The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cinema paradiso

One of the most cherished memories of my childhood is a vision of the great magician PC Sorcar (Sr) turning the entire three-storeyed auditorium of New Empire into an underwater kingdom of Nile blue. I was totally mesmerised by that beautiful watercolour vision.

In another act, the entire hall would be filled with chattering and jiving skeletons, and as the show reached its climax Sorcar (Sr) would suddenly disappear from the stage with the speed of a whirlwind and reappear in a jiffy on the third floor balcony. From there he would wave out at the cheering audience.

I had always wondered if this was merely a figment of my lurid imagination. But when I cross-checked with Saoli Mitra, who had begun to tread the boards along with her parents and the Bohurupee group from early childhood, her memories concurred with mine.

For further nostalgia deep-diving she asked me to get in touch with Debtosh Ghosh, a veteran actor now with Pancham Vaidic, who, by his own admission, was mad about movies — particularly Hollywood and European films.

“The peculiarity about New Empire is that its main auditorium is on the first floor where the front and rear seats are situated. The balcony and dress circles are on the second floor, and on the third floor are the galleries. In the past the seats were covered with thick red corduroy. Once the walls were dressed from third floor downwards with beautiful red textile. Looking glasses hung strategically on the walls afforded a good view of the entire hall,” says the 74-year-old Ghosh who appeared in City of Joy.

Resident Europeans and Anglo-Indians, who had formed the Dramatic Club of Theatre, staged contemporary hits such as Look Back in Anger and Dial M for Murder. The expensive and heavy sets for these productions were made in the backyard and lowered onstage by means of a pulley. If the set depicted a room the doors used to be so heavy they never quaked when slammed.

Apart from concerts of Western music by international stars, this was the hall where Bohurupee and Uday Shankar used to hold their performances. Marcel Marceau held his first performance in Calcutta here.

This hall is connected by a gangway to Lighthouse which has turned into a clothes market. Both halls belonged to Humayun Theatre. In Lighthouse, the floor sloped downwards from the screen. Nandan imitated this architectural feature.

Jon Lang in his book, A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India, wrote that Willem Marinus Dudok (1884-1974) had designed Lighthouse (1936-38). “The theatre/cinema, now much altered, still recalls the De Stijl work of the Dutch architects of the period. The building’s bold contrasts between solid surfaces and voids, between vertical and horizontal lines and its use of balconies and circular windows (now largely gone) are clearly within the De Stijl mould.”

Stage performances used to be held at Globe, too, which was once an opera house. If one looks at the rear of the hall from Sudder Street one can still catch sight of a legend to that effect in giant letters.

“Parsi theatre used to be held at Elite. Then in 1948 it was reconstructed. Renoir’s River was screened here and giant arc lamps were installed. The Scandinavian ice revue dazzled us,” says Ghosh.

Continental films were screened at Regal and Hindi hits such as Anarkali and Baiju Bawra were shown at Society. Ghosh never mentioned it, but I distinctly remember Tiger Rag, the signature tune of Tiger cinema, now a clothes bazaar. Theatre personality Tarun Roy had tried to revive it by staging plays but in vain.

It was not for nothing that once Metro on Chowringhee was known as “The home of the stars”, as the print media advertisements went. The finest of cinemas anywhere, it was owned by Metro Goldwyn Mayer or MGM till the early 1970s.

According to the website “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 Cinema in Mumbai in 1938, again for MGM. “Lamb drew up plans for this Metro Cinema in 1934 and it opened in 1935. It… is one of the finest examples of art deco in India.

“Thomas Lamb also designed the deco styled Metro in Cairo, Egypt. The Metro cinema, Calcutta, is almost identical to the Metro Theatre, Adelaide, South Australia.”

With its thick, red pile carpet, huge art deco lamps hanging from the ceiling and bar it became a byword for luxury. “The walls were covered with fresco in Metro. Before the hall became dark, the lights dimmed gradually and the effect was enchanting,” says Ghosh.

During the screening of King Solomon’s Mine the six-ft-plus doorman, Sarasi Bhushan Chattopadhyay, had to dress up as a Zulu chief in complete regalia.

Ghosh mentioned a theatre in Dharamtala opposite Sacred Heart Church, which few have even heard of. “I saw Kurosawa films here. Film societies used to hire it. Actor Chhabi Biswas had staged a play here,” says Ghosh. Many pearls did Ghosh extract from memory.

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