In 1950, looking for a place to build a studio away from central Mumbai’s booming industrial hubs, film-maker Mehboob Khan found a remote plot of land. It was closer to Mumbai’s southern and central districts, where stars, film-makers and producers traditionally lived, than the far-flung north-west of the city, where Filmistan and Bombay Talkies had their already-historic studios located in Goregaon and Malad—a place that Saadat Hasan Manto would describe years later to his readers in Lahore as a “village outside Bombay”.
In Bandra, quiet and marshy, its Reclamation stretch yet to be excavated from the Arabian Sea, Mehboob Khan built a studio over four years, at an exorbitant rate that no one today remembers.
Today, at the end of Hill Road, Mehboob Studios still stands undisturbed, around the corner from the pop-up flea markets and continually self-reinventing shopping arcades, the greasy spoons and neon-lit coffee shops, the convent schools, the delicately flaking coastal bungalows and the tall apartment blocks that occupy a little more of the horizon every year. Seen from the perpetually busy traffic junction outside, its tall gates look dignified, but unimposing. The trees that line its driveway shade a complex of low-slung, warehouse-like buildings from public view.
It could easily be a blind spot for a passer-by, but Owen Roncon, who has lived in the neighbourhood all his life, found that it was never far from his mind. The director of event management company Oranjuice, Roncon knew every concert stage in the city. In Bandra, you could stage the really big ones at the MMRDA Grounds to the east, at Bandra-Kurla Complex, or close to Land’s End in the west.
On location: (clockwise from left) Buddy Guy at the Mahindra Blues Festival; Anish Kapoor and Andrea Rose at Kapoor’s show; and Mehboob Studios.
“But I always wanted to do something at Mehboob,” he says.
In December 2009, industrialist Anand Mahindra floated the idea of a blues festival that would bring the world’s biggest artistes together every year under the Mahindra banner. With Jay Shah, project lead, Mahindra Blues Festival, he discussed several possible locations where they could do for the blues what Montreux (Switzerland, home of the annual Montreux Jazz Festival) does for jazz.
“We wanted a location with which we could build an association over time, a place that could come to be thought of as the hub for blues music outside its country of origin, the US. We thought of Goa, Bangalore, a number of other places within India,” Shah recalls. “But in the end we felt that the blues, with its history as a music of struggle and celebration, could only really belong to Mumbai.”
So they turned to Mehboob Studios, a place that symbolized the sort of celebration and struggle particular to the history of Mumbai’s film industry.
Mehboob Studios was completed in 1954, when Mehboob Khan was in the middle of making Amar, featuring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. Neither that, nor the first two films he made there, Paisa hi Paisa and Awaaz, succeeded. Then Mother India, made in 1957, ensured that his studio would go down in history.
It could not, however, ensure financial stability. “When my father died in 1964, the studio was mortgaged for a paltry sum,” says Iqbal Khan, Mehboob Khan’s son and the studio’s managing director. “We were involved in litigation with my stepmother, who wanted to be made permanent director at the studio. There were creditors who took us to court as well.” One of them fought the studio over a fee of Rs12,000. “If we could not afford that, asked the court, how did we deserve to keep the studio running?” Khan remembers.
Fortunes began to look up in the mid-1970s. The rights to Mother India reverted from its distributors to the family. The income from the film continued to fund the studio long after its release. Their new recording studio, built in 1974, did well; partly, Khan says, because they were in such a quiet area. “Dev Anand and Chetan Anand came to shoot at Mehboob all the time.” So did the decade’s most successful film-makers, including Manmohan Desai.
“In 10 years’ time we were established as a good studio. Movie shoots happened here because the stars lived close by, and we had parking space. While our stages are too big for TV shows, they’re still booked for commercial shoots,” Khan says. “The board of directors has just been adamant about one thing so far: We didn’t want to do events.”
This is where Roncon, organizing the Mahindra Blues festival, stepped in, working his way through potential problems. Sound would be an issue, in spite of the concert technically being indoors—the tower blocks that came up around Mehboob in the 1970s are largely residential. Traffic, always a hassle on Hill Road, could choke the area entirely. And the stages themselves had to be prepared.
“They don’t look like run-down warehouses any more after they painted them,” Roncon says. “But you can’t get around the technical stuff: huge place, high ceilings. We had to pad the walls for soundproofing, go to great lengths to make sure the acoustics were right.”
He laughs: “We learned a lot.”
It isn’t until you step on to one of the stages that Mehboob Studios offers you an opportunity increasingly rare in Mumbai: to be overwhelmed by space. Even in present-day Bandra, where public spaces tend towards bonsai proportions, an empty film studio is cavernous.
This is also why Anish Kapoor, who held his Mumbai art show here in November-December, found Mehboob’s Stage 3 the most congenial space for the pure abstraction of his sculptures. “It’s always been a space where things are made, but from which they emanate,” Kapoor said about the location. “Nobody ever came here. We’ve been able to turn it the other way around and bring the public into this space.”
Roncon and the Mahindras booked the space first, but Kapoor, collaborating with the British Council, had the earlier show. “We had to find somewhere suitably large, suitably theatrical, suitably inspiring, suitably exciting,” said Andrea Rose, visual arts director of the British Council, at the opening of Kapoor’s show. “I have actually seen the cannon in the august halls of the Royal Gallery and I can assure you it is a million times better (here). The scale of it is scary…it’s a mountain to climb.”
After the success of two events, with the Mahindra Blues Festival returning next year, Khan says the directors are planning to take this forward as a means of revenue. “We’ll host prestigious events,” he says. “Events that have cultural and artistic value. No weddings.”
“It’s hard to find empty lots that can be rented out and reinvented every month,” says Nasreen Munni Kabir, a film-maker and writer who encountered the significance of the studio while working on her 2010 book, The Dialogue of Mother India. “With its good quality structures, its elements of art deco—it means a lot to have it revived with cultural events. I was at the Blues festival. I thought it was beautiful.”
So did the artistes who played at the festival over 5 and 6 February. Shah and Roncon say they were all delighted with the venue. “(British blues guitarist) Matt Schofield said even in the UK, he’d never seen anything like it,” Roncon says.
Most of the 3,000 Mumbaikars who attended the concerts over the weekend would say the same thing. The studios that made movie history in the 20th century have largely disappeared from public view. Some are disappearing literally. Kamal Amrohi’s Kamalistan, built in 1958, was sold last year to property developers. Earlier this week, newspapers reported that the venerable Filmistan—where Manto met and wrote for Ashok Kumar—has been put up for sale.
Mehboob Studios, by throwing its doors open to art and music, is bringing a part of India’s invisible history to life. For years, audiences have seen the cities, palaces, forests and villages that were built within its spare walls and bare floor. Seeing it for itself is like looking into one of Kapoor’s distortive stainless steel sculptures—another sort of spectacle altogether.