Scene stealers: Tour the iconic cinemas of a hidden genius, WM Namjoshi
One man designed a set of 33 single-screen cinemas across India between the 1930s and 1970s, including Golcha in Delhi, and Liberty and Maratha Mandir in Mumbai. Then he quietly dropped off the map. Take a journey with cinematographer-turned-photographer Hemant Chaturvedi as he unravels the tale of Namjoshi, who left a largely unsigned legacy in these opulent worlds of wooden chandeliers, glass sculptures, frozen fountains and Art Deco motifs.
One August afternoon in Delhi, I stopped at the famous Golcha Cinema in Daryaganj. It was 2019, and I had spent the better part of the year travelling. Earlier that year, in January, an unexpected event and a flash of inspiration had drawn me towards our rapidly eroding single-screen cinema heritage, giving rise to the idea of photographing a few old cinemas. These stately old structures were vanishing from the collective consciousness of our country, and while I could not save them from their plight, at least I could photograph a few for posterity.
The manager at Golcha refused to divulge the name of the owner of the cinema, and declined my request to photograph it. But he allowed me into the grand auditorium. It must have been close to 30 years since I had last entered that magnificent Art Deco cinema. I had forgotten about the plush deep-pile carpet, the extraordinary woodwork and glass-mirror sculptures, the beautiful Art Deco motifs on the walls, the sheer scale and size of that massive 1954 cinema.
Conversations with cinema owners in Delhi revealed the name of the owner, Vikram Golcha from Jaipur. I managed to find him on Facebook, noticed two common friends, and requested them to write to Golcha and introduce me. He responded, and said he was visiting Delhi in a couple of days and expressed a desire to meet me before deciding whether to allow me to photograph his cinema. The meeting was successful and I was granted access.
During my conversation with him, I heard the name of WM Namjoshi, who had designed the interiors of Golcha Cinema, and heard of his long association with the Golcha family, which resulted in two more landmark Art Deco-inspired cinemas, Maratha Mandir in Mumbai, and Raj Mandir in Jaipur.
A few days later, I proceeded to Chandigarh and found myself inside Kiran Cinema, built in the mid-1950s, and in a terribly run down and sadly dilapidated state. The auditorium was in a shambles, and poorly lit. There was one tubelight in the balcony, and one above the door to the dress circle. The lofty ceiling had staggered moulding similar to Golcha’s, for concealed bulbs and the soft illumination that would create a dreamy atmosphere for the patrons. All of which had fused or short-circuited.
The lobbies and stairs were still intact, and here a sense of déjà vu prevailed, looking at what now seemed familiar woodwork and glass-mirror sculptures. I later asked the owner if Namjoshi had anything to do with Kiran. He said no, it was built by someone from Le Corbusier’s team.
A week later, I was standing before Phul Cinema in Patiala. Another social media investigation had led me to the owner’s son, Raghav Gupta, who gave me permission to photograph it.
Phul, commissioned by the Maharaja of Patiala and built by Raghav’s grandfather, Shyam Lal Gupta, opened in 1947. Typically, by 2017, like so many old cinemas in India, it had fallen to ruin. It was being run by a crooked manager, accounts were being fudged, there were sleazy films and sleazier activities, and zero maintenance. Raghav returned to Patiala after a few years abroad, went to visit his family-owned theatre, and was appalled. He decided to restore Phul, and what a beauty it is now.
In a conversation with Raghav’s father, Rajiv Gupta, I was told that the interiors of Phul were designed by Namjoshi.
My attempts at researching WM Namjoshi drew a blank. His presence is negligible on the internet, in conscious memory, and in oral history. A book, Bollywood Showplaces (David Vinnels and Brent Skelly; 2002), makes a fleeting mention of him, as does the (late) Nazir Hoosein, owner of Mumbai’s Liberty Cinema (also designed by Namjoshi), in an interview with the Art Deco Mumbai Trust in 2019. The curiosity was killing me.
On a trip to Jaipur, Vikram Golcha graciously agreed to help. He spoke to his uncle, Kushal Surana, owner of Raj Mandir, and permission was granted to photograph it.
