It's Act 2 at Liberty cinema as Mumbai's art deco jewel gets set for yet another change of scene
Mumbai Multiplex | Nandini Ramnath
The Liberty in Marine Lines in southern Mumbai hasn’t screened a movie since Gangs of Wasseypur II in August, and it is in no hurry to mount posters of the latest release. Several non-movie characters have been strolling through the gorgeous theatre’s carpeted lobby ever since it reinvented itself some months ago as a centre for the arts and rented out performing space to comedians, musicians and cultural festivals by the French and Australian governments.
To paraphrase the famous Tata Steel tag line from many years ago, Liberty now also shows movies.
The theatre has become selective about the Hindi movies it will show. Out of all the releases in the coming months, it will screen only Ek Thi Daayan, (19 April), Shootout At Wadala (3 May), Lootera (5 July) and Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai 2 (8 August). The success of the non-film events seems to have given Liberty’s owner, the dapper and affable Nazir Hoosein, enough ballast to permanently alter the identity of the 66-year-old theatre.
A number of event organizers and groups have approached Liberty to set up some kind of a cultural centre there, including possibly a restaurant on the first floor, and an auditorium for an arthouse cinema. If the hush-hush plans materialize, it could become a new performing arts venue for south and central Mumbai, like the National Centre for Performing Arts in Nariman Point or blueFROG in Lower Parel.
Hoosein didn’t divulge information on the kind of offers he was getting. “There are proposals, but nothing is done until everything is done," he says cryptically.
What is certain is that Liberty can no longer survive by selling fried snacks and fizzy drinks alongside tickets for the latest release. Like several other family-owned establishments, Liberty has gone from being a showcase single-screen theatre to a shadow of its former self.
The interiors of Liberty theatre
Liberty no longer qualifies as “gentry" cinema. Its tickets cost ₹ 50-150, its patrons are drawn from the working class, and some of them seem unmoved by the decorative elements, the coved ceilings and the frozen fountains on either side of the screen, which are “a historic symbol of eternal life", according to Navin Ramani in his book Bombay Art Deco Architecture (Roli Books, 2008). “It was the gutka which was off-putting," Hoosein says. “The waste-paper baskets meant for wrappers were used as spittoons, so we had to put plastic around the dustbins. Then, you had chewing gum."
Although it rarely attracts the film goer who knows better than to aim his spittle on the Burma teak surfaces, the theatre remains shipshape because of the efforts of Hoosein and his staff, which is why Vikramaditya Motwane launched the trailer of his forthcoming period romance Lootera at Liberty, or why Rohan Sippy shot a significant portion of his movie Nautanki Saala! there. “I love the curtain, the architecture, the detailing, the wood panelling," says Sippy, who also held the premiere at the cinema. “The fact also is that Mr Hoosein has maintained it in such a glorious way."
Some of Liberty’s problems are unique, such as its location in a neighbourhood that has stagnated in terms of population and growth, but many of its woes are similar to other single screens in Mumbai. They are struggling to survive in a metropolis that rushes in the direction of anything new and shiny. A threatened strike by single-screen theatres across Maharashtra in October didn’t eventually materialize (they had earlier suspended screenings in 2011) but the twin problems of falling numbers and rising costs haven’t abated. Cinema operators complain that they are being neglected in favour of multiplexes, squeezed by high taxes and expenses, and forced to compete with players who have greater access to market capital. The distributor’s pound of flesh further eats into whatever is left of the exhibitor’s share after paying 45% entertainment tax. “You let the place deteriorate, forget about maintenance and to hell with the rest—this is the scene with quite a few cinemas," Hoosein says.
Single screens have tried various tactics to remain afloat. Some have started showing Bhojpuri cinema, such as Deepak Talkies in Parel and Sharda in Dadar. New Empire near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, which had a reputation for showing adult-rated English movies with tantalizing titles and come-hither posters, now sticks to Hindi movies. Other cinemas have signed time-bound agreements with chains like Movietime and E-Square, which allow them to commission a paint job, replace their back-busting chairs and fix the plumbing in their toilets.
