There is a cockroach in the big blocky building by the tracks outside Bandra station that houses seven movie theaters. I saw it—or I’m pretty sure I did—late last year. It brought me up short, but not because I was surprised to see it. Every good movie hall has its monsters; that’s what the shadows are for. I was surprised it had taken so long—almost three decades—for the creepy-crawly spirit that haunts the theater to manifest before my eyes in this tiny, irreducible avatar.
The air of decrepitude that hangs over the building now called “the G-7 multiplex” is the first thing most people, including its long-time visitors, notice about it. The cinema is a mere 46 years old, but its upkeep has, for a long time, been outmatched by its use. Mumbai is a city full of ruined cinemas theaters, as is only fitting for the home of one of the world’s largest and most unwieldy movie industries. For every glamorous Art Deco artefact that’s survived the 20th century intact, there are dozens of theaters that, over the years, have become rest stops for itinerants drifting in for the respite of the slow fans, falling asleep with the light from scratchy B-movies flickering over their faces.
G-7, which most people who grew up in the neighborhood call “Gaiety-Galaxy,” is very far from that kind of dump; it had few redeeming outward features to start with. Seen from the outside, it is a squat, square face with three eyes: its first three movie theatres, built row-house style, christened with the Space Age names of Gaiety, Galaxy, and Gemini. The “7” in its name is made up by four smaller theaters—Glamour, Gem, Gossip, and Grace—that were tacked on to its frame in the late 1990s, when the theatre expanded its screening schedule to include Hollywood films.
Inside is all Instagrammable #mood—murals of swirling, gas-giant planets hamstrung by halogen-yellow lighting; wall accents that mimic stained glass windows offset by cheap sunmica veneers; concession stands adorned by towers of bright orange ice-cream cones. The atmosphere is gothic. When you watch a film at Gaiety-Galaxy, especially in one of the big theatres that seats hundreds, unseen presences are everywhere. Behind you, the hall is inevitably full of sensation: the cold trickle of irregular air-conditioning, unseen feet scuffling, scraping noises. The seats in the old halls are hard coir and wood covered in blood-red Rexene (which is why there’s so much uncomfortable fidgeting). When the hall goes dark, it goes blackout-dark: none of those new-fangled emergency light strips and neon signs. A fire erupted outside Gaiety-Galaxy two years ago; the employees called the fire services and put it out without interrupting the screening of the blockbuster inside. No one was hurt.
This is my home, by the way, if home can be a place where you’d rather hold your pee than go to the ladies’ restroom. More than any place outside the flat in which I grew up, it made me and scared me and stopped time for me. It nourished me (literally; its samosas and salty popcorn are a city byword). My exhausted young parents started bringing me here as a child, presumably to have a few hours to think about something other than me. Eventually, they stopped having to carry me out every time I woke up and started screaming. I allowed myself to be comforted and babysat by what was unfolding on screen. It’s where I still go, not to escape my life, but to inhabit its irrationality more fully.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, movie halls of this style sprang up around suburban Mumbai to accommodate the middle classes then pouring in to occupy its formerly lush hills and quiet fishing villages. They were quite distinct, broadly speaking, from their predecessors in the city’s older districts. The grand picture halls of the early twentieth century had catered to wealthy Mumbaikars and colonial jet-setters. Later, scores of airy, unpretentious cinema halls—many built in strikingly clean modernist styles—opened around the working-class areas of central Mumbai in order to serve a universe of overworked, underpaid migrants. The movies, in one scholar’s trenchant phrase, were to keep the workforce from escaping back home to the village.
The triplet-theatres that came up in residential neighborhoods also mirrored the lifestyles and aspirations of their target demographic. You were not ashamed to be seen at these places, built simply but at impressive scale, with alliterative names (Badal-Bijli-Barkha; Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram) just like families gave their children. But they had short lives. Within decades of their establishment, they were gone, wiped out and replaced by what their striving upwardly mobile patrons came to prefer: wincingly bright malls with “multiplex” screens on the top floor. These theatres, perched atop the perfume boutiques and sneaker stores, offered rolling screenings of movies in Hindi, English, and India’s many regional languages, a nightless illusion of endless choice.
