She’s draped in red velvet and her skin is the colour of Burma teak and Canadian cedar. Introducing the first in our special series on single-screen theatres in Mumbai
From the outside, Liberty Cinema looks like any ordinary single-screen theatre going about its daily business, fighting for survival. But nothing prepares you for the grandeur that awaits you inside. The first thing that strikes you is the red interiors complete with intrinsic woodwork, specially made out of Burma teak and Canadian cedar. In the lobby, a black and white mural celebrates the good looks and coiffed hair of yesteryear actors and a few meters beyond the mirrored snack counters is an exquisitely carved wooden door that leads you to the undulating shimmering curtain which first rose in March 21, 1949 to marvel cine-goers. Liberty has withstood the test of time, taking in ups and downs over six decades in a choppy ocean they call showbiz. Despite her age, this septuagenarian is as gorgeous as she was on the day of her debut. And behind most successful woman is a man: Liberty is indeed a labour of love for its gusty owner, 72-year-old Nazir Hoosain.
Liberty is one of the last surviving members of the Indian art deco movement, which roughly stretched across three decades, from the mid 1930s to the early 1960s. The theatre was designed by Englishman Riddley Abbot, who died in a plane crash midway through the building’s construction. The work was subsequently completed by local architects, J.B. Fernandes and W.M. Namjoshi. Shortly after independence, Hoosain’s father laid the foundation of this cinema hall and it took two years to build it. Recalling his earliest memory of sitting besides his father at the age of seven and digging the ground, Hoosain life has been intrinsically connected to the cinema. “We shifted our residence here in 1949 and from then on, I have lived in a cinema,” he says.
Once upon a time
Recalling Liberty’s heydays, Hoosain talks about the time when going to cinema was an occasion in itself. “Our highest seats are called ‘Dress Circle’ and it is called that for a reason. You dress to go to the pictures. Men preferred white and women would be in saris. At that time, going to the cinema was an occasion and there were not too many occasions. There was no television, no mobile phones. It was different time and was always a family occasion. Today, you don’t dress to go to the pictures. For the premieres, the entire front would be cordoned off and the stars would drive up to the red carpet and people would stand on the sides to catch glimpses of the stars. “A film was called a hit when it ran for 25 weeks that is half a year. Now if it runs for ten days, it is a hit. The choice of vehicle was cars and Victorias (horse-drawn carriages) and the moment stars arrived, there would be chaos followed by a lathi charge. It was great fun in its own way, sadly premieres is now a bland affair,” laments Hoosain.
What’s in a name?
Like Hoosain, his father’s heart was also in cinema and when his job at the cotton factory came to an end, he utilized this opportunity and started screening films for the members of the Bandra Gymkhana every Sunday afternoon. Every week, he would carry a 60-mm portable projector box to the Gymkhana and show films. “Seeing the huge response for films, my father started building cinemas. He built the Strand Cinema (which does not exist anymore) and also operated a cinema at the southern-most tip of Mumbai. Nestled in the cantonment district of Navy Nagar, this cinema was first called the Garrison, then was renamed Defense, and then it became Sena.”
Soon, when World War II started and Bombay-Pune-Nasik became an allied base. Hoosain senior started putting up cinemas as fast as he could. “At that time, it was quite easy to put. He once told me the story of how he put up a cinema hall in Deolali called Cathay. He went to the armed forces and asked their permission for putting up a cinema. Next morning, he started digging and 100 days later, it started. That cinema still stands. By the time World-War II ended, we had about 45 cinemas. Some were in tents but people didn’t mind that.” But juggling 45 halls in different locations soon became a logistical problem. Hence the idea of creating Liberty was born. “By that time, Hindi cinema was crying for a flagship theatre. There was Eros, New Excelsior and Regal, but they screened only English films. We were first pure Hindi cinema audience,” adds Hoosian. Why an English name, you ask and Hoosain is quick to retort, “Liberty sounds better than Independence or Azaadi.”
Change of fortune
It has not been an easy life for Liberty, which hit a dark phase in the 1990s. Hossain’s father passed away, leaving the reigns of control in the hands of investors. “At that time, I was into motorsports (he founded the Himalayan Rally). My father gave it to run to some friends to run and after my father’s death, the result was unpleasant. Their interest was only commercial and they didn’t care about the theatre’s maintenance. “ After fighting a legal battle for two decades, Hoosain managed to get the theatre back, which by then was a shadow of its past glory. “The seats were torn, the carpets were dirty and the paint was peeling, so that work started in earnest to bring it back to its glory.”Liberty’s fortune turned around with ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ which went on to play for 125 weeks at the theatre. The producers came to him and put a condition that they would show the film at the theatre only if he gets a new sound system. At that time a sound system cost Rs 10 lakh. Hoosain recalls “I told them if your film flops, I will lose a lot of money and I was told that if that happens, the producers will reimburse me for the sound system. “ The film went on to become a blockbuster and brought back Liberty in public attention.
But the theatres woes are far from over as it is burdened with hefty entertainment taxes and competition from multiplexes. In order to make it more sustainable, Hoosain has decided to extend offerings to alternative art forms and performances. But isn’t it five year too late? Hoosain points out, “ At the end of the day you require a level playing field and when you don’t have a level playing field, you are comparing apples and oranges. When will the playing field be level? In my book, it becomes level now since after a five-year tax holiday, the multiplexes are also suffering. So this is the apt time to have other activities. I am not closing the cinema. I am not saying that we are going to stop screening films and become a theatre that will have annual general meetings. But then cinema going is not the same anymore. The charm is lost,” he concludes.