Yesterday, in a conversation with a colleague at lunch (I work in Bombay) I discovered she had recently been to Calcutta. I asked her what her impression of the city was. “Hated it,” she said, with some vehemence. “It’s like the city is stuck in the 19th century”.
“Yep, glad you noticed. Calcuttans work very hard to keep it that way,” I quipped.
That very evening though, when in a conversation with my mother I discovered that Calcutta’s 106-year old Chaplin Cinema Hall was being razed to the ground, the inadvertent veracity of my wisecrack became rather apparent.
The history of Chaplin Cinema Hall is closely connected to the history of cinema in Calcutta and, indeed, in India.
While today, Bombay might stand head and shoulders above any other Indian city when it comes to cinema, things weren’t always that way. In the early 20th century, Calcutta was, arguably, a bigger centre for films than Bombay. In 1932, this led Wilford Deming, an American sound engineer to call Calcutta’s film industry Tollywood, a portmanteau of the words Tollygunge, a neighbourhood of Calcutta where most film studios are located, and Hollywood. He wanted a catchy term to refer to Calcutta as India’s Hollywood for an article he was writing. The name stuck and was then taken up by film industries across the country, with the one situated in Bombay, of course, being called Bollywood (which should now be renamed to Mollywood, really. Hello, Shiv Sena?).
The beginnings of Chaplin lie in 1902 when Jamshedji Madan, a Parsi theatre magnate who had made his money in the Bombay Parsi theatre moved to Calcutta. He started a bioscope show in the Maidan which was hugely successful. Egged on by his success, he went on to start the Elphinstone Picture Palace in 1907 (which would eventually be named Chaplin). This cinema hall is widely held to be the first permanent cinema hall in India. It also screened the first talkie in India—Universal Studio’s Melody of Love. Bad times led Madan to sell Elphinstone Picture Palace to a Sohrab Modi who renamed in Minerva, a name that many city old-timers would recognise. Later on, the CPI(M) government nationalised the hall, renaming it to Chaplin. If you think that’s a unique (but apt) name for a cinema hall, consider that Calcutta also has roads named after Shakespeare and Ghalib (the latter, ironically finds no place in his own city, Delhi). This is Calcutta, dada. Like the ketchup, it’s different.
As a child growing up in Calcutta, Chaplin was a familiar haunt. It was situated in the New Market area which housed almost all of Calcutta’s cinemas at the time. This area of the city was once the English quarter, the Black Town (or the Indian quarter) being what is now North Calcutta. Although this area has now gone to seed, the old single-screen theatres still remained till the 90s till they were replaced by the multiplexes which sprang up in the more posh areas of the city, mainly the South.
Roxy, Paradise, Hind, Jamuna, Jyoti, Elite, New Empire, Lighthouse and Globe were the some of the names which featured prominently as places to get away to on a hot weekend. If you wanted to watch a movie, you looked up the listings in the newspaper. Timings were fixed and went by the quaint names of Afternoon, Matinee (3:00 PM), Evening (6:00 PM) and (the forbidden) Night Show (9:00 PM). The lack of say in timing was made up for by the choice in elevation. You could chose dress circle or stall in a single theatre hall. Since we mostly sat in the dress circle, I distinctly remember feeling cheated when I first went to a multiplex and, after paying a substantial sum of money, was made to sit in the “stalls”.
This was the heyday of the CPI(M) and Mamata was a far-away dream (nightmare?). Hence bourgeoisie luxuries such as movie-watching were heavily regulated. Ticket prices were capped at a piddling 35 bucks. However, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the USSR had collapsed. Communism wasn’t exactly killing it. Under these circumstances, even Calcutta felt like thumbing its nose, however subtly, at it. As a result of these ridiculous price controls, theatre owners would sell tickets in bulk to touts. Buying a “current” ticket (the other sort being “advance”) invariably meant seeking out a tout who’d be standing there furiously muttering "Dress Circle, 200" or some such to advertise his wares. You’d pay him the cash and he’d hand you the tickets with a surreptitiously stylish, Azharuddin-like flick of his wrists, making sure to not make eye-contact as he did. When I first started reading spy novels, my visual template for the spy was almost always the ticket touts of Calcutta.
Of all these cinema halls, Chaplin along with Elite were my favourites. This has nothing do with their cinema—Chaplin mainly played arty stuff (being run by the government) and Elite played Hindi blockbusters. This was to do with their location. Both halls were within a hundred metres of the legendary Nizam’s. At the interval (yep, “interval”; we're Calcuttans, we use only pukka British terms), a couple of us would rush out, buy the rolls from Nizam’s along with bottles of Thums-Up and rush back. No plastic bottles at the time, so we'd pay a deposit on the Thums-up to be returned if and when were returned the bottles. The first 15 minutes post-interval, as our whole family sat silhouetted against the light of the screen, munching their rolls while simultaneously passing and sipping their Thums-Ups is the visual image that defines my childhood.
Nizam’s in itself is an institution, being founded in 1932. It claims to have invented the kathi roll, Calcutta’s most famous street food. The (apocryphal) story goes that an Englishman from the nearby Calcutta Municipal Corporation headquarters loved the kaathi kabaab (kathi meaning stick in Hindi or, in this case, skewer) and paraantha at Nizam’s. But being all propah and all, he couldn’t eat “native style” with his hands. So Nizam’s seeing as how the customer’s always right (even when he’s not), rolled up the kabaabs in a paraantha and voila: Roll!
Even before its closure, Chaplin had long since gone to seed. Jokes about rats scurrying about its floors were never funny given how the truth seldom us. Yet the building itself was a familiar sight, situated as it is just outside New Market in the Esplanade area. Its dilapidated two-storey frame with the word 'Chaplin' affixed onto the facade in red was just ‘there’ whenever we stopped by for rolls at Nizam's or popped into Nahoum's for cakes. The cinema hall was next to a park with a pavilion which had a roof shaped like a large bowler hat in homage to Chaplin. I wonder whether they'll do away with that too.