Gaiety-Galaxy is run by a man named Manoj Desai who is, to all accounts, a generous eccentric. His other movie theatre, a central Bombay institution called Maratha Mandir, ran the 1995 blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge as a matinee show every day for 20 years. His ticket prices are the lowest you can now find in glamorous, expensive Bandra West. They would have been lower still had he not made the momentous decision to start selling tickets through an online booking service a couple of years ago, putting an end to a longstanding Bandra tradition: the snaking queue outside the ‘advance booking’ windows of Gaiety-Galaxy. (The other tradition, the “black marketeer” who procured seats in bulk and lurked outside the halls before screenings, dealing out tickets at marked-up prices, had been regulated out of existence about fifteen years before.)
Unlike its more decorous mall counterparts, G-7 still has a reputation as a bastion of unbridled passion—a place where fans still dance in the aisles to hit songs and hoot at heroes throwing punches. They used to say that movie stars bought out seats at Gaiety-Galaxy in order to drive up their film’s box office. Rumor even had it that they would come here in disguise, like kings eavesdropping on commoners, far from the sycophants at premieres and press shows. Desai even claimed that his clientele, passionate to a fault, were given to taking out their frustrations over a bad movie by ripping up his upholstery: property damage as film criticism. He had appointed a resident tailor, he told a newspaper, who would be on call to repair the constant damage.
I’ve always felt that this reputation for authenticity was overdetermined, a myth enlarged by a city and film industry undergoing rapid change, eager to retain any vestige of old certainties. I’ve been in those cheering, clapping throngs, to be sure, but they are never quite the delirious mobs of feature writers’ dreams. My definitive memory of collective response from these halls is much softer and sweeter. I was at a lukewarm movie about a decade ago whose only saving grace was a miraculous A.R. Rahman soundtrack. When one of its crooning, fizzy hit songs came on, people in each row of that half-full screening took it up, until the whole theatre was singing along. The hall was very warm, lit low and shallow by the screen. The shadows prickled my skin as I sang along, too.
Even if it’s not the circus than it’s imagined to be, G-7 is, I suppose, the kind of spontaneous community that scholars and critics theorize as a product of movie-going. At the outset, Gaiety, Galaxy, and Gemini were stratified by old-school class division (dress circle to lower stall, in descending order). This used to matter more before the mid-2000s, when the declining and advancing halves of the Bandra bourgeoisie found themselves in the sweet spot where both could afford balcony tickets, thanks to the vagaries of the Indian economy and the unreasonable stubbornness of Desai.
The proliferation of upper-class multiplexes now contributes to the perpetual impression of Gaiety-Galaxy as a monument to a shabbier, grungier time when cinema was a great leveler. Well, cinema won’t save society, but come here on a Saturday night and scope the queue—these poufy-haired hipsters, these burqa-clad young moms, the prosperous Gujarati aunties, and the wage laborers looking for some downtime in the air-conditioning aren’t part of an idealized melting pot. It’s just that a mall cinema, occupied entirely by self-contained wealthy people, is like any other new, unhaunted part of Bombay. It offers absolutely no sense of the living city and—as we say in both English and Hindi—its “public,” a word by which we mean not our masses, but our commonwealth.
Late last year, in the final stages of a terminal illness, my mother wanted to watch a movie, and she wanted to watch it at Gaiety-Galaxy. I swallowed my misgivings—including about that cockroach. We went to a late show. Only about three other people had turned up. She drank it in, delighted to be out of the house, determined not to be discomfited by the hard seat and the cold air. By the time the show ended at midnight, she had run out of strength. Getting out of the chair and leaving the hall was a struggle. She sank down on the bench by the empty concession stand as soon as we got out. We were alone but for the ushers and cleaners locking up.
I had to run down the stairs to call the liftman out from the office and restart the theatre’s old-fashioned elevator, which he had locked up for the night because he thought all the patrons had left. The ninety seconds it took to ride up in that psychedelic box of mirrors were possibly the longest of my life. At last, my mother and I descended to the ground floor unharmed. We stepped out of the big wooden doors for the last time together. The lane outside was empty except for a small family. They were, we realized, the other people who had been in the movie with us. They were waiting by an auto rickshaw. “Take it, if you need it,” the man said. We took it.
It did not occur to me to think of it as a reversal of her harried years of bringing me to the movies as an unmanageable toddler who feared the dark. On that night, only the look on her face had made me bite my tongue before I said out loud that we never should have come. She was so happy to have done it, and I can be glad now that we went. There are some places that make you safe, and others that make you brave.