Long before I discovered Mary Shelley, Boris Karloff playing the monster Frankenstein scared the living daylights out of me. I was about five, but cinema had already cast its spell on me.
I vividly recall my first night show with my parents: It was Witness for the Prosecution at the New Empire theatre in Calcutta. At seven, I was immune to Marlene Dietrich’s magnetism, and until I watched it for the second time, years later, all I remembered of it was a gleeful Charles Laughton trying out his chair lift. But I must admit that I was entranced when magician P. C. Sorcar, during one of his regular Indrajal performances, tricked the same hall into the bottomless waters of a deep blue sea. Live performances were held regularly at the New Empire those days.
A cluster of other theatres in central Calcutta that included the Minerva, Metro, Globe and Lighthouse, cheek-by-jowl with New Empire, made movie-going magical.
The one film that created a sensation was South Pacific, released at Jyoti, which had been transfigured for the screening of this Broadway musical, shot in 70 mm. The never-ending screen, stereophonic sound system and lush score left me feeling as ‘High as a flag on the Fourth of July’, to quote the number ‘A Wonderful Guy’ from the film.
The minuscule Tiger was a hot box, but some great films were screened here. Neglected and later razed or repurposed, these theatres feed nostalgia. Minerva, later renamed Chaplin, was Calcutta’s oldest single-screen cinema. A high-rise block is coming up there. Metro was falling apart. But like the rest, it is a tawdry shopping complex now. New Empire still holds shows, but is more of an eatery today. With the cinemas have disappeared two peripheral characters—scalpers, who hung around with a batch of tickets and snack sellers standing outside during intervals, shouting lustily.
I was fascinated with the flimsy multicoloured paper tickets on which the ticket-counter attendant used a thick, blue pencil to scribble the seat number, and concurrently tick it off on his master chart. Now tickets are computerized and hideously overpriced.
‘Going to the movies’, as they used to say then, today means visiting a multiplex, each with as much character as peas in a pod. The technology may be state-of-the-art, but they are singularly lacking in character.
Globe had been there forever, but after it reopened in a more glamorous avatar in 1964 for Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, its screen came alive with The Sound of Music. Elite reopened its doors with a wide screen in 1965 to My Fair Lady.
Metro on Chowringhee was the grandest of them all. This street with beautiful mansions and dazzling neon signs was as tony as any in London or New York. Few could afford air-conditioners in the ’50s, ’60s and even the ’70s and were guaranteed to be chilled to the bones once inside.
You crossed the threshold and entered a world of fantasies inside this art deco pleasure dome. The experience began right outside. The ‘waterfall’-style engaged columns cascaded from the top of the facade, a motif that recurred in details like door handles and giant pendant lamps. The name of the cinema was emblazoned on the ‘tail fin’ jutting out of the facade, which glowed after dark. The marble staircase descended from the first-floor whose walls were mirrored and ornamented with murals.
A galaxy of Hollywood matinee idols and sirens smiled down at you from their framed portraits on the walls. The thick carpets and plush seats with dark maroon velvet covers that you sank into, made everyone feel like a sybarite. Tiny lights, fitted into each chair along the aisles, enhanced the mystique. In this hall, originally owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), each feature opened with the roar of Leo the lion, the MGM mascot. At Tiger, the Tiger Rag played while you waited for the lights to dim. The searchlight flashed back and forth for Elite’s 20th Century Fox films.
During the interval, attendants brought in small packets of potato crisps, popcorn and ice cream. Lighthouse had a large bar, and probably in the evenings they served meals, while a band played for those who wished to dance. Few knew, but Lighthouse had a miniature theatre with sofas that held private screenings for its one-time owner Major General Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana and his family and for visiting Nepalese royalty. Press screenings were held here too. Refreshments came from the first floor bar and restaurant.
Metro was designed by Thomas White Lamb (1871–1942), an American born in Dundee, Scotland, as were hundreds of other such theatres, including the Bombay Metro, which opened in 1938. Lamb had planned the Calcutta Metro hall in 1934 and it opened a year later with a Laurel and Hardy starrer, Bonnie Scotland. Calcutta went ‘Metro mad’ as the ultra chic art deco style was replicated in new houses, furniture, sari and jewellery designs and indeed, the sans-serif typeface.
The late Bhaskar Mitter, the first Indian chairman of Andrew Yule and Co. Ltd. once told me that in Calcutta’s first modern theatre, the sound effect was so realistic that during the screening of a film on the San Francisco earthquake, it felt as if the roof had collapsed.
Night show tickets went for a premium because it was preferred by Clive Street sahibs—both white and brown. They were regulars at the theatres’ well-stocked bars as well. Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, and aeons later, Raj Kapoor’s Bobby were screened here.
I remember crying my eyes out as Liv Ullmann confronted Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata. The Sunday morning shows afforded the opportunity to catch up on the best of world cinema. But one Sunday, the last reel of Francois Truffaut’s 1968 classic, The Bride Wore Black, was missing. So until today I do not know who Jeanne Moreau’s last victim was.