It’s a sudden transition. One moment you are guarding your ears from the clamour and noise of the busy Shivajinagar bus stand in Bangalore and the next, the moment you step into the clean portico of Elgin Talkies, you can hear faint sounds of men cheering and clapping inside the halls. I peeked into a window that was latched not quite right. Saturated colours and loud music from the screen riveted the attention of at least 300 men as they watched Raveena Tandon swing her hips to Tu cheez badi hai mast mast from Mohra, their faces wearing the same expressions that they perhaps had when they watched it for the first time in 1994. Taken back in time, the film did to them, what standing in the Elgin Talkies premises did to me.
Music filled this hall a century ago too, but the air was different. Dance and drama troupes travelled from across the country to perform at the very elite Elgin, named after the British Viceroy, Lord Elgin.
The founder, Veerabhadra Mudaliar, was a showman with taste who understood that entertainment was serious business. Families dressed for an evening at the Elgin then. 1896 was when Elgin was built, the same year that the Lumière brothers demonstrated to a speechless audience in Mumbai a new experience called cinema. That year, Bangalore became a part of the history of Indian cinema. Silent films made their popular entry and there was no looking back.
In 1930, Elgin converted to a talkie and then began a saga that went from Alam Ara to Mohra. From sepia posters to jarring multi-coloured banners, not much has changed in or around Elgin.
Barring a few minor renovations Elgin remains the same, mortar and brick. The same projector installed in1930 still rolls reel after reel of Hindi and Tamil films from around a decade ago, and it sells at least 300 tickets for four shows every day.
The projector was Mudaliar’s wisest investment, says proprietor V.S. Krishnamurthy, taking great pride in his fourth generation ownership of history. With just a few tweaks here and there, the projector has been serving its years without a groan. But running the old girl, who still shines, is a laborious task. The projector has the audio system incorporated in it, and calls for the attention of engineers who are familiar with its working every now and then. The good news is that spares for the machine are still available in Bangalore.
Two men are needed to run the projectors and one to roll used reels back for the next show. They have been repeating the process for decades now, the old walls, the grease on the machine and the mustiness in the room. “Does it get monotonous?” I ask. Both men threw a quick smile at Krishnamurthy. Clearly, it’s a question they have been asked before. “When journalists like you visit and remind us about what we hold, it keeps us going,” Krishnamurthy said.
Elgin runs the same way it used to more than 75 years ago. But there are lines on Krishnamurthy’s face that suggest he wishes things were better. “Elgin is not what it used to be,” he says, as he proudly explains the blueprint of the building. Selling tickets at Rs20 is not a profit-making deal in Bangalore. Today, it is only economically viable for him to run second or third run films on a fixed rent basis.
Elgin Talkies was a rage after it converted to a talkies, during the time of Krishnamurthy’s grandfather, Natesha Mudaliar. He maintained meticulous records that give us a glimpse of the popularity of the hall in his times. Name the film, and it is most likely to be listed in the the dog-yeared, yellow-leaved notebooks. The records mention the year and date of release, the number of weeks that the film ran for, and how Mudaliar rated it. The ratings ranging from “highly entertaining” to “big bore” are of course directly proportionate to the number of days the film ran. Interestingly, the registers also make a mention of the weather condition and the publicity material used when a film ran at Elgin.
Today, most of the films at the Elgin don’t run for more than a week or two, largely because it only shows films that are more than a decade old. Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973), Krishnamurthy remembers, was the only film that ran for eight weeks in its second run.
Outside Elgin Talkies, the narrow lane is packed with little eateries, swarming with young men waiting to pack some jalebis and rolls to eat during the movie. Arumugam’s father sat in the very same seat around a century ago at the New Star Hotel right opposite the gates of the Elgin selling “only beef”, as a bright signboard suggests. Arumugam has only seen the new face of Elgin, but remembers his father talking about the “English speaking couples” who would walk into the hall to watch English films. The crowd has changed to young boys from in and around Shivajinagar who throng the hall during the day and lower middle-class families in the evening.
The narrow streets and crowds of Shivajinagar have managed to keep heritage hidden from the eyes of real estate dealers, but the thought of renovation has crossed the mind of the proprietor. “But we will certainly not take away the main structure in any way,” says Krishnamurthy, assuring me that the Elgin heritage is not in danger.
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