Surana is about 90, but despite his age and the ongoing pandemic, he came to Raj Mandir to meet me and chat about the work I have been doing. Namjoshi’s name came up. Surana’s uncle, Mehtab Chand Golcha, who also built Golcha and Maratha Mandir, had decided to pull out all stops for Raj Mandir. The services of the now-much-older Namjoshi were employed again.
Legend has it that Mehtab Chand could no longer handle the cranky Namjoshi and his levels of perfectionism. Apparently he would build entire sections of a theatre and, if unhappy with what he saw, demolish them and start over. Everything had to be perfect. Mehtab Chand gave up and handed over charge of the construction to his nephew Kushal Surana, then in his 40s. Surana managed to control the excesses of Namjoshi with a mix of patience and good humour, and the cinema finally opened in 1976. It is in immaculate condition 47 years later, and still running successfully. As Surana told me, with great amusement, the draw of the theatre is often greater than the draw of the movie being screened.
By now, I had photographed Golcha, Phul and Raj Mandir, along with a suspiciously resonant Kiran. Each an absolute masterpiece of design, from 1954, 1947, and 1976. The next target in my sights was Liberty, Mumbai, another Namjoshi interior design, from 1949.
Most of Mumbai’s single-screen cinemas had refused me permission to photograph them. This had forced me to travel further afield. By December 2020, I had visited Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Punjab, and Kashmir, and photographed around 650 cinemas.
A chance introduction to Saleem Ahmadullah of Globe Theatres (the company that owns Regal and Capitol) in December 2020 suddenly changed everything. He was extremely helpful, and a few phone calls later, I had permission to photograph Regal, Capitol, Liberty, New Empire and Edward, theatres that had frustrated me for two years!
A lot has been written about Liberty, and it will never be enough. It has a strikingly gorgeous interior, as does its smaller preview theatre, Academia. The manager, Errol Lobo, requested me to be brisk while photographing the auditorium. I innocently asked why, and was informed of the 40,000 incandescent bulbs that light up to make the auditorium the visual delight that it is. An expensive proposition for a cinema that hasn’t run for over a year!
The staircase, the lobbies, the woodwork, the relief work on the ceilings, all lovingly lit by concealed bulbs, along with the plush red carpeting, create a vision of soft opulence. In the auditorium, motifs reminiscent of Phul and Golcha include frozen fountains and layered relief work.
While Phul, Liberty, Golcha and Raj Mandir are curiously similar, they are also distinctly different. I found myself contemplating the mysteries of WM Namjoshi’s inspirations, the spare elegance of his designs, the lofty and awe-inspiring interiors of each of these theatres. In an era when information and knowledge were either first-hand, or inherited.
Raj Mandir in particular is an opulent hyperbole. It looks like the swan song of an artist at the peak of his creative prowess. And yet, after hours spent searching on Google and frantic queries to all my architect friends, I still had no information about the man himself. The enigmatic WM Namjoshi.
In my spare time during the pandemic, I did some further research for future single-screen-cinema-related travels. And found the incredible Bhagwat Chitra Mandir, built in 1935 in Solapur. I spoke to the owner, Bharat Bhagwat, who told me about the Bhagwat theatre complex, and how it was the first multiplex concept in Asia. After Chitra Mandir, Chhaya Mandir and Kala Mandir were opened in 1938 and 1942 respectively, built one above the other. In 1964, they added Uma Mandir, a theatre adjacent to the other three, and quite large. Which meant there were four single screen cinemas on a single acre of land, complete with shops and restaurants.
Chhaya, Kala and Uma had been leased to a cinema-chain operator a few years earlier. It is standard practice for such chains to renovate old cinemas to offer a multiplex-type experience, which often leads to the mutilation of their designs. Bhagwat made it clear that nothing could be broken, demolished or altered. Barring the seats, which were replaced, the only renovation allowed was through application. While these applications looked grotesque at best, at least the original space could be restored when needed.
While in Chhaya and Kala Mandir in March 2022, I noticed the earliest and most subtle versions of Art Deco motifs. The frozen fountains on the walls were simpler and sparer, yet reminiscent of those in Phul, Liberty and Golcha. Chhaya Mandir even had a staggered ceiling that reminded me a little of Raj Mandir. Uma Mandir, from 1964, was a gigantic, retro-futuristic, space capsule of an auditorium, ready for an intergalactic journey. The sheer playfulness of the design was overwhelming. The lobbies had chandeliers with bevelled glass and mirror work similar to the ones in Namjoshi cinemas I had already photographed.
