Bong Shots is a fortnightly column on Bengali cinema.
When I was growing up in the late 90s, moviegoing wasn't prohibited but it had its limitations. There were no restrictions on Hindi films – all my folks were Hindi film fans themselves – and it's scary to think that I saw my first Hindi film in a theatre when I was – yikes! – three (Saajan, 1991). A trip to a Globe or Lighthouse meant my parents taking me to watch Hollywood blockbusters which were generally disaster movies like Independence Day or creature features like Deep Blue Sea – all old movie houses in central Calcutta. For Hindi films, Priya and Menoka were the go-to cinema halls for those of us residing in South Kolkata.
It's important, I feel, to lay out a city map of my 90s moviegoing before I go really personal, and really local, because the theatre I'm going to talk about is nowhere close to the iconic above-mentioned names in terms of nostalgia, romance and heritage. And yet it meant something for some of us growing up at a certain time in a certain place. Thanks to Ahindra Mancha, we got to see films that we may have not seen in a theatre otherwise. For me it started with Border, followed by Dil Toh Pagal Hai. The year was 1997. Let me explain it. The peculiar thing about Ahindra Mancha was that it would get the latest Hindi films, but not on the day of their release. You would have to wait for maybe a month or two for them to arrive.
This waiting game soon became a local phenomenon – or at least, a personal phenomenon. If you were around in Chetla in that era and you asked your mother to take you for X film, chances are that you were told to 'wait till it comes to Ahindra Mancha'. The hall was decent and air-conditioned, the seats were comfortable enough. The reason to wait for a movie to arrive at Ahindra Mancha, for Chetla residents, was convenience, and cheap ticket rates – but mostly just convenience. And in that age, to go to a movie theatre, you were at the mercy of your parents anyway, so those decisions were not yours to take. It was only after my class ten boards that I started going to the cinema with friends on a regular basis. But prior to that, when a film came to Ahindra Mancha, it felt more within reach (largely because of how close it was, two buildings away from where I live, across the main street).
Every three months or so you read about some iconic single screen shutting down and people reminiscing its heydays – a trend that has fast-tracked in the pandemic. That is not the case with Ahindra Mancha. It never had heydays.
This meant that maybe, just maybe, a repeat watch could also be done. I ended up going for Raaz at Ahindra Mancha twice, the second time with my cousins (accompanied by mom), who were visiting us on summer holidays. Discovering that the first movie you saw twice in a theatre was a Vikram Bhatt film is nothing less than horror. Or was it Soldier, in which case it restores some of my honour (because Abbas-Mustan > Vikram Bhatt any day)? Memory is a bitch but I wouldn't bother about that. What matters is the feeling and this feeling is what got unlocked when I stepped into Ahindra Mancha last month for my second shot of Covid vaccine.
I knew it had ceased to be a cinema hall, but to enter its premises and climb up the stairs after all these years, this time as a vaccination centre, was strange. My sister, twelve years younger to me, was there too. She had no idea what I was going on about. To top it all, the vaccine was being administered on the stage, as if it's a performance or a play, adding drama to the already surreal meta movie playing in my head. There was a lone man in the audience seat, who seemed to have no other reason to be there other than to add poetry to my story.
Ahindra Mancha has been a constant physical presence in the months during lockdown at my family home in Kolkata. I can see it from my room, my balcony, my bathroom, and the terrace study, where I spend most of my time, its strong white lights even a cause of great irritation sometimes. And yet I never reflected on it the way I did after the vaccine experience. There was a finality in the idea of a movie hall being turned into a vaccination centre, and perhaps in it a metaphor for the times. Every three months or so you read about some iconic single screen shutting down and people reminiscing its heydays – a trend that has fast-tracked in the pandemic. That is not the case with Ahindra Mancha. It never had heydays.
It was originally conceived as a theatre hall by the West Bengal Government in 1978 – a project they gave up pretty quickly. It had a brief run as a cinema hall and it just so happens that those years coincided with my childhood. Today it has become a sort of multi-purpose hall for hire, available for everything from seminars to a shooting venue for TV channels to political programs by the party in power. It hosted a concert by an extreme metal band from Maharashtra in 2018. In 2019, there was a children's film festival. Last week, someone I know had a dance performance there.
That cinema hall, or auditorium, or whatever you want to call it, used to have a facade that had faces of theatre personalities embossed on it. It had a character. The revamped Ahindra Mancha, at best, looks like a glorified sulabh – a homogenous block of blue and white completely in tandem with the state government's aesthetically blind overhaul of the city in terms of architecture and design.
I had a vague idea about its history but I didn't know some of the specifics. For example, which year was it established? When was it converted into a movie theatre? Did it stage any famous plays? I made some calls. Rahul Sen of Paschim Banga Natya Academy not only gave me the year of its establishment – 1978 – he also sourced me a photo of the its earlier version. Film and theatre director Sumon Mukhopadhyay gave me closest to something I can call a 'scoop'. He was assisting Utpal Dutt when they rehearsed in Ahindra Mancha in 1988 for three months straight! (They were staging Dutt's translation of Midsummer Night's Dream, called Chaitali Raater Swapno). He told me an anecdote about the great man joking with an auditorium staff about its 'sarkari' aspect – the play was finally staged in Rabindra Sadan, though, a telling evidence of how it never gained prominence as a venue for theatre performances.
One of those calls went to my uncle, who I remember hanging out with his friends on the steps outside the hall in the 90s. His defining memory was that it was a venue for getting drunk, sometimes inside the auditorium when it wasn't in use. He had watched back to back Uttam Kumar films in what sounded like some kind of a film festival dedicated to the star – he identified the year as 1983, associated with his class XII boards and the cricket world cup. If true, it means that the government had already started fiddling with the idea of turning it into a movie theatre just six years into its inception – besides giving it out for cultural events like musical performances.
A TOI article from 2003 gave some hard facts. It stated that it was 1997 that the West Bengal Film Development Corporation finally converted it into a movie theatre – the year I saw Border and Dil Toh Pagal Hai. (Movie memories are not so inaccurate after all). Even as it shed some light on its films-arriving-late phenomena: a lack of funds resulting in a failure to pay advances to distributors who would give preference to private halls. Headlined 'State theatre fails to take off', the report deemed Ahindra Mancha a failure and a bad investment on the government's part. "Its average booking did not exceed 20 percent", an official was quoted saying. What it didn't take into account was that 20 percent.