Rise & Fall of a Victorian Curtain
At the beginning of the year 1930, the prominent buildings in and around Hazratganj were the Jahangirabad Palace, Post Master General office, District Magistrate’s residence, St. Joseph Church, East Indian Railway building (currently Northern Railways) Central Bank building, Allahabad Bank building, Valerio’s Restaurant (currently Gandhi Ashram) Kotwara House and Jahangirabad Mansion at the main crossing. Right across the road opposite St. Joseph Church was an open ground with huge trees where people on a stroll would sit down and wile away time eating peanuts from vendors.
During this decade, some families from Karachi, Hyderabad (in Pakistan), Rawalpindi and Lahore had already started migrating to Lucknow. Probably because they had seen the writings on the walls. Among them were three Sindhi families who, in course of time, left a lasting impression on the social fabric of the city. They were the families of C.V Advanii, Hiranand Mansukhani, and Seth Gyan Chand Thadani. Mr Advani had been erstwhile doing the business of book selling and here too in Lucknow he initially opened a books corner in Valerios restaurant which is now Gandhi Ashram. Mansukhani had been trading in silk and went on to do contractual business in Lucknow. Gyan Chand Thadani got the management of running Prince of Wales Cinema and also the Regimental Cinema in cantonment. C.V Advani, father of the better-known Ram Advani of Ram Advani Booksellers, helped Gyan Chand in running these cinemas.
Then in 1937, Gyan Chand Thadani got the vacant ground opposite St. Joseph Church on 99 years lease from its owner, Raja Ejaz Rasul Khan of Jahangirabad and decided to build a cinema hall over here. After some administrative hiccups due to the proximity of the church opposite it, the hall was ready for its opening in 1939. Thadani wanted to name it as Metropole, but for some strange reason he changed his mind at the last moment and got it registered as Mayfair. As the years went by, a restaurant on the ground floor and a ballroom on the first floor, both by the name of Mayfair, were added to the attraction of this entertainment hub. Times of India had reported on 22.05.2015 in its coverage of Hazratganj that Mayfair Cinema Hall was initially a ballroom and live shows were also staged here. This is not true and the same was corroborated by Ram Advani too, who was there from the very beginning and had explicitly recounted that Mayfair had been a cinema hall right from day one and the referred ballroom was on the first floor which later on became the premises of British Council Library. Furthermore, there was no stage performances as there was hardly any space in front of the screen to be considered as a stage which could possibly hold a show.
Anyway, with addition of these entertainments joints, a typical evening out, especially for the British, would be dance at the ballroom, followed by drinks and dinner at Mayfair Restaurant or down the road at Valerios and late night movie at Mayfair. There was a live orchestra on weekends at the Ballroom, highlight of which was in the form of a crooner named Miss Fanthome. Seth Gyan Chand Thadani had also imbibed the English spirit and came to be known as Mr Thad. (He reverted back to Thadani after freedom from the British hegemony)
Mayfair Hall never had an elevated balcony; instead, the rear section was raised up some notches and was called Dress Circle. Entrance to this section was from the wide and flaring out stairs from the outside. The seating capacity of the hall was a little less than 500 and first English movie to be screened was of Laurel & Hardy. A Victorian style curtain rose up and fell down slowly over the screen after each show. In the beginning there were only two shows – evening show starting at 6 pm and night show at 9 pm. Then, as the trend of watching Hollywood movies gathered momentum and the need of entertainment gained priority, noon and matinee shows were introduced. But the most exclusive and biggest draw was the Sunday Morning Show which were introduced later on. It is noteworthy that when the morning shows were started in the 1960s the viewers comprised mainly of the youths of the town and as the shows gained popularity, well known personalities also started coming in droves. Sunday Morning Shows at Mayfair were no longer mere showbiz, it got the stature of a weekly carnival where the celebrity and the commoner wished to be seen and make their presence felt. For the ladies, it did not matter which film was being screened, they were more concerned about the walk from the foyer right up the staircase leading to the Dress Circle. That part of the ritual was nothing less than the red-carpet walk seen at Cannes Film Festivals.
As the morning shows became the talk of the town, the importance of a stern looking Kumar Sahib, the manager, climbed two-fold because getting hold of tickets of a limited number of seats required early planning or string pulling. Kumar Sahib had been trained by C.V Advani and had been associated with Mayfair since years. He had acquired sternness due the pressures of his job, though he would share a joke and smile profusely in private. He had meticulously built decorum for the staff and also for the viewers and did not tolerate bawdy behaviour within the premises. I had actually seen him slapping a rowdy character who had misbehaved at the ticket window and Kumar had him literally thrown out of the building.
