At age 16, filmmaker Rohit Shetty was an assistant working for noted stunt director Veeru Devgun. Their office, Devgun Films, was in Mumbai’s Juhu area. When visitors asked for directions, the standard answer was ‘Chandan cinema ke saamne wala building’. This was the start of an emotional bond with Chandan. Every Monday morning Shetty would come into work and look across the street to observe how many people had queued outside for tickets. He’d take a look at the number of cars at the Chandan parking lot to gage the potential of the film. He was also a regular patron of the theatre. When his boss was busy or sleeping, he and actor Ajay Devgn (Veeru Devgun’s son) would quickly slip out for a movie. To date, they often order their evening samosas from Chandan. “There’s something peculiar about it,” he says.
When there’s a Rohit Shetty film releasing, it’s commonly prescribed that it be viewed only at a single screen theatre like Chandan for the desired effect. Shetty’s years of observing Chandan has richly paid off. In December last year, he was back there to promote his hugely successful film Simmba. The hero of his film Ranveer Singh, was busy being, well, Ranveer Singh, and Shetty silently stood a few steps behind thinking about how his almost 30-year relationship with the theatre was about to end soon. The theatre will shut later this year. “It’s been an iconic theatre in my life. I’m going to miss it. Ajay and I have seen so many films here, right from our Phool Aur Kaante and Vijaypath days… There used to be a projectionist called Kasim bhai who would always give us the right judgement on the movie…What’s working, where the audience is losing interest.”
Kasim Baig joined Chandan as a projectionist in 1975, two years after it opened. By the time he retired in 2012, he had become an “all rounder”, managing all sorts of crises at the theatre. He’s not surprised to hear of its closing later this year; he’s watched it slowly amble to its deathbed. Baig sounds like somewhat of a weatherman for the movie industry. Though his methods weren’t exactly scientific, he could predict the box office climate based on the numbers of coins being flung at the screen or the volume of claps and whistles. He speaks about feeling terrible for Biwi No 1 when it was replaced with Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam like it happened just yesterday. “Biwi No 1 housefull ja rahi thi par 3 weeks ke baad utaarna pada. Lekin Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam ne bhi kamaal ka business kiya. Rs 70 ka balcony ticket log black main Rs 1000 ke liye bech rahe the,” he says.
In the end, nothing pleased him more than the sight of an audience being entertained. In 1994, when Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen released, he remembers organising a Ladies Special show every afternoon for a week. “Us picture ko gents ke saath dekhna achcha nahi lagta,” he explains. In the late 70s, when Chandan went through a phase of screening only English films, Baig received hand-written letters from patrons begging the theatre to bring back Saturday Night Fever. They did. It’s one of the longest-running films in the theatre.
If a film was boring viewers, Baig felt compelled to take matters into his own hands. “Jab picture bakwaas hoti thi aur public bore ho rahi thi, hum log apni editing karte the. Reel khatam hone se pehle change kar dete the. Ek baar hum pakde gaye. Phool Aur Phatthar main Dharam ji bahut bhaag rahe the aur humne uda diya. Public chillane lagi,” he says, sheepishly.
There’s an unmistakable kindness, warmth and simplicity in these accounts of the good old days. Also a great sense kinship with movie lovers. Even if only one person turned up for a show, they’d never cancel it out of respect for the person who had travelled all the way for a movie. The Juhu of yore wasn’t the upscale area it is today. Chandan was surrounded by thick forests, unmade roads, a large ditch and no buses or rickshaws would dare come near it. To keep their visitors safe, the theatre organised a free bus service till Andheri Station. Baig says there were times he would walk a young Hrithik Roshan and his grandmother home to their doorstep after a 6 PM show. “I don’t think he’ll remember this,” he smiles.
Chandan isn’t going down without a fight. In its 46 years of existence, the theatre has tried to counter every major threat – VCRs, multiplexes, piracy, streaming platforms, and so on. The theatre started with a capacity of 1265 seats, which was cut down to 1107 and now stands at 587 seats. Owner Sameer Joshi was four years old when his father Baijanath Joshi built the theatre. The story behind the birth of the theatre is one of the greatest untold love stories. Baijanath Joshi, a businessman who dealt in plastics, and his wife Chandrakanta, fondly called Chandan, would regularly go on Friday movie dates. One Friday they couldn’t get tickets which greatly upset Chandrakanta. She loved the movies with a passion. “I think she must have chewed the heck out of my dad’s brain. The next morning he went to an architect staying near my house who used to specialise in designing movie theatres. He decided to build a theatre and name it after my mom,” says Sameer Joshi.