“No single screen can do better than break even," says New Empire’s manager Chhagan Umrekar. “The survival of cinemas depends on theatre owners—and some have better sources than others."
Sometimes, even a partnership between a family-owned business and a company isn’t enough in a city where land remains the most valuable asset. Some single-screen owners want the Maharashtra government rule that only a cinema can replace a cinema to be scrapped. The rule, meant to ensure that land-mad Mumbai will continue to have a sizeable number of cinemas, is forcing several establishments to remain in business even though it has become unviable, argues Ram Vallabhdas Vidhani, president of the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association.
Kunal Roy Kapoor with Ramesh Sippy at the premiere of ‘Nautanki Saala!’
An exit policy is required, concurs Nilufer Dastur, whose family runs Paradise in Mahim. “If the government wants us to continue to provide entertainment to the middle and lower-middle classes, they have to rethink the tax slab," she points out. “Not everybody will exit just because you allow them to. The government won’t lose out on anything because the property isn’t going to sit vacant."
If the government permits the outright sale rather than redevelopment of single screens, it’s possible that quite a few will happily bring down the curtain on decades of screening movies. That is not going to be the case with Liberty, assures Hoosein. “Under no circumstances will I part with possession," he says.
The prospect of Liberty becoming a cine complex is tantalizing in a city that, despite being home to the biggest film industry in the country, doesn’t have a single arthouse cinema. Mumbai has expensive multiplexes, palatial movie palaces and fleapit theatres, but it doesn’t have the equivalent of the British Film Institute-run BFI Southbank in London or the Angelika Film Center in New York City.
A host of directors recently floated an online petition to demand, among other things, arthouse theatres that will liberate them from the tyranny of the opening weekend collections. According to the petition, titled Save Indie Cinema, “High ticket pricing that is inappropriate for small budget films, inadequate number of shows and odd show timings further destroy the possibility of Indie cinema (regional and Hindi) to have any proper chance at being viewed." The petition, whose signatories include Shyam Benegal, Onir and Girish Kasaravalli, includes a suggestion to build “low cost exhibition space across the country" that will “screen Indie films irrespective of language at (a) lower ticket price".
Mumbai previously had an arthouse cinema of sorts, the All India Radio’s Aakashwani auditorium in south Mumbai. Scores of modestly budgeted movies by directors like Basu Chatterjee and Gulzar were screened there during the 1980s. The auditorium shut down in the 1990s, but should AIR choose to revive the auditorium or hand it over to another government body, it could be the “low-cost exhibition space" alternative that film-makers so badly need.
In the absence of such screening venues in the city, programmers have experimented with different spaces—in turn giving some theatres badly needed business. The Edward in Dhobitalao hosted documentary and arthouse film screenings by the cultural organization Majlis in 2010. A former theatre for plays and performances, the Edward lacks sophisticated projection facilities and acoustics, and its seats can be rather hard on the spine, but its atmospherics are unmatched by the most plush multiplexes. Such screenings have, however, been sporadic.
Cinemas that opt for repurposing will need to conform to clause 125 of the Maharashtra Cinema (Regulation) Rules, 1966, which states under the heading “Cinema not to be used for any other purpose" that “No cinema premises shall be used for any purpose other than the exhibition of cinematograph films (musical and dance performances, display of electronic and video transmitted images and conference facilities) except with the previous permission in writing of the licensing authority". Thus, only a dedicated arthouse cinema whose costs are subsidized and whose mandate is to promote film culture, can do the trick.
The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) is in the process of setting up three such arthouse cinemas, two in Mumbai (one is scheduled to come up in Bandra) and the third in Chennai, but details on the project are sketchy and preliminary.
Might Liberty show the way out? In the 1990s, the cinema entered film lore when it premiered Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! on 5 August 1994. The movie ran at Liberty for over 100 weeks. Its success didn’t just give the theatre a new lease of life—it also signalled the return to cinemas of audiences that had been lost to television. “Historically. Hindi cinema turned on a dime when Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! released at Liberty," Rohan Sippy says. Perhaps it’s time for Liberty to make movie history again.