As stated earlier, Mayfair building was the entertainment hub of the British, hence, from inception only English movies had been screened in the cinema hall. This tradition was continued by Thadani even after the presence of the Anglo-Indians had receded and though the night show may have run into losses they persevered. Showcasing Hollywood movies at Mayfair was not only a business proposal for the distributors, it was a matter of pride for them and a movie that got screen space at Mayfair automatically got an enhanced rating. Hollywood blockbusters starting from Laurel & Hardy movies of the silent era to Gone with the Wind, My Fair Lady, onto the Bond movies, Pink Panther series, Carry On series, Hitchcock mysteries, wild-west thrillers, horror, suspense, war, romance, in short, box-office hits of every genre of English movies had been screened at the one and only Mayfair.
The foyer and stairs were always spotlessly clean and the walls were adorned with large framed photographs of leading stars of Hollywood, as well as, some of the Bollywood legends of that era. I remember the frames of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand giving company to David Niven, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Raquel Welsh, Gina Lollobrigida, George Peppard, Ursula Andress, Clint Eastwood, Yul Bryner Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Frank Sinatra. The display panels were appropriately updated on a weekly basis and peering at these panels was no less an essential part of the protocol than watching the trailers.
When each of the shows started the drawn curtain would rise up slowly and after the statutory documentary, the trailers of forthcoming movies would be screened. After the trailers were over, the Interval would be announced on the screen and the lights would be switched on. There were no vendors of popcorns or snacks, hence, if anyone wanted a quick bite, he or she would have to rush to Kwality Restaurant next door to grab some patties of pastries. After the interval, the film would start and continue uninterrupted till the end.
A few years before Independence, Mr Thadani inaugurated his second hall, Basant, on the same piece of ground but the front of this hall was towards Lalbagh Road. Thadani never ran this hall himself, but gave it to Mr Sahni to run and operate. This hall showed mainly Hindi movies, while Mayfair continued with its run of English movies till 1972.
At the beginning of the year 1972, Pakeezah, starring Meena Kumari and produced by her husband, Kamal Amrohi, was ready for release. Shaukat Mirza, a co-producer, wanted the film to be released in Lucknow in none other than Mayfair Cinema Hall. Knowing well that only Hollywood films were shown in this theatre, Mirza came specially to persuade Gullu Thadani, son of Gyan Chand, who was reluctant to break the tradition of English movies. After a lot of persuasion it was finally agreed between the two that Pakeezah would be released and shown at Mayfair for one week only and then it would be shifted to some other hall, possibly Basant.
Accordingly, the film was released on 4th February 1972 and it created history. Pakeezah was not an instant hit in other cities and picked up business after the sad demise of Meena Kumari. But in Lucknow, it was a hit right from first show on the first day. The queue for purchase of tickets extended till Lalbagh Road on all days of the week. As a result. The film that was supposed to run for a week at Mayfair continued to be screened for almost two years.
Then Bobby came and the applecart of Hollywood movies turned turtle forever. Like Shaukat Mirza, Raj Kapoor, too, insisted on Bobby being released at Mayfair. The convention had already been broken by Pakeezah, as such, Gullu Thadani could not refuse Raj Kapoor who was also a family friend. Bobby was a trendsetter and broke all box-office records of the past. It was released in November 1973 and continued to run in this hall for 4 years and 5 months; something which is beyond comprehension at present times.
In these four and half years, Raj Kapoor was ready with his next venture – Satyam Shivam Sundaram. While Bobby was still running in its fifth year, the posters of a scantily clad Zeenat Aman from the movie created quite a flutter when they were pinned on the display panel at Mayfair. This movie got released on 22nd March 1978 and went on to run for one and a half years. Thus, in a matter of eight years, only three movies had been shown at Mayfair and all of them were Hindi films. , which broke the 33 years old tradition of the cinema hall for goods.
Thereafter, Mayfair showed a mixed bag of some English and mainly Hindi movies at a time when film screening was undergoing transformation from singleton halls to multiscreen complexes. During the 1990s several picture halls had closed down in Lucknow and one day in 1996, out of the blue, doors of Mayfair did not open in the morning and a notice was on display that Mayfair was closed for ever. The 57 years old cinema hall which started with silent movies went silent without even a whimper. The reason for the closure of Mayfair would be best known to Mr Thadani’s son, but at least he could have informed his next door neighbour and family friend, Ram Advani, what made him take this unilateral decision. Perhaps the Thadanis had some other plans, but those never got materialized because as of now the façade of the building stands, but there is nothing else behind it – no hall, no roof and no movies. A redeeming landmark of the city of Lucknow has mingled with the dust.