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Metro: MGM roar to plex revamp

The death knell has been rung for Metro cinema, one of Calcutta’s best-known and loved landmarks. The 77-year-old standalone theatre on Chowringhee, once owned by MGM, will soon be turned into a multiplex keeping only the façade intact.

According to a highly-placed source in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC), its heritage commission has cleared the project to makeover this Grade I heritage building. This, for many, is yet another instance of the city’s total indifference to its cultural heritage about which it never fails to boast (see author Amit Chaudhuri’s views on Page 18).

The only “major hurdle” is parking at its 5 Chowringhee Road address, for which the building plan has not been sanctioned and it has not received clearance from the police either.

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer used to own this cinema, once synonymous with luxury and glamour, till 1972, and it changed several hands thereafter. At one point of time, the state government had taken it over and its current owner is Metro Theatre Calcutta Limited.

Metro, Elite and New Empire are the last of the cinemas in this city where Hollywood films were exclusively screened. A host of others like the Globe, Lighthouse, Minerva or Chaplin and Tiger have all closed down.

“The Home of the Stars” may be in a shambles today, but its basic structure — in an elegant art deco style characterised by the “waterfall” style engaged columns — remains untouched. This motif is manifested in all its important architectural features like the marquee and the sign and in the details as well, like the aluminium framed entrance.

According to the website, cinematreasures.com, “the Metro was a project of MGM to promote their movies in Calcutta. It was the first of two cinemas to be designed in India by the noted New York-based (Scottish born) architect Thomas Lamb, the other being the Metro in Mumbai in 1938, again for MGM. Lamb drew up plans for this Metro in Calcutta in 1934 and it opened in 1935.”

The Metro plot was where The Statesman used to be put to bed each night before its office shifted to Chowringhee Square. On its inauguration day, an advertisement in The Statesman said: “Calcutta Metro Mad! Not a seat left for gala opening tonight.” The first film to be screened was Bonnie Scotland, featuring Laurel and Hardy.

According to Bhaskar Mitter, the first Indian to head Andrew Yule and later CESC and now a ripe old 92, says Metro was Calcutta’s first “modern theatre”. The seats were comfortable and they tilted back as in an aircraft. He remembers a film on the San Francisco earthquake whose sound effect was so realistic one felt that roof itself had collapsed.

And there was the seven-footer Sarasibhushan Chatterjee, who masqueraded as a Zulu tribesman for King Solomon’s Mines. Night shows were more expensive than matinee — that was when the Clive Street executives, both white and brown, would hang out at the two bars.

The art deco style was such a big hit it soon found an echo in hundreds of contemporary buildings both grand and ordinary, jewellery and furniture designs, and typeface. It was popularly known among Bengalis as “Madro” style.

Peter R. Moore, a second-generation police officer, “Bengali by place of birth; Anglo-Indian by ethnicity; British by record and Australian by choice” in an email to Metro writes: “Almost all former Calcutta residents would remember the Metro with great fondness not least for the sheer luxury of its air-conditioning in Cal’s summers.

“The building’s exterior façade was distinctive, especially the red, white and blue vertical neon-light feature which bore its name.... The foyer’s walls carried framed colour portraits of leading Hollywood and British movie stars of the age.... In my Calcutta childhood, the Metro was one of those wondrous places that dispensed the weekly dose of escapism that fed dreams and made life tolerable.”

Blockbusters like Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, and decades later, Bobby were screened here. The Suchitra-Uttam starrer Chandranath was the first Bengali film to be shown. The cult film Baba Taraknath came years after.

However, like its exterior, the interiors, too, remain in one piece, if one can ignore the dullness born of neglect. The lacklustre marble staircase, the wall-to-wall mirrors, the two bars, the fluted plaster inside the hall are all there, although twinkling LED lights have replaced the elegant art deco lamps, and veneer and plastic chairs the pile carpet and velvet seats.

But what is a cinema without an audience?

As G.M. Kapur, convener, Intach for West Bengal and Calcutta Regional Chapter, put it: “The dictates of economic compulsions take precedence over preservation of heritage.”

turn it into a cultural hub: amit chaudhuri

The Metro is more than a heritage building; it symbolises a way of life that is irretrievably lost, though recovering that way of life is not what’s at issue here. The fact is that to destroy the Metro is not to rejuvenate that location in any real way; it is simply to lose a further connection with the city’s many selves and lives. It points to a further impoverishment of Calcutta’s contradictory cultural life.

That the cinema is going to be turned into a multiplex also points to a failure of the imagination in this city — and also on part of the government — to use its architectural legacy creatively. The government should have given the Metro a second lease of life as a centre of the performing arts, and turned it into a cultural hub. This would show an imaginative engagement with the city that its inhabitants and their elected representatives appear to lack at the moment. To be true to a great city and its spaces is hard work, and not a matter of vacuous pieties, which we have in abundance.

The problem, of course, is an immense one, and the Metro only its latest casualty — though it won’t be its last. It has to do not so much with ‘heritage’ buildings, but with Calcutta’s architectural ethos, which is inextricable from its cultural temper. What is that temper? We can say that there is no one true temper, culture, or history of Calcutta, testament to which is its variety of spaces, buildings, and styles. Are we to throw this heterogeneity away so cheaply?

Crucially, the ordinary buildings that people live in are also being destroyed daily. Every great city, whether it’s London, Buenos Aires, or Montevideo, have laws preventing the destruction of buildings, a law granting the owner of a building the right to sell it, but not destroy it. This law needs to come into effect in Bengal at once. And Calcutta’s citizens need to admit that what is happening to these buildings is an entirely preventable calamity and tragedy, and not remain silent because they feel it isn’t a fashionable or relevant cause.

What fond memories of Metro do you have and how would you want the landmark cinema hall to be revived? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com