Two sets of people mourned the death of Nazir Hoosein, who died on May 12 at the age of 78 in Mumbai. One was the Indian motorsport community, which remembered how Hoosein, a former racer, founded the Himalayan Car Rally in 1980 and was a member and administrator of several international industry bodies, including the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile. “Hoosein was responsible for putting Indian motorsport on the world stage even before India’s auto industry had opened up to foreign players,” Autocar India noted in its tribute. “It is safe to say that in his day, no Indian has ever enjoyed the same stature in the highest echelons of motorsport.”

The other group that fondly remembered Hoosein comprised cinephiles. Hoosein owned the iconic Liberty Cinema in Marine Lines in South Mumbai (he also lived above it). The Art Deco cinema was inaugurated two years after India became free of British rule, and it is possibly one of the city’s most beautiful movie theatres alongside Regal in Colaba.

The foundation laying ceremony of Liberty Cinema in 1947. Nazir Hoosein is the one with the sunglasses. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.
The foundation laying ceremony of Liberty Cinema in 1947. Nazir Hoosein is the one with the sunglasses. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.

The cavernous single-screen cinema boasts of Burma teak surfaces, wood panelling, coved ceilings and carved fountains on either side of the screen, which were meant to be “a historic symbol of eternal life”, Navin Ramani wrote in Bombay Art Deco Architecture (Roli Books, 2008).

“Liberty also marked the culmination of the Age of Art Deco in Bombay,” the Bombaywalla blog founded by Simin Patel notes. “If Regal cinema, which opened in 1933, announced Art Deco’s gala entry into the city, Liberty in 1949, marked its grand finale.”

Liberty Cinema. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.
Liberty Cinema. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.

Liberty was built by Nazir Hoosein’s father, Habib Hoosein. The architect was Ridley Abbott. “In the age of Art Deco, Bombay’s aesthete chose a global style to reflect their national aspirations, rejecting the colonial architectural traditions of Neo-Gothic and Indo-Saracenic as well as the aesthetics of Gandhian nationalism in Bombay,” the Bombaywalla blog says.

Nazir Hoosein (in the bowtie) and his father, Habib (to his left), at the inauguration of Liberty Cinema on March 21, 1949. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.
Nazir Hoosein (in the bowtie) and his father, Habib (to his left), at the inauguration of Liberty Cinema on March 21, 1949. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.

The first movie to be shown at Liberty Cinema was Mehboob Khan’s Andaz on March 21, 1949. Over the years, several premieres took place at the stately Liberty. In the 2000s, dwindling footfalls combined with increasing difficulties in protecting the fittings and furniture from unruly moviegoers led to Hoosein slashing the number of films exhibited there.

The premiere of Andaz in 1949. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.
The premiere of Andaz in 1949. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.

Government regulation played its part in preserving Liberty as a movie theatre as well as preventing its redevelopment as a culture hub, as Hoosein had wished. Clause 125 of the Maharashtra Cinema (Regulation) Rules, 1966, states that “No cinema premises shall be used for any purpose other than the exhibition of cinematograph films (musical and dance performances, display of electronic and video transmitted images and conference facilities) except with the previous permission in writing of the licensing authority”.

Liberty Cinema. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.
Liberty Cinema. Photo courtesy Nazir Hoosein and Karl Bhote.

In 2018, the chain Carnival Cinemas took over the running of Liberty. Several films and commercials continue to be shot here – Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (2018) was among the recent ones. Whenever any filmmaker wants to depict old-world charm in a fast-mutating metropolis, there is no better place, and there won’t be, like Liberty Cinema.

Information courtesy Bombaywalla Historical Works/Simin Patel.