I’ve heard it might open up again," says one businessman after another in Opera House, referring to the grimy behemoth which gives their neighbourhood its name. “It’s been shut for ages." “It was in very bad shape." “They say it used to host drama originally." “My father remembers; my grandfather used to go."

But they also say they remember it well. Mr Dinshaw at the 75-year-old Café de la Paix around the corner has seen too many movies here to recall, as have the grey-moustached businessmen who stop by at his Irani café for tea and Jim Jam biscuits. Shrenik Vora at the 80-year-old Vora Brothers automotive company has seen Purab aur Pachhim (1970) and Silsila (1981) there; an elder Mr Vora remembers watching plays here between 1948 and 1952. Shahrukh Dubash, visiting his old neighbourhood, says he remembers when Navrang (1959) ran to a triumphant silver jubilee here.

“We’ve watched so many movies here," they all say, and then pause for emphasis before adding, “we will definitely go again if it reopens. Definitely."

The grime has been clearing away in slow instalments. For some time now, the fat cherubs atop the creamy stone façade of the Royal Opera House have been gleaming in the sunlight again. Passers-by craning their necks may find them gambolling just above the elaborate stone reliefs of women playing viols and harps, as sharp today as they must have seemed in 1910, when the theatre first opened its doors to the public.

The cherubs atop the Royal Opera House façade. Photographs by MS Gopal/Mint

Its Baroque-style façade, facing Mama Parmanand Road, has been locked behind scaffolding and hospital-green drapery for some months now: conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah began working on its long-term restoration in 2008, funded for an undisclosed amount by the site’s current owner, the Maharaja of Gondal. By early October, when the World Monuments Fund (WMF) announced that the Opera House was going to be a “watch site" on its 2012 list of global monuments at risk, Lambah and her team had already ensured the structural stability of the building.

“I think the WMF looked at a lot of monuments not monumental in nature," Lambah says. “The idea was to highlight things that make up the iconic images of cities and nations—and those need not always be a Taj Mahal or a Red Fort."

Given sponsorship and renewed public awareness, Lambah says the Gondal family will be thinking of how to make the Opera House usable again. “There should be things for people to do," Lambah says. “So along with a theatre, perhaps we can have an art gallery, a café or a restaurant. The Maharaja of Gondal would like it to be a cultural space for the city again."

The Opera House was, in fact, a living monument for the city, although its imperial formality—and the “Royal" prefix, appended in time for the same Georgian visit for which the Gateway of India was amassed—suggests otherwise. It was created not by colonial fiat, but the sort of hybrid enterprise which marked so much of the development of 20th century Mumbai. It was the joint effort of an English impresario from Kolkata, Maurice Bandmann, and Jehangir Framji Karaka, a coal baron, who spared no expense erecting its gilded interiors, laying down exquisite Minton flooring, and rolling out the red carpets. For the portraits of famous European poets, dramatists and musicians painted on its dome, says film historian Amrit Gangar, they brought down artists from London.

In the century of Modernism, nationalism and other sweeping changes that divide the present from that inauguration, the theatre proved itself to be more than a snooty setting for opera-loving collaborationists. It hosted Gujarati and Parsi drama, and the earliest performances of legendary stage actor Bal Gandharva. Scholar Kaushik Bhaumik writes that it hosted “almost all the significant travelling theatre and vaudeville companies on their way from the West to the Pacific Rim".

It soon became susceptible to a revolutionary new art. Watson’s Hotel—incidentally, one of WMF’s watch sites in a previous year—had already hosted the Lumière Brothers and their brilliant invention, the Cinematographe, in 1896. It wasn’t long before the movies had made their way into the Opera House hall.

By 1924, legendary French film distributors Pathé Frères had taken it over, advertising their “splendid theatre…the finest in the East." India’s earliest demonstration of “Phonofilm", one of several new techniques which attempted to synchronize sound with film, happened here in 1927. In 1936, an innovation almost equally vital to movie-going was pioneered here, too: For the first time in India, patrons could reserve seats in advance.