I accidentally discovered a door at the end of the upper lobby. I entered it and walked into an unrenovated section of Uma Mandir, in all the glory of its original textures and colours. Beautiful teakwood-and-glass chandeliers, vintage yellow mosaic floors and walls, teakwood bannisters, and pillars of solid granite and marble. This little corner transported me back to the era when the entire theatre, in fact all three theatres, must have been elegant and understated beauties, reflective of an architecture movement that had found its voice in India.
Happy with my productive morning, I walked over to the office of the manager to say thank you. And then, an epiphany! Outside the door of his cabin was an old, hand-painted signboard from 1974, which announced that all three theatres had been designed by WM Namjoshi, under the aegis of his company, Nambros.
To my further excitement, the signboard listed 22 other cinemas Namjoshi had worked on. I realised I had photographed nine of them. Further research revealed that 10 had been demolished. Of the ones standing, one was in Kolkata (Minerva), and two had refused my requests (Maratha Mandir and Naaz in Mumbai). I’m still trying to get those permissions.
I now had this list, but I was still clueless about the origins and story of the man. I have still not understood how and why he lapsed into such obscurity considering that, between 1947 and 1957 he created Phul, Liberty, Golcha, Maratha Mandir, New Empire, Kiran, Naaz and two Minervas, many of which are classics of Art Deco design in India. Not to mention Raj Mandir.
Sometime in September 2022, Atul Kumar of the Art Deco Mumbai Trust urged me to suggest an idea for a presentation for their members. I decided to take the audience on a journey beyond Mumbai, to Art Deco cinema halls across 15 states. After all, it was a significant design movement, and with the concept of aspirational architecture, Art Deco had filtered into the smaller towns across India. In a second section, I decided to unravel before them the mystery of WM Namjoshi.
While preparing this presentation, I decided to renew my efforts to track down more details about the elusive WM Namjoshi. During the inertia of the first Covid lockdown, I had found almost 75 Namjoshis on Google and Just Dial. I had called most of them, inquiring whether they were related in any way to WM Namjoshi. None of them was.
In November 2020, while driving back from Delhi to Mumbai, I located a design firm in Indore called AVN Associates. I tried calling the listed numbers. All four were unreachable or went unanswered. I visited the address mentioned, and found a nice old bungalow with a lock on the gate. Neighbours said the family had left before the pandemic and not returned. No one knew much about the history of the family, at least not the history I was interested in.
In November 2022, I tried the AVN Associates numbers again and when I called the one listed against the name Anand Vishnu Namjoshi, a cheerful and elderly voice answered the phone. I introduced myself and asked him if he was related in any way to WM Namjoshi.
“Yes,” he said. “WM Namjoshi was my late uncle.”
Vishnu Moreshwar Namjoshi and Waman Moreshwar Namjoshi were brothers. They were born in Ratnagiri, Vishnu in 1903 and Waman in 1907, to a school teacher and a homemaker. In their early teens, they discovered that Waman was to be given up for adoption to a family in a nearby town. Unable to bear the prospect of this separation, they ran away from home and came to Mumbai. They worked in restaurants and canteens, and as electricians, carpentry assistants, carpenters and furniture designers. They studied photography, took art lessons. They lived at Tara Baugh in Girgaum and became two of the more well-off residents, because of their myriad talents. In 1938, they designed the interiors for Chhaya Mandir in Solapur, and in 1939, they established Nambros. In 1942 they designed Kala Mandir in Solapur.
Around this time, because of a chronic ailment, Vishnu decided to leave the humid climate of Mumbai and settle in Indore, where he established a pioneering furniture, interior design and architecture firm, which Anand continues to run successfully. Waman remained in Mumbai and specialised in cinema hall design.
