Novelty, Excelsior, New Excelsior and now Mukta A2 New Excelsior: the iconic single-screen cinema near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai has died and been reborn several times over.

Built in 1887 to compete with Gaiety in the neighourhood (later called Capitol), rebuilt as Excelsior in 1909, and renamed New Excelsior in 1975, the 1,100-seater has been renovated and reopened by the Mukta A2 Cinemas chain. The company, owned by filmmaker Subhash Ghai, owns and manages 50 screens in 15 cities across India. Their latest acquisition has fewer seats (596) but retains its ambition of delivering the latest Friday releases to Mumbai residents who prefer the simple and affordable charms of the single screen to the seductive but expensive multiplex.

Single screen cinemas across India are shutting down in the face of competition from multiplexes, but they can be rescued with a flavourful mix of old and new styles, as the new New Excelsior proves. On February 9, the cinema was relaunched with swanky interiors, refurbished seats, an improved sound system and a cafeteria run by the Book My Show company. Ghai’s frequent collaborators, including Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff and Pyarelal Sharma, as well as Gulshan Grover, Satish Kaushik and Abbas-Mustan, posed for cameras at the launch.

“I used to come here to watch movies and then I premiered some of my own films like Karma and Khalnayak,” Ghai said. “I have lots of fond memories of this theatre and I want to keep its charm intact.”

Gulshan Grover, Anil Kapoor, Subhash Ghai, Pyarelal Sharma and Jackie Shroff as the reopening. Picture by Scroll staff.
Gulshan Grover, Anil Kapoor, Subhash Ghai, Pyarelal Sharma and Jackie Shroff as the reopening. Picture by Scroll staff.

Ghai might not be making as many movies as he used to, but he sure knows a thing or two about leveraging his brand equity. As founder of the Mukta Arts company, Ghai has been astute about branching out from production into allied activities, such as the Whistling Woods International film school in Mumbai and the Mukta A2 Cinemas chain.

New Excelsior’s convenient location – it is a stone’s throw from CST and part of the bustling south Mumbai business district – makes its rebirth especially attractive for distributors of English and Hindi films. The revamped theatre is a single screen with the feel of a multiplex. The walls are covered with inscriptions that seem to have been prompted by ancient Egyptian art – The Great Gatsby meets The Mummy. The cinema has an 84-foot screen, which Ghai claims is the biggest in the country. New Excelsior will have five shows a day, starting with the February 10 release Jolly LLB 2.

Rahul Puri, Ghai’s son-in-law and the managing director of Mukta A2 Cinemas, said that all efforts were made to retain memories of the original theatre. “New Excelsior Cinema is a heritage property with a very old-fashioned single screen to which we have added modern comforts in terms of seating and even a cafe,” Puri said. “We wanted to keep the soul of the theatre, so a lot of the interiors remain the same as before.”

The relaunched New Excelsior. Picture by Scroll staff.
The relaunched New Excelsior. Picture by Scroll staff.

New Excelsior’s legacy is marked by decline and revival. The colonial-era cinema was one among several structures to be built in Mumbai’s Fort neighbourhood in the 1860s. Built in 1887, its original name was Novelty, and in keeping with the times, it was a venue for films and plays. In 1909, Novelty was razed and replaced by the Excelsior Theatre.

In 1975, yet another change in nomenclature and ownership took place: the theatre was now called New Excelsior, and its operations were handed over by its original Parsi owners to a new set of partners associated with the Hindi film trade.

“We re-opened the theatre on March 5, 1975, with the film Amar Prem,” said RV Vidhani, one of New Excelsior owners and a director of the lobby group Cinema Owners & Exhibitors Association Of India. “Rajesh Khanna was a superstar at the time. We are now reopening the theatre with his son-in-law Akshay Kumar’s film Jolly LLB 2.”

During its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s, New Excelsior, along with its neighbours New Empire and Metro in Dhobitalao, was a destination for fans of Hollywood. Those were the days when the South Mumbai cinemas were attached to distributors – Metro showed MGM titles; New Empire was linked to Warner Bros; New Excelsior screened titles from the British studio Rank Organisation.

Vintage photographs of Bombay. Picture by Scroll staff.
Vintage photographs of Bombay. Picture by Scroll staff.

Veteran film critic Rashid Irani has fond memories of visiting New Excelsior as a child and then an adult. “It was a three-storeyed structure with a second balcony on the top floor, and I remember bounding up the wooden stairs to watch films,” Irani said.

New Excelsior was also the venue for one of the best ever festivals of French cinema held in Mumbai in 1967, according to Irani. “Here, such films as Au Hasard Balthasar, Soft Skin, Pierrot Le Fou and The War is Over were shown,” he said. “I also remember they had a beautiful garden cafe downstairs, where they served rolls, chicken broth, and the first sizzlers in Mumbai, supplied by the Paradise Café in Colaba.”

New Excelsior’s decline began in the 1980s. As cheaply produced video cassettes flooded the market, several single screen cinemas in Mumbai started losing business and were unable to screen the latest films. Some of them, such as the neighbouring New Empire, screened soft-core English and Hindi films to stay afloat. The advent of multiplexes in the late 1990s sent single screen cinemas into further decrepitude.

The revival of New Excelsior proves that with a new look and sensible ticket pricing, single screen cinemas can continue to resist the march of the multiplex.

Vidhani retains the cinema’s ownership, and he was thrilled with its revival. “I am happy to co-manage the theatre with Mukta A2 Cinemas,” Vidhani told Scroll.in. “It’s a good sign. We have redesigned the theatre to make sure that the single screen theatre moves with the modern sensibilities of the multiplex style of more comfort and amenities.”

The new cafeteria. Picture by Scroll staff.
The new cafeteria. Picture by Scroll staff.