Regal: A theatre that looks the part

In his column Alt/Urban, Mustansir Dalvi dwells on Mumbai’s iconic Regal Theatre that made you feel like movie royalty in the days before moviegoing became synonymous with multiplexes

Regal theatre, Mumbai, in present times
Regal theatre, Mumbai, in present times

Mustansir Dalvi

In October 2023, the Regal completed 90 years as ‘The Theatre Magnificent’ of Bombay. Less than a decade ago, the papers were rueing its imminent closure, but its inclusion in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Victorian Gothic/ Art Deco buildings five years ago ensured it is still the last but one of its kind still standing.

Its ongoing presence reminds one of a cosmopolitan age, a collegial age, where people across class and caste chose to spend three hours in a darkened hall, carried away on flights of fancy made in Hollywood, Europe or the many cine-studios of Bombay itself.

These 90 years are as significant to the city as is the Regal. More than a few thousand buildings of the same vintage (and style) continue to be functional and have been inhabited more or less nonstop since the time they came up.

The Regal is one amongst several cinema theatres that came up in Bombay in the boom years between the wars. Designed in 1933 by Charles Stevens, son of F.W. Stevens, architect of the Victoria Terminus (now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and the Bombay Municipal Corporation buildings, it was the first of a golden quartet, along with the Metro, the Eros and the New Empire.

Now an urban artefact, this building straddles the corner of two streets—Shahid Bhagat Singh Road (Colaba Causeway) and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Marg. It is the jewelled centrepiece of a tiara of buildings around the Wellington fountain at the cusp of Colaba where, if you pirouette in a 360-degree turn, you can see buildings representing every style that made up Bombay—neoclassical, neogothic, Indo-Saracenic and art deco. It’s the only spot in town where such a treat can be had.

Regal theatre in 1930s
Regal theatre in 1930s

In the 1930s, when vast swathes of the city were reorganised into numerous mini town planning schemes, its urban fabric received a contemporary makeover. No more the sloping-roofed, wooden-balcony-framed, dukaan–makaan combos—the new look that emerged presented bold, colourful, thrusting facades, all RCC and colourcrete-finished walls, flat roofs and flying balconies.

Entire streets presented a harmonious front, all toeing the same building lines, with the same height of floors and roofs.

As punctuation though, buildings on street corners would be dealt with differently. Often designed for public use, they made bold statements with high profiles (literally soaring into the sky) and a more ornamental, even whimsical, character.

Cinema theatres were apt candidates for this dramebaazi. The Regal is an exemplar of this conscious ‘staging’ of buildings, a born performer as it makes the best of its stellar location.

Architecture in Bombay has always been characterised by some form or the other of superimposed ornamen-tation. In buildings of this period, you see embellishments of two kinds—geometric patterns, chevrons and parallel lines, which distinguish the Metro and the New Empire, and strategically placed figural ornaments in the form of relief sculpture at the Eros and the Regal.

Look up as you pass and you will spot faces, figures, even tropical landscapes. The Regal is especially interesting as it presents a stepped-up (or ziggurat-like) facade with Aztec patterning on its corners. Grimacing faces like theatrical masks adorn both sides of the vertically running signage that spells out its name.

The interiors, designed by the Czech artist Karl Schara, were thus described in a brochure made for its inauguration: ‘The vast ceiling of the auditorium is carried out in pale cream, which deepens into orange as it curves down to the frieze which conceals the ceiling lights […] On the walls are lamps of cubic designs in frosted glass. The ray-pattern of these lamps is continued in the ceiling-high wall panels, giving an astonishing illusion of great height.’

Inside the theatre were a series of sunbursts on the side walls and balconies. As you walked up the grand stairway to the balcony, showbiz and Hollywood came together; the red-carpeted steps were lined with enormous mirrors etched with a larger-than-life Oscar statuette on the landing.

Sadly, much of the interior ornament was replaced by acoustic tiles for better sound in the 1950s when the Regal converted to CinemaScope. Fortunately, Uncle Oscar still stands tall.

The Theatre Magnificent is now the last of the older single-screen 70 mm cinemas still open to the paying punter. The other members of the initial golden quartet are either locked up, gutted or ‘reformed’ into mini multiplexes.

The Regal can, even today, cater to more than a thousand cinephiles, but are there that many people thronging the theatre on any single day any more, with OTT offering you the world?

The last grand spectacle held here was in 2003, when on the release of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, the culmination of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, all three films were shown, back-to-back in one eye-watering, ear-scalding evening of marathon bingeing.

There was a time in the film history of Bombay when the ‘House Full’ sign was ubiquitous. Now rarely seen, the very phrase seems to reek of urban legend. I couldn’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen at the Regal, walking up to the balcony, preening at my reflection, imagining myself to be Greogory Peck (who it seems had once dropped by to see how Bombay audiences were responding to his film Twelve O’clock High), lounging about the soda-fountain outside the auditorium.

January 1982 holds a special place in my memory. I sauntered to the Regal with another cinema-crazy friend to see Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi that was to have its first show there. The place was swarming with frenzied crowds, ignoring the ‘House Full’ sign placed prominently outside. What else had we expected? Serendipitously, a large number of cops showed up and took positions on the pavement outside.

The crowds thinned out and with them, a number of black-market ticket floggers (are tickets even sold in ‘black’ anymore?). Not wanting to take the heat, they started offloading tickets at the normal rates. And so it came to pass that my friend and I saw Gandhi, first day first show, at the Regal, climbing the red-carpeted stairs, feeling like movie royalty.

(MUSTANSIR DALVI teaches architecture at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Mumbai)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines