The demolition work began on a Saturday, 27th April, 2013 as reported in The Telegraph; the place I am writing about doesn’t exist anymore. Like magic it has vanished from the face of the earth. Or has it been destroyed to meet the whims and fancies of our Kolkata government? The date today is 7th May, 2014. It’s a shame that it took me more than a year to write about the unethical demolition of Chaplin Cinema.
It was only when my Film Studies Professor asked me to click pictures of Chaplin Cinema under-demolition earlier this year, when I actually paid any attention to what was happening to this historical building. Funny how the human nature works, how it always needs a reckoning! Only very little is known about Chaplin Cinema, which was once one of the biggest delights, Kolkata had to offer its visitors and citizens for decades. With the help of the little history I managed to salvage and with my own personal/intimate memories of the place, I have tried to reconstruct what Chaplin was, before it met its uneventful end.
In the past I have often walked down Madan Street, a delightful slice of Central Kolkata, quite unaware of the legacy it represented only a few streets away. Kolkata has a strange way of dealing with its history. The people who rule and have ruled (politically) are quite satisfied with naming the streets in this decaying city after historical personalities. Apparently that is where the responsibility to our heritage ends! As years pass by these names are forgotten and no attempt is made to educate and reacquaint the newer generations with the legacy left behind by these figures.
Chaplin had its humble beginning in 1907. It once proudly stood on 5/1 Chowringhee Place then known as Hogg Street, opposite the towering red-bricked Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC). (It’s positioning now seems so ironical!) It was founded by Jamshedji Framji Madan who apart from being an entrepreneur, producer and distributor of films and plays, was also the first in India to start film exhibition at his Bioscope tent on the open fields of Maidan. Chaplin was perhaps his biggest contribution to Kolkata and Indian cinema.
In those days it was known as Elphinstone Picture Palace. Elphinstone marked the beginning of Madan’s empire and was the 1st of his chain of theaters in British India and also the 1st permanent theater in this city and country. Elphinstone was later renamed Minerva, it was during this time that the theater emerged as the hub for Hollywood films for a fast emerging new audience. Interestingly a local newspaper notes “it became notorious as a rodent-infested hall which often forced people to put their feet up”. It was much later renovated and renamed to become the Chaplin Cinema we all were familiar with once. Surprisingly our glorious KMC has no records of this change and the date and the reason behind this revamp, remains a mystery, lost forever.
It is known that the previous Left Front government had planned to build a prestigious seven-storied building in 2008. However the backing out of the project’s main private firm had prevented them from realizing their dream. One might wonder why the present KMC authorities wiped out Chaplin Cinema, the oldest theater in the country with an illustrious run for over a century. The reason they will give you is, to ease the pressure in the Corporation headquarters. One must also note that to give this project a green signal and to ensure that the private firm agreed to invest in the 12-cottah area, the authorities had to play a very persuasive role in closing down three shops and leave a dozen workers unemployed.
Chaplin holds a very special place in my childhood. As a kid I would walk past Chaplin every day on my way to school. It is at Chaplin Cinema, when I was no less than 4 that I got acquainted with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and also the animation medium, while watching a small Disney short. I watched my 1st Hollywood epic (also my 1st feature film), The Lion King here in 1994; a film which leaves me enthralled even today and marked the beginning of my love affair with cinema.Over the years I watched many films like Roza, Mowgli, Out of Africa, Jab Pyaar Kisi Se Hota He and many other good films at Chaplin. Chaplin was also witness to my transition in taste, from commercial cinema to art films, when I watched Ek Je Aachhe Kanya alone, afraid that my parents would spot me.
little mundane thing that I did in the New Market area was closely tied with Chaplin Cinema. There were evenings when my mom would treat me to the chilled sugarcane juice from Bablu Mia’s juice shop and days when I slurped at a glass of Faluda standing in front of the iconic building that was Chaplin cinema. Today when I visit UP-Bihar restaurant for my regular dose of Biryani, something is amiss. The space which made me fall in love with cinema is not there anymore!
It is sad that the oldest cinema theatre in Kolkata and the country met the same fate like many other theaters before it. The Kolkata edition of TOI on Mar 31, 2013 wrote: “If the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has its way, a citizen’s service centre may soon come up on the land where the Chaplin cinema now stands” as if prophesying this very day. It looks like KMC had its way, and another chapter in Kolkata’s history is lost, perhaps forever!