When he took over the reins in the early 90s, fresh out of a US college, Chandan was in a shambles. The theatre had become non-AC to save on costs and the seats were broken. “But everything changed with Hum Aapke Hai Koun in 1994. The Rajshris were instrumental in motivating cinema owners to stick to the business. The film released in Liberty Cinemas and then came to us later, but what an excellent run it had. It really motivated me. I got the airconditioning back, the seats and flooring changed, I worked on getting better acoustics… It cost me around Rs 3 crore but we got some excellent results,” he says. In 2006, PVR opened a more swanky multiplex in the adjacent building, setting off new problems for the single screen.
A few weeks ago I decided to catch an afternoon show at Chandan. There were a total of three sleepy men in the stalls watching Nargis Fakhri in a horror film called Amavas. The turn out for The Accidental Prime Minister the week before was equally bad. I finally got to experience the legendary Chandan crowd in full force on a Friday night show of Gully Boy. When MC Sher exclaimed ‘Tere andar ka lava phatke aane de’, the audience, quite literally, erupted. The constant hooting drowned out the film’s key dialogues. No one cared. There was too much fun being had.
It was once believed that if a film could please the Chandan crowd, it was definitely a winner. Filmmaker and producer Goldie Behl distinctly remembers watching Anil Kapoor’s Yudh with his mother at the theatre in 1985. The moment Kapoor said ‘jhakaas’ for the first time, the crowd went into a frenzy. “I knew right then this word is going to catch on,” says Behl. It’s 2019 and Kapoor can rarely get past an interview without being asked to repeat the immortal word. The opposite was also true – if a film was going to bomb, you knew it first at Chandan. “I remember watching Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se and being really upset with the quality of projection. People were not enjoying it at all. No one got the non-linearity of the movie,” he says. Behl has a permanent seat at Chandan in the balcony. “I can put up my legs and watch comfortably. I think Adi (Aditya Chopra) also had a permanent seat. He used to go every Friday for the 3 PM show… I think he still goes.”
Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali would depend on a blacker who operated in the lane outside Chandan for information on his films. If the tickets were going at a high price, it meant he could breathe easy. The blacker also became his harshest critic. “That guy was so invested in the outcome of the movie that he’d be rude to me. After Love Aaj Kal he told me, ‘Aapne toh second half main bilkul chhod diya, Imtiaz bhai. Koi mehnat hi nahi ki.’ And here I thought my second half was rocking!” As a filmmaker if you’re looking for qualitative feedback on what went wrong, he says, you may not find the right answers. “But what you do get is an insight into the people who will eventually consume your work. It’s also a more universal view, you’re talking to a larger number of people at once,” says Ali.
The biggest disservice the multiplexes did to movie watching is that it divided the audience between “masses” and “classes”. Chandan made no such distinctions. In fact, it had a bit of Downton Abbey situation going on. Or as Baig explains it – “Neeche masses. Upar hi-fi gentry.” Screenwriter Sajid Samji, who has co-written most of Rohit Shetty’s films with his brother Farhad, hates any sort of snobbery attached to movie watching. “I don’t miss a single film at Chandan. In a multiplex it’s like tu hasa toh main hasa. It’s an elite crowd. Why do you want to hold yourself back when you’re entertained? In a single screen you become besharam,” he says.
There will be little scope for besharmi in Chandan version 2.0. As a part of a joint deal with the Wadhwa Group, Joshi’s plan is to replace the single screen with three state-of-the-art mini theatres with around 70 seats each and a retail floor with shopping options. “I want a 5-star cinema,” he says. This probably means no more whistling, breaking into an impromptu dance or allowing the Salman Khan fan club into the theatre the night before his Eid release to decorate it with Bhai’s photos. Samji makes a strong case for these old traditions. “Woh dhukkam dhukki, paseene ke badboo, it’s incredible! You can smell everyone’s armpits and don’t complain,” he says. As a film writer he’ll miss the blackboard outside the theatre with ‘Housefull’ written in chalk. “That’s a high that looking at seat occupancy charts on an app can never give you,” he declares.
Joshi appreciates the sentiment but also can’t afford to pull along anymore. “Right now there’s a lot of area being dedicated to an activity which is not yielding revenues,” he rues. As the sun sets on Chandan, followed by rumours of some other single screens in Mumbai shuttering, all we can do is offer thanks for the great times.