Architect Kaiwan Mehta, author of Alice in Bhuleshwar, explains that theatre culture was one way for the city to acquire a public culture of its own. “In a modern city, it became the site for a modern imagination." The area around the Opera House was brand new in the early 1900s, part of a fresh stage of development in a new city. In the wake of the plague that had attacked the city in the 1890s, major roads were constructed eastwards from the sea to let fresh air into the low-slung, crowded “Native Town" north of Kalbadevi. In 1915, when construction on the Opera House was finally completed, many surrounding roads were still under construction.

Revival mode: ; (from top) detail of the Opera House façade; the Opera House façade, under scaffolding; around the corner on Jagannath Sunkersett Road, the 75-year-old Café de la Paix; and inside the Opera House compound, a former canteen.

The new Opera House stood apart, in more ways than one. Here was a theatre which may have typified the last word in “modern" when it first came up. And yet, it retained a certain fluidity. Its patrons may all have been rich, but they were not all Europeans. Despite what Bhaumik calls “the march of the talkies" sweeping all but the most tenacious of the performing arts before it, the Opera House never quite achieved the character of a cinema the way the grand movie houses springing up around the Grant Road belt did. Like its developing environs, its purpose could not be singularly defined.

“Pathé were not tied to any one film company," Gangar points out. Unlike the glittering Roxy down the road, associated with Bombay Talkies, there were no Devika Rani premieres which would bring the public charging down New Queen’s Road (Roxy, now a square block of concrete and fibreglass, is still open for business. This week , it is running five shows of Ra.One).

Around the 1930s, the advertisements in Gangar’s collection conspicuously dropped the word “Royal" from the theatre’s name—a consequence of growing nationalism, Gangar speculates. “Gandhi spoke at several meetings in cinema houses in Bombay," he says. “He did so in Opera House, too, when he addressed a women’s conference in 1934."

Through all this, and after Independence, the nature of the audience depended on who could pay for the tickets—and who was interested in, say, a gala opening of Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957), or Himalay ki God Mein (1965), or Hariyaali aur Raasta (1962). Only gradually do the records show the theatre losing a certain vitality, as evidence of drama and musical programmes decreases after Independence, and the heyday of black and white Bollywood passes. In the 1970s, it became an occasional venue for great parallel cinema, rented out by the Film Finance Corporation, forerunners of the National Film Development Corporation; Gangar remembers watching several of their films there.

“Without air-conditioning or any of the conveniences that audiences came to expect, it became very difficult for it to attract people," Lambah says.

“Of course," says a businessman passing the theatre today, stopping to buy channa. “I watched Mughal-e-Azam here 35 years ago. It was a special show." It must have been, in 1976; Mughal-e-Azam was released in 1960.

Like grass growing in the cracks of a ruin, the small shops huddling under two of its massive doors continue to do business through the dust and din of the restoration work. One is a hardware business; the other is a furniture shop. (Minder Mannalal Saini says: “Yes, I remember watching Devtaa here.")

Inside, the building’s walls are bleached white and swept clean. The faded boards of the canteen in the yards hint at soda fountains and Italian delectables (“Trust Mama…") on which patrons must once have dined.

“It’s been shut since before I came here," says the channa vendor in its shade. He set up business 15 years ago; in 1993, Sangita Kathiwada held the last public event the Opera House was to host before closure, a fashion show. The Voras now watch movies at Inox, in Nariman Point. Across the road at Opera House Mattresses and Pillows Works, Mohammed Irshad’s father gave the shop its name; he doesn’t know much about its past himself. In a place where humanity overwhelms and augments brick-and-mortar infrastructure, memory is never at a standstill.

In such a place, the darkened hall of the Opera House cannot be said to have survived development; until Lambah began her restoration, it simply had the distinction, unusual in Mumbai, of being allowed to decay at its own pace. What it will become is, at this moment, an unanswered question.

“To me, change is not the problem," says Mehta. “The speed at which it occurs, and how drastically, should be discussed." To him, the “ethics of space", or how urbanity interacts with its human elements, including its history, are a puzzle which will take immense architectural rigour and creativity to resolve. In the case of the Opera House, Lambah says, the quest should be to realize that it exists in a city with a rapidly changing demography. “We should make it more democratic, more usable."

And if it opens again, they will go, they promise: the auto traders and the courier service runners, the restaurant owners and the furniture-sellers whose shops light up the streets along Opera House long into the evening, well past the time for a late show. Above them, a freshly painted cherub patiently reaches out towards the sea, still trying to catch the setting sun.