Alt/Urban: The Lost ‘Picture Palace’ of Poona

…and the rite of passage that winds its way through the cinema fare of our childhood and adolescent years

The iconic Napier that started out in a shed-like structure around 1910 and then underwent gradual transformation.
The iconic Napier that started out in a shed-like structure around 1910 and then underwent gradual transformation.

Mustansir Dalvi

Recent speculation about the future of Eros Cinema in Bombay (gutted for refurbishment) provokes some questions about moviegoing itself and the imprint of cinema theatres and their trajectories on the life of a city. I am reminded of another cinema house that played an important role in my early years in Poona.

The motion pictures came to Poona (now Pune) with the coming of electricity in 1910. The first cinema house to be set up was Napier Cinema in Poona Cantonment. The Napier started showing silent movies to paying audiences in a shed-like structure.

With time and growing popularity, the Napier was renovated. Around 1919, a fairly well-boned neo-Classical building replaced the shed, with timber framing and a stone gable, and a Baroque-ish front. The Napier was very popular, and is mentioned in several accounts of Poona at the time. 

One popular type of screening that attracted Poona’s citizens to the Napier was of short serial features—David Fenster, in his book Mehera-Meher: A Divine Romance, writes: ‘Most of the movies screened in Poona were American. A serial titled The Broken Coin (1915), starring Grace Cunard and Francis Ford, was a favourite. Every week there was a new episode, but eventually they [the audiences] became tired of it as the story went on forever with no conclusion.’

The West End in Poona was the successor to Napier.
The West End in Poona was the successor to Napier.

Located on an undemarcated plot on a busy thoroughfare, the theatre had, in its immediate neighbourhood, a lovely fountain and a bandstand, which was very popular, drawing audiences whenever The Napier Cinema Band, comprising British (or Indian) army men stationed in the Cantonment, performed. 

In 1916, for instance, the first Poona (Anglo-Indian) and the 2nd Poona (the first Indian company) Regiments gave a concert in aid of the War Fund, raising the grand total of 100 rupees. 

The Napier Cinema became Napier Talkies in 1931. Not long after came Bombay’s big theatres, the Metro, the Regal and the Eros, under the patronage of the great American Studios—Universal, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. Many former playhouses (drama theatres), such as the Capitol, the Edward and the Opera House, were revamped in this, the Indian Golden Age of Hollywood.

In Poona, the Napier underwent a change as well. Perhaps under the influence of the Western India Theatre Association and 20th Century Fox (this is my conjecture), the Napier was blessed with a two-storey RCC (reinforced cement concrete) front and a new name—the West End.

A new building was superimposed on the old gable. The West End highlighted its own name twice on the façade, once in large concrete letters inset into the second-floor balcony balustrade, and the other as a vertical mast along its axis of symmetry, pointing skywards, in time-honoured Art Deco style. 

This West End was the cinema house of my childhood. Now that I look back, many elements of the old Napier were still around even then, especially the old timber staircase that I remember vividly, painted olive.

At the rear of the cinema house, was a genuine ’merican soda-fountain that we would head directly for, if we had any money left over after buying tickets, which was barely five rupees in the early 1970s.

A proper Saturday Night Fever experience, a movie I saw for the first time here. Within spitting distance of the West End were the Empire Cinema and the Marz-o-Rin Fast Food Place, famous for its eggy, mayonnaisey chicken rolls, sandwiches and guava juice in milk bottles.

And so, the picture palace (so much more evocative a term than ‘movie hall’ or ‘multiplex’) marks one significant site of my misbegotten youth. It was my second school, where I saw all sorts of movies my parents did not approve of.

Between the late 1960s and the very early 1980s, I was introduced to a variety of world cinema. Choice had nothing to do with it, we saw what was shown, and in the bargain were force-fed such dire gems as Sssssssnake (Don't say it, hiss it!) (US), The Three Fantastic Supermen (Italy), Fantomas Strikes Back (France). I can safely bet that most of you have never heard of any of these atrocities, much less seen them.

I specifically remember being taken to watch Lost in the Desert (South Africa) as a special school outing during my 2nd or 3rd standard. A horribly traumatic choice for us young’uns (and a reflection on our teachers) considering the terrible, terrible things that happen to the child in the film, including being spat in the eye by a venomous snake, after surviving a plane crash.

The theatre was enclosed within a rather large compound, with a low brick boundary wall that bounders and lowlifes (such as myself) would sun themselves on.

The erstwhile Radio Cinema opposite Crawford Market in Bombay offered a similar prospect, a single-storey structure set back in a large plot. Movies there (all Hindi ‘B-films’) changed every day. Bhoot Bangla was a favourite. In the seventies, the Radio was demolished and made way for the once infamous, still warren-like Manish Market.

Like the Radio, at one corner of the West End was a billboard that displayed two large posters—one for the feature and another for the matinee. More than the movies, these posters permanently impacted my innocent youth. The West End made me much of who I am today, I am sorry to report.

As for the fountain, it later became a traffic roundabout, and the bandstand vanished entirely. In the 1980s, the West End was demolished and replaced by a hulking multistorey to exploit the real estate value of its compound.

All that remains of my cinema-loving youth today is the traffic roundabout.

So it goes.

(Mustansir Dalvi teaches architecture at Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Mumbai)

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