5 min read.Updated: 13 Aug 2015, 01:17 AM ISTLata Jha
Minerva, the 1500-seater Mumbai theatre, proved lucky for Sholay, which even 40 years after release, remains the yardstick for commercial success
New Delhi: When Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay hit theatres on 15 August 1975, it was just another film with big stars, lots of action, and catchy music that looked promising. Today, it’s a textbook for students of cinema and the stuff of which Bollywood folklore is made. Woven into its history, is that of Minerva theatre on Mumbai’s Grant Road.
The theatre ran the film for five straight years from 1975 to 1980 and saw loyal fans turn up in hordes day after day. From Basanti’s banter with Dhanno, the mare, to Jai and Veeru’s legendary ‘dosti’ and villain Gabbar Singh’s inimitable dialogues, the theatre saw every tiny bit of the epic become part of people’s lives.
Founded in the late 1960s, Minerva belonged to Indian film producer F.C Mehra. Actor Shammi Kapoor owned a stake in it too. After it was refurbished in the 1970s, the first film screened at Minerva was Mehra’s own production, Lal Patthar (1971) starring Hema Malini. Under his banner Eagle Films, Mehra produced several movies such as Professor (1962), Sohni Mahiwal (1984) and Mujrim (1989), the last two of which were directed by his son Umesh Mehra, besides television shows such as Office Office and Khatta Meetha. He also owned the Plaza theatre in New Delhi. But it was the 1500-seater Minerva , that was home to several jubilees over the years. It was largest cinema house in Mumbai.
“It was often said that you hadn’t truly achieved stardom unless your film was premiered at Minerva," said Umesh Mehra, adding that the family lost count of the silver and golden jubilee trophies after the number exceeded 30.
Almost all big films at that time would hold their grand premiere at Minerva. Manager Sushil Mehra recalls every big star from Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar to Dharmendra and Hema Malini walking down the portals of what was regarded a lucky theatre.
And lucky it did prove for Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, which even 40 years after release, remains the yardstick for commercial success in the Indian film industry.
In August 1975, Yash Chopra’s Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Deewar had just completed its silver jubilee when Sippy decided to release his film. Though the official release date of the film remains 15 August, a Friday, the movie began showing in the morning and afternoon shows at Minerva from the 14th itself. The evening shows for the day were cancelled for the premiere.
Two interesting things happened then. “The 70 mm prints for the film couldn’t get through customs in time for the show. So we projected the 35 mm prints. But apart from the technicians, nobody in the theatre realized this had happened," said Umesh Mehra. “Secondly, the talk during the interval mainly centred around how not too many people thought the film would last."
By the time the premiere ended, the 70 mm prints had arrived and the cast and crew stayed on to watch the film again until the wee hours of the morning. “It was an overwhelming experience," said director Ramesh Sippy. “We were delighted and satisfied with what we thought was a winner."
The media thought otherwise. The press thought it was the beginning of the end with big films like Sholay sure to prove duds. Sippy said the film received poor press.
The box-office was another story.
Contrary to reports, Sholay didn’t begin tamely at the box-office. Sushil Mehra said the theatre’s owners and managers realized, as they watched the epic grow day-by-day that it was a “lambi race ka ghoda" (a horse for the long race). For the first three years, the Sippy saga ran in regular shows (1:30pm, 5:30pm, 9:30pm). It was moved to the matinee for another two. Ticket prices ranged between ₹ 3.50 and ₹ 5.50. The theatre was a 1501-seater but a couple of rows were eliminated because of Sholay’s 70 mm projection and stereophonic sound and the seat count was 1390.
“You could spot mile-long queues on either side of the road," recalled Umesh Mehra. “For two years, you couldn’t get a ticket unless you booked a week in advance," he said.
And the lines just got longer. “Every Monday, it became a ritual (for me) to go to Minerva to see the queues, almost like going to temple," recalled Sippy. “And each week, the crowds seemed to swell."
Manager Sushil Mehra recalls that the only time in those five years they couldn’t run the film was when it was raining heavily in the city sometime in 1976. People had to wade through waist-deep water to reach the movie hall. “Luckily, our auditorium was on the first floor," said the man who worked at the theatre for 42 years.
But Minerva is not the only movie theatre Sippy associates the Sholay phenomenon with. There were buses with ‘Sholay Special’ painted on them plying in Punjab to take fans to the Plaza in Delhi. Then there was the owner of a movie hall called Geeta in Mumbai’s Worli who called Sippy to his office. “He told me he was losing his business," recalled Sippy. “When I asked him how, he said nobody was leaving their seats during the movie to buy his cold drinks and other refreshments."
On the film’s 25th anniversary in the year 2000 when it had just been declared “Film of the Millennium" by BBC India, Minerva re-released the classic and the theatre was jam-packed.
“I couldn’t hear a single dialogue," Sippy recalls of that show. “The audience kept anticipating each word and delightfully showing off what they knew. It was frustrating but so euphoric."
In 2006, when its owners had aged and could no longer manage the theatre business, Minerva was sold to art aficionado Neville Tuli who wanted to build Osianama Art Complex on the plot. However, it remained engulfed in legal tangles.
Today, Minerva and a several from Sholay’s cast and crew may no longer be around but the film lives on. “I’ve never had an inflated idea about myself. But it’s beautiful and humbling to see students of cinema watch and learn from this film. I feel I must’ve done something good in life for it to have fallen into my lap," said Sippy.
“It’s not about the length of time the film ran but the way it’s lodged in people’s hearts. Almost like our mythological epics Ramayana and Mahabharat, it remains etched in our collective memory."