We looked at a lot of old cinemas for the final scene of Photograph [the tale of the romance between a poor street photographer and a shy, rich stranger]. I wanted the audience to witness the conversation between the two protagonists in a cinema lobby from a distance and see both of them in the frame in every shot. But I also wanted a location that had a magical power and nostalgia to it.
It was important to us to find a working cinema because Mumbai is in a stage of transition right now, with old buildings being knocked down. We found a lot of cinemas were closed up, either scheduled for demolition or about to be refurbished as multiplexes. None of them had a sense of living character.
The New Roshan Talkies is in an old part of south Mumbai that has some of the earliest known theatres in the city. It opened in 1930 and still has so much character in just the walls and lobby. I really fell in love with the walls, with their peeling wallpaper and old posters. We didn’t have to embellish them.
It’s such a typical Mumbai cinema of the 80s and 90s, when I was growing up. When the crew and I walked in there, we were surprised that a cinema like this still exists. It’s just one screen. No movie it’s playing is less than 25 years old. But it has regular patrons.
The movies aren’t necessarily good ones, just any movies they can get their hands on. It still only projects film. All of these prints have been abandoned there and they just keep playing the same films. They probably have 30 to 40 on rotation. The 1980s, in all the film industries in the world, was a bad time for cinema and it was no different in Bollywood.
The 60s and 70s in Bollywood were good, but in the 80s there were a lot of Bollywood films that came out which were all essentially the same story: rich girl, poor guy; twins separated at birth; various riffs on Shakespeare. Those are the kind of films that still play there. But people love them.
In order to go to the cinema, middle-class people get in a car and get stuck in a traffic jam. Grant Road is a busy area and the slums are close at hand. The New Roshan Talkies caters to its neighbourhood, which is rare. They charge only 20 rupees and it has a pretty mixed clientele. Most people who go and watch movies there are day labourers, but you also get families from out in the villages who come in for a Sunday trip to the movies. Or sometimes drug addicts who want to sit under a fan.
If you see how the city is changing around it, it looks like a place stuck in time. And by accident. In places like Mumbai, London and New York, where property is so expensive, cinemas like this often only exist because of a charitable foundation or because it’s in the middle of a property dispute. My guess is that the New Roshan Talkies is in a property dispute.
But it’s beautiful that this cinema can exist in Mumbai at this time. Now you can fly to any part of the world and not feel like you’re anywhere different, but you used to be able to land in Mumbai and feel like there were unique places.
If I took it over, I wouldn’t change a thing apart from the movies they play. One of these days when one of my movies makes a lot of money, it’s definitely on my list of things to do.
Ritesh Batra was talking to Isabel Stevens.