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Regal Cinema: Many Firsts

Regal Cinema: Many Firsts

At a busy traffic intersection in Mumbai’s famous Colaba neighbourhood is one of Mumbai’s most emblematic cinema halls – Regal Cinema. Back in the day, it was among a handful of cinema halls that set the tone for the movie-going experience in the city. Now, sadly, the curtain may ring down on this Mumbai icon one last time.

It was India’s first air-conditioned cinema

A pioneer of Mumbai’s Art Deco movement, Regal is 85 years old. Its pale yellow facade, and clean and simple lines, defined the architectural movement of the 1930s. This was a marked departure from the predominantly Gothic and Neo-Gothic styles characteristic of the British colonial architectural legacy.

Regal Cinema, and many other buildings like it in Bombay, signalled the arrival of modernity, progressive thinking and the rapid technological and social changes taking place in the early 20th century. But Regal went beyond symbolic. It was India’s first air-conditioned cinema and the first cinema hall to have underground parking – with an elevator, to boot!

Vintage photograph of the Regal Cinema | Flickr

The cinema was built on a plot owned by the British army and occupied by an old saluting battery. So when viceroys and VIPs arrived in Bombay, they were greeted with a gun salute at this venue. In time, the plot fell vacant and, in 1926, it was leased to Framji H Sidhwa and his friend K A Kooka of Calcutta-based Globe Theatres.

Sidhwa was born into a family of Parsi priests, and after a few hits and misses in life, he launched a film exhibition business in Rangoon (now Yangon in Myanmar). With his partner, Kooka, the business spread to Calcutta, Madras and Bangalore. Their Bombay journey began when Sidhwa bought Capitol Cinema, not far away, opposite Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT).

Theatrical poster of The Devil’s Brother | Wikimedia Commons

Regal Cinema was inaugurated on 14th October 1933 by Governor Sir Frederick Sykus, with the Laurel and Hardy feature The Devil’s Brother. The two-storey structure had been commissioned to Charles Stevens, son of Frederick William Stevens, who famously designed the CSTM, then Victoria Terminus. The new-age, urban Art Deco building looked rather plain, a far cry from the grotesque bas-relief head representing ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ on either side of the cinema’s name board, which also introduced Mumbai to neon lighting. The main auditorium had a motif of sunrays in pale orange and jade green.

Grotesque bas-relief head representing ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ | Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, movie theatres were the first Art Deco buildings to be built in Bombay as they were places of community gatherings. This was a reflection of the many businessmen, mostly Parsis, travelling to Europe, where they saw Hollywood’s fame and wanted to bring similar attributes to their home country.

To make movie-going even more memorable, Sidhwa introduced Cinemascope, so that his patrons could enjoy the latest technology. A soda fountain, ice-cream in wine glasses and a pantry for the balcony audience made the box-office experience truly uber-cool.

Regal Cinema in the 1950s | Pinterest

In keeping with the expectations of Bombay’s elite, Regal cinema screened the best of the Western cinema – The Sound of Music and Titanic ran for 38 weeks and 30 weeks, respectively. Interestingly, diplomat V K Krishna Menon’s legendary eight-hour speech at the United Nations in 1957, defending India’s rights to the disputed territory of Kashmir, was filmed and edited, and a special show of the documentary was held here for then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The cinema has also hosted international dignitaries like the Dalai Lama, Nikita Khrushchev and Yehudi Menuhin. Also in the 1950s, the Filmfare Award functions were held at the cinema for four years.

The cinema has also hosted Dalai Lama, Nikita Khrushchev and Yehudi Menuhin

Regal is one of Mumbai’s oldest single-screen cinemas and, just like its peers, it could be winding down to a predictable climax. Unable to compete with sprawling multiplexes, which cater to a new-age audience, news of it shutting down is doing the rounds. So, if you’re in the neighbourhood, stop by for a movie here, for old time’s sake. It may not be long before the credits of this story read ‘the end’.

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