Mumbai is famous for being the city that never sleeps, for being the home of the Hindi film industry and one of the largest slum-localities in the world, for the Gateway of India, for Vada Pav and Dabbawallahs. A lesser known fact however, is that Mumbai has the second largest number of surviving Art Deco buildings in the world after Miami.
Art Deco is a visual arts and design style that first appeared in France after World War I. An eclectic style combining traditional craft motifs with technological imagery and materials, it began to internationally flourish in the first half of the twentieth century. A generation of ‘Western-eduated’ architects and designers, inspired by this movement and encouraged by an emergent nouveau-riche business class in Mumbai, began to build buildings in the architectural style of what has today been termed ‘Bombay Deco’ by architectural historians.
Characterised by rich colours, bold geomertic symmetry and lavish ornamentation, the Art Deco buildings form reservoirs of a specific socio-historical moment, in India, as globally — with rapid industrialisation, an embrace of technology, and a certain notion of modernity with the individual at its centre. Combining its architectural heritage with a cinematic one is Liberty, a 1200 seater single screen theatre founded by Habib Hoosein in 1947 and titled thusly, since it marked the year of Indian independence.
Described as “an exquisite jewel box of rococo decoration enhanced by a colored lighting scheme, suggesting a fairyland far away from the bustle and tumult in the streets outside”¹, Liberty, like the remainder of Mumbai’s Art Deco cinemas, is a dying breed. Once a glittering star, dominating the cinema-going scene in the mid 1900s, its sophistication, glamour and importance have faded in time. Inversely though, with the same passage of time, its historical significance has only increased; in its structural elements, in its physical site, Liberty becomes the reservoir of history, of memory, and of a bygone age.
Liberty was once the location of several glitzy premiers, including the blockbuster Mughal-e-Azam; where big films ran for long periods, such as Hum Aapke Hain Kaun that ran for 2341 shows in 847 days, to celebrate which the noted modernist painter M. F. Husain put up a canvas in its foyer of ‘Shakti’ — inspired by Madhuri Dixit, the film’s leading actor. Unable to sustain itself in the face of growing multiplexes, changing audiences and hefty entertainment taxes however, it no longer shows films of any kind; available instead only as a rented space for events and, ironically, shoots.
Attempting to capture its historicity, and freezing it in a moment in space, while simultaneously highlighting its majesty, as if timeless, Shahid Datawala embarked on a photographic documentation of the theatre over the span of a year and multiple visits. The photographs in this series seem similar in many ways to photographs of loved ones who have passed away —symbolic of a life lived and hinting at much beyond that which the eye can see, leaving one with a lingering sense of loss rather than palpable presence.
In his own words, Datawala’s work is driven by the idea of “giving something that is dying or dead, a second life”; and he writes that, “Cinema spaces have always fascinated me, I shot a whole body of work over several years on old cinemas in Delhi in early 2000 called Dresscirle, which was then widely exhibited both in India and abroad. This was an extension of the same idea in a sense, but also a concentration of the same, with the focus on a single theatre.”
Lines, curves and shapes are central to Datawala’s compositions, of necessity considering his subject, and influenced by his affinity toward Art Deco architecture, that he grew up around. However, a considered use of light and shadow, wide shots and minutely magnified details produce a disjunctive viewing experience — one minute familiarising, the other second defamiliarising the persepctive of this landmark monument.
Datawala explains that he relied entirely on existent lighting in the cinema and used greater exposure times in order to accurately replicate ‘the warmth’ and atmosphere at Liberty. What leaps out in stark contrast in these images however, is a haunting melancholy — a ghost town: pristinely uninhabited, unaffected, and out of all time and place.
On a microscopic level, this series form a study in Art Deco architecture and tells the story of one theatre in all its faded and lingering glory. On the other hand, these images rise above documentation to function as symbols in our understanding of cinematic history, architectural heritage and most importantly, the legacy of a city and time that once was — the biography of a multiple lives lived, on and off the reel.
- Skelly Brent & Vinnels David, Bollywood Showplaces: Cinema Theatres in India. Cambridge: Plumridge E & E Ltd, 2002.