If there's ever a time to reconsider your life choices, being the only woman inside a pitch-black balcony filled with men watching a sepia-toned print of 1995 Sunny Deol-starrer Angrakshak on a Saturday afternoon seems like a good place to start. "Koi tang karega toh zor se chillana. Main turant bhaag ke aa jaunga. (Scream loudly if someone bothers you. I'll come running)," says the New Roshan Talkies usher, before he leaves, sealing off the entrance with a thick grey dusty curtain. The following Saturday I visit Royal Cinema for a 12.15 pm screening of the Bhojpuri movie Loha Pahalwan (2018). The theatre manager lowers his voice and says, "Chaar baje ke pehle nikal jao. Log pet mein kainchi maar dete hain. (Leave here before 4 PM. People get stabbed in the stomach with scissors)." He nonchalantly makes the 'scissor goes in, intestines spill out' gesture with his hands.
…but let's rewind a bit. What brings me to a stretch in Grant Road in Mumbai where scheduled stabbings make for casual conversation? A tweet by @FilmHistoryPic, which says four pre-Independence era theatres in the locality screen movies from the '80s and '90s for less than 50 bucks a ticket.
I'm curious about why they only screen re-runs, how they stay afloat when other single-screeners such as Chandan are shutting down rapidly and now, who would pick scissors as a weapon when knives are obviously more efficient.
It's unbearably sunny when I head to New Roshan Talkies. Tickets are Rs 20 for a stall seat and 25 for the balcony. Inside his cramped booth, the seller complains when I hand him a Rs 50 note. "Kya madam?" he asks, grumpily. I get back 24 rupees and a lecture on carrying change. It's impossible to find out show timings online beforehand, which means I'm 45 minutes early for the 12.15 PM show.
As the gates of Alfred Talkies next door are shuttered and Gulshan opposite, deserted, the first floor doubles up as my waiting room. I find an elderly, shirtless man chopping onions and ask if he's worked there long. "Eleven years. I'm the projectionist," he says. A team of two man the projection room for the day's first two shows, with a head projectionist watching over them. At 6 PM, a second two-member team takes over till midnight.
A few minutes after 12.15, the projectionist stops his chopping, puts on a shirt and rings a bell to signal that the show's about to begin. The hall's dark and dingy, the seat cold and metallic. Around 40 minutes in, a latecomer begins to loiter in the aisle near my row, occasionally glancing my way. He eventually heaves himself into the metal seat right next to mine despite the rest of the row being empty. I scramble out of there.
Outside, there are reels of film stacked high on the floor, under benches and against the banister. They're all old movies on rent from various distributors who charge a minimum of Rs 2,000 a day. "There are 10 theatres in the area. If we screen the latest movies, we won't get any business," says manager Javed Qureshi. The older the movie and the poorer the print, the cheaper the reel. Which explains the long white scratches and recurring blotches across Angrakshak. Salman Khan films are out of the question – they're too expensive. "We only take films starring B-grade actors," he adds. As next week's pick is another Deol-starrer, Singh Saab The Great (2013), I leave you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions.
Each of the theatre's 12 employees are paid just Rs5,000 a month and despite these other cost-cutting measures, they say it's getting harder and harder to run the show. Mohammed Yusuf, who's worked at New Roshan Talkies for the past 14 years, thumbs through the sheaf of tickets he's sold and hands me the 1 rupee he owes me. The afternoon show had 80 takers for the stall seats and 21 for the balcony, he says. That's less than a third of the hall's capacity of 669. "Theatre ka zamana khatam ho gaya hai. Chaar din ke baad picture phenkna padta hai. (The age of theatres is over. We have to throw the reel out after four days)," says Iqbal, another projectionist.
Royal Cinema in the next lane once housed plaques celebrating the silver (25-week run) and golden (50-week run) jubilees of the latest releases. Now, movies are changed every Friday for lack of an audience – only around 50 of its 708 seats are occupied for the afternoon Loha Pahalwan screening. On a good day, that number's closer to 300. "You can get movies on your phone for 30 bucks, 40 bucks. Why should people come to the theatre?" says manager DR Kadam. He shows me the projection room, where the projectionist himself is watching a film on YouTube on his phone.
Set up in 1911, Royal Cinema first screened only documentaries. From 1914, they began to stage plays until 1930. Ticket prices are 25 for a stall seat, 30 for one in the dress circle, but there's no discernible difference between the two. Stall seats are painted red, the dress circle ones – at a minuscule incline – are blue. The theatre exclusively screens old Bhojpuri films, four shows daily. Distributors drop them off via hard drive. The projection quality is markedly better than New Roshan Talkies' and the film is preceded by the usual anti-smoking ads this time.
Another difference – I'm not the only woman here. "Mahilayein aate hai lekin sirf mardon ke saath. Area thoda shady hai na. (Women come, but only if they're accompanied by men. It's a shady area)," says Anurag, the projectionist, though that last part is said so swiftly I'm unsure if it's just my anxious imagination. He's not wrong though, all four theatres are located a stone's throw away from Kamathipura, Mumbai's (in)famous red-light district. Still, I leave feeling validated and with the vague idea that parts of Loha Pahalwan's score sound suspiciously similar to the Mission: Impossible theme. The guard outside angrily shoos away a drunk, unsteady daily wage labourer.
Nishat Cinema, across the road, is screening the Hindi version of Prabhas-starrer Saaho. At 60 bucks for a stall seat, tickets here are slightly pricier. Sheru, the manager, perches on a stool outside, enthusiastically beckoning customers in. He says the theatre only screens new Hindi and Bhojpuri movies, which are replaced like clockwork every Friday, even if they are doing well. Fun fact: The theatre's owned by former CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani's wife.
The only theatre left to scope out now is Alfred Cinema. Despite leaving Angrakshak midway, I'm too late for the 3 PM show of Baaghi (2016) and the gates have been shuttered, locking the audience in. During the interval, a vendor frying eggs on a sizzling tava passes omelette sandwiches through the gates. Hungry hands pass back cash. The next Saturday, I'm late for the 3 PM show of Bobby Deol-starrer Badal (2000) by 5 minutes and can't be issued a ticket – that's how the computerized system has been programmed. The staff shut themselves in and refuse to answer any questions. I'm tempted to stick around for the 6 PM show, but recalling the advice about men and their scissors, I decide to just…cut my losses and go home instead.