Waman Namjoshi worked as a carpenter and furniture designer with the Army & Navy Stores, later with a company called Mackenzies, and then with E Wimbridge & Co. Here, his woodwork skills flourished. I imagine these design companies would have imported catalogues and magazines about globally trending ideas, and with the need to create modern furniture and interiors of the era for their Indian clients, Namjoshi’s mind must have expanded quite rapidly.
I was told by Namjoshi’s granddaughter, Shilpa Sathe (also an architect), that the entire woodwork of his cinema halls was designed and executed by him.
He worked as furniture designer and associate set designer on the 1944 movie Parbat Pe Apna Dera, directed by V Shantaram and produced by Rajkamal Kalamandir. He would play a similar role on two more Shantaram-Rajkamal films, Parchhain (1952) and Teen Batti Char Raasta (1953). Namjoshi created beautiful Art Deco sets and furniture for the interior scenes of these last two films.
This association with Shantaram might have led to his introduction to Habib Hoosein, who built Liberty. The unexpected demise of the original architect of Liberty, MA Ridley Abbot, led to the appointment of an Indian architect, JB Fernandes. Namjoshi was brought in as the interior designer. Hoosein and Shantaram also partnered in building Naaz Cinema on Lamington Road, and Namjoshi was responsible for the interiors. He was also hired to design the new offices, recording studio, dubbing studio and preview theatre of Rajkamal Kalamandir, which are still in immaculate condition.
Sathe remembers being constantly chided for playing in her grandfather’s studio. Those early days also introduced her to the now-forgotten styles of glass tracing and other analogue techniques of architecture and design. She and her mother remember the constant stream of clients at their erstwhile bungalow in Govandi. Illustrious names such as Golcha, Surana, Shantaram, Hoosein, Mody. Sathe even recalls Academia in Liberty as the venue of her father’s birthday party when she was six.
Corroborating Kushal Surana’s anecdotes, Sathe told me her grandfather was meticulous, a perfectionist. She recalled his fascination with acoustics. Many of his design elements were created as a balance between his signature styling and his quest for perfect cinema sound. The staggered ceiling designs, and layered wall relief work, were all a way of reducing echo and reverberation, while creating some special lighting techniques.
Considering that Regal, Metro and Eros were built when he was just starting out (he must have been 27 when Regal was inaugurated), and are landmarks of the early Art Deco movement in India, Namjoshi took very little inspiration from them. He evolved his own style and his own exclusive interpretation of Art Deco. Maybe we should be calling it Streamline Moderne, which culminated in the grand Raj Mandir, which my friend and Art Deco historian Eléonore Muhidine calls “Post-Modern Namjoshi Deco”!
Anand Namjoshi sent me the final list of cinemas designed by WM Namjoshi. Of the 33 on the list, I realised I had photographed 19; 14 have been demolished (two of which I had already photographed). There are only three remaining that I still need to visit with my cameras, Naaz and Maratha Mandir in Mumbai, and Minerva in Kolkata.
Considering that I have photographed his first, Chhaya Mandir (1938, Solapur), and his last, Raj Mandir (1976, Jaipur), and 17 more in between, I can see some distinct motifs he carried through his career. His fascination with glass sculptures, bevelled glass, wooden chandeliers, mosaic, granite and marble walls, floors and pillars, stone and wooden staircases with concealed lighting, the staggered ceilings and layered side walls, and the frozen fountains. He had a particular affection for five-pointed backlit stars. He loved those stars and used them almost like a subtle signature in many of his cinemas. You will even find them on the facade of Raj Mandir.
Sadly, when their old bungalow in Govandi was being demolished, a wall collapsed on Namjoshi’s erstwhile studio and all his work, on paper and glass, all his plans, models and miniatures, negatives and photographs, pretty much his entire life as a designer and architect, was lost forever.
Waman Moreshwar Namjoshi died in 1996, aged 89.
Little did I know, when I strolled into Golcha Cinema in August 2019, that I would have the privilege of unearthing such a legacy. And finding out a little about him, at least enough to be able to write this piece and share his life with you. For someone like me, who has now photographed nearly 1,000 theatres across 15 states, the impact some of his creations have had on me is staggering. Thank you, WM.
(Hemant Chaturvedi is a photographer and former cinematographer whose work has included the films Company, Maqbool and 15 Park Avenue)