On crowded Shivaji Road, one of the busy bylanes of Shivajinagar, not far from the erstwhile British quarter known as Cantonment, one more piece of Bangalore’s heritage is being relegated to a memory. Work has begun to convert Elgin Talkies, the oldest cinema in the city, into a marriage hall. But there have been no demonstrations or outraged letters to the editor or PILs against this transformation — perhaps because the cinema is long past its glory days.
Elgin Talkies, built in 1896, was originally a godown, says present owner C N Revanna. Revanna’s father, C R Nagappa, had leased it out to his friend Veerabhadra Mudaliar, who converted the building first into an entertainment hall where plays were staged, and later into a cinema. It was named after the viceroy Lord Elgin. As early as 1907, the hall started screening silent movies. Elgin earned the appendage of “Talkies” in 1930 when it started showing films with dialogues, starting with Alam Ara, the first Indian “talkie film.” The theatre was run by the Mudaliar family for four generations. In keeping with the tradition of its founding times, Elgin Talkies had separate entrances and seating sections for women. The actor Ashok Kumar used to be a frequent visitor at one time, being a friend of the third-generation Srinivasa Mudaliar.
But with other cinema halls gaining popularity, and because of Elgin’s location in the less-than-upmarket neighbourhood of Shivajinagar, the hall’s mainstay had of late been labourers from other states. Unable to afford new releases, Elgin had by then begun screening second- and third-run films, which worked well for the tired labourers who would come to the hall after a hard day’s work for respite, or to catch forty winks. Even so, audiences in the 400-seater theatre had dwindled to 50-60. In the meanwhile, Elgin Talkies became embroiled in a legal tussle between the Mudaliars and Revanna.
Revanna says that if the hall had been earning enough to enable the owners to pay more rent, he might have reconsidered his decision to lease it out to new tenants. But at the end of the day, it was a business decision. He does add that he will not allow the structure to be demolished entirely, but of course a wedding hall that was once a cinema is a far cry from the city’s oldest cinema hall. A S Krishnamurthy, the fourth-generation Mudaliar who was running Elgin, also says they were forced to close it down because collections had dwindled drastically.
Fortunately, there is one other record of Elgin Talkies that remains, courtesy a unique initiative called “Neighbourhood Diaries”, by conservation architect Krupa Rajangam, filmmaker Clemence Barret and artist-activist Archana Prasad. “Neighbourhood Diaries” seeks to capture the essence of neighbourhoods in the city through various short films, before they vanish. Lost Sequel, a film on the last week of Elgin Talkies before it closed on December 29, is part of the third series of the diaries. It happened by sheer chance, when Krishnamurthy asked Rajangam if she knew of a suitable home for the theatre’s 80-year-old manual projector. Rajangam managed to convince Krishnamurthy to let them film Elgin’s last days, which has resulted in a poignant 10-minute documentary that skilfully conveys a sense of loss, nostalgia and the uncertain future that staff members like the projectionist and cleaner, who worked in Elgin Talkies all their lives, now face. Krishnamurthy, says Rajangam, was initially sceptical about the idea, but was very happy with the final result. The film has, thus, become the first in the “Neighbourhood Diaries” series on Blackpally, the old name for Shivajinagar.
Documenting is the last step in conservation, and is important because it ensures hat at least some record of the lost heritage exists. Having made the film, however, Rajangam poses some questions to which there are no easy answers: such as what could have been done to preserve Elgin Talkies, considering that it is a private property. One possible solution, she feels, could have been to ask the government recognise it as a heritage structure and support it when the owners could not.
Meanwhile, to get a sense of what Elgin Talkies once stood for, there is Lot Sequel.
The film will be available for viewing at www.neighbourhooddiaries.in