Theatre of conflict | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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Theatre of conflict

Located on one of the city’s busiest roads, Bharatmata hides behind a poster of the latest Marathi hit, Natrang. Behind the 68-year-old theatre’s façade of red curtains, lies a world delightfully out of sync with the age of multiplexes: its blue walls contrast with yellow Corinthian pillars; wall-mounted fans whir; portraits of Dadasaheb Phalke and S.G Bhopatkar, the theatre owner’s grandfather, flank the screen.

mumbai Updated: Jan 17, 2010 01:25 IST
Sweta Ramanujan

Located on one of the city’s busiest roads, Bharatmata hides behind a poster of the latest Marathi hit, Natrang.

Behind the 68-year-old theatre’s façade of red curtains, lies a world delightfully out of sync with the age of multiplexes: its blue walls contrast with yellow Corinthian pillars; wall-mounted fans whir; portraits of Dadasaheb Phalke and S.G Bhopatkar, the theatre owner’s grandfather, flank the screen.

“This is the heart of the Marathi manoos,” said 44-year-old Siddhamal Chavan, a civic contractor from Worli who had come to watch a show of Natrang. “Lalbaug and Parel may have changed, but the core is intact and should remain that way.”

For all these years, this sentiment protected Bharatmata from bulldozers. But last week, a city court dismissed a petition filed by the theatre’s owner, Kapil Bhopatkar, against an eviction notice sent by National Textile Corporation, which owns the land on which the theatre stands. The state-owned firm wants to redevelop the plot.

The state government has assured patrons that the theatre will stay.

But will it? The theatre’s predicament is not unique; it is merely a powerful example of a wider clash between raw market forces and models of gentrification that are inclusive and culturally sensitive.

Bharatmata is the only city theatre that exclusively screens Marathi films. Moreover, ever since it was established in 1941, it has been the sole source of entertainment for the working-class population in this former mill belt.

Today, it is increasingly an oddity in an area that has rapidly transmuted into a ritzy quarter in which chawls have made way for sprawling apartment complexes, sold for anything between Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 a square foot. The plush ITC Grand Central looms across it, and less than two kilometres away, the multiplex at a popular mill-turned-mall sells tickets and popcorn that are four and ten times what it charges.

“It is not just a sentimental Marathi issue,” said Neera Adarkar, an architect who has been working with labourers to ensure that they get rehabilitated on mill land. “It is also important to the working class. It is the only theatre where rates are affordable. Despite not having jobs, some people can still access this kind of entertainment.”

She believes this is the time to push for heritage status for the theatre.

Economist Abhay Pethe feels that the government should think of a cross-subsidy model. “As a society, we have to do a cost-benefit analysis not just in economic terms but also in socio-cultural terms,” he said. “We must retain some iconic structures. We have to decide what is worth saving, otherwise we will end up selling everything.”