construction began, Mahna Singh was already an influential man, elected to the post of Municipal Commissioner in Amritsar. In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Sardar Mahna Singh not only encouraged people to be recruited as soldiers for the war but even made a financial contribution to the government for the war. For this, he earned the title of ‘Honorary Magistrate’.
Mahna Singh named his cinema hall ‘Crown Cinema – Sardar Mahna Singh Theatrical Hall’ after the British ‘Crown’, whose flag, the Union Jack, was hoisted atop the building. In 1915, when the cinema was to be inaugurated, the Deputy Commissioner of the city, C M King, was the chief guest at the ceremony and he opened the lock to the cinema’s gate with a golden key.
That wasn’t all. The building was lit up with 2,000 electric bulbs and a band played outside. ‘Sardar Mahna Singh Theatrical Hall’ was written in a string of light bulbs installed on a gigantic wheel in front of the building. Of course, the who’s who of the city attended the festivities, whose cost –18,000 rupees – was born by Mahna Singh himself.
The cinema hall began to screen silent films while orchestra musicians played background music as the films regaled the audience. Electricity hadn’t yet come to Amritsar and a portable steam generator was installed to run the projectors and the lights outside. A band played outside the hall every night to attract people. The show would start at 9.30 pm and continue till 5 am!
It Didn’t Click
Sadly, Mahna Singh’s ingenious and expensive marketing strategy didn’t quite work. Unlike the big metropolitan cities like Calcutta, the people of Amritsar were not accustomed to going to the movies, so there were few takers for Crown Cinema in the first two or three years. The losses were huge.
People were used to watching ‘real’ actors performing dramas and were not interested in watching actors whose performances were prerecorded and projected onto a screen, that too when the movies were silent and in black-and-white. On top of that, the movies cost more than going to the theatre.
In 1919, the implementation of the draconian Rowlatt Act by the British administration in India and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that followed soon after was uppermost on people’s minds; movies were not. Mahna Singh realised that his cinema hall was anything but the triumph he had envisioned.
The nationalist sentiment was rising and the freedom movement was gathering momentum, so Mahna Singh dropped the name ‘Crown Cinema’ and rechristened it ‘Pearl Theatre’ and further Indianised its name to ‘Chitra Talkies’.
Once again, Mahna Singh went all out to make his dream cinema a success. Many attractive games were introduced to attract potential movie-goers and films were screened free for limited periods to bring in the crowds. Finally, the cinema broke even and was able to sustain itself.
A highly skilled European manager was appointed on a handsome salary to run the cinema. He was even provided accommodation and his conveyance was reimbursed. Even traditional plays were hosted by the cinema hall to entice residents to come and watch. But the cinema once again ran into losses.
The Last Straw
It so happened that in 1919, Mahna Singh bagged a contract worth millions of rupees from his old friend, the Maharaja of Jeypore, to collect wood from the forests in the kingdom which was to be later sold. To kickstart the work, Mahna Singh needed a sizeable sum of money and to raise it, he mortgaged all his property in Amritsar including his home and cinema hall, to money lenders.
However, the project didn’t fetch the expected results and many of Mahna Singh’s partners are said to have cheated him. Moreover, his friend and patron, the Maharaja, died in 1920 and the new administration in Jeypore wasn’t obliged to keep the promises that the deceased Maharaja had made. They cancelled the lease given to Mahna.
The Sardar was financially devastated. Most of his property now was in the hands of money lenders and there was no way he could repay the colossal loans he had taken. He had gone all out to save his beloved cinema hall but in vain.
In time, Chitra Talkies had several new owners, who continued to sell the building to further buyers one after another of which none was connected with the essence of the cinema hall.
Although cinema halls were being opened all over the country by the 1930s, the new owners of Chitra Talkies did not have the expertise to run a movie hall. Also, with the death of Mahna Singh in 1948, the cinema lost its last hope of revival. The only vestige of his cinematic legacy was a write-up in the local edition of the newspaper, The Tribune, which front-paged his passing.
The headline read ‘Cinema Pioneer Died Leaving Behind Seven Sons and Two Daughters’. The Calcutta-based newspaper Amrita Bazar Patrika too carried a lengthy article on the life of this cinema pioneer, while an arterial road in Amritsar, stretching from Jallianwala Bagh to Sultanwind Gate, was named after Sardar Mahna Singh.
Meanwhile, Chitra Talkies went to seed, screening C-grade, ‘adult’ movies. At one time, some restaurants operated from the premises. Eventually, Punjab’s first cinema hall was officially shut some 6-7 years back. Now just a few cars brokers are dealing on its ground floor, completely away from the original purpose of the building.
Located in one of the busiest areas of Amritsar, Chitra Talkies is still standing, silent and neglected, which seems to waiting for the time it would be demolished. The city appears to have forgotten this slice of cinematic history and the man who tried to bring the magic of the movies to the people of Amritsar.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.