The interiors of Radio Hotel, photographed in October 2012 by Mustansir Dalvi (c)
This piece was published in Time Out Mumbai's Back of the Book (Vol 9, Issue 4; October 12-25 2012) in a slightly edited version.
Manish Market, near Crawford Market, caught fire earlier this year. This re-ignited some smouldering embers at the back of my mind. And then the market caught fire once again, and unlocked the memory of a lurid poster of ‘Bhoot Bangala’. Several skeletons, with glowing eye-sockets danced the twist, while an image of Tanuja screaming was painted over the titles in chiselled, impressionistic strokes. The poster quite affected the five year-old that I was when I first saw it. My uncle, whose finger I tightly held on to, had to drag me away from this phantasmagoric tableau. I would conjure ghosts in every corner for a while after that. We were walking outside the Radio Talkies on Palton Road. This was the late sixties.
In 1974, to my chagrin, Radio Talkies was pulled down, and Manish Market (Bombay’s bastion of ‘smuggling’ goods, especially of Sony and National Panasonic, made-in-Japan, televisions), would be erected in its place. This was a loss, not only because this cinema was within this child’s permissible walking distance, but also for being a purveyor of re-run Hindi picchers that changed daily. Growing up in the seventies, cinema houses were the horn of plenty from which we partook, not by watching films necessarily, but by devouring their posters. We would stand, open-mouthed like guppies in front of each new one, shovelling derring-do action, grand-guignol melodrama, and ‘Color by Technicolor’, Ravi Verma channelized heroinis into our subconscious wholesale. And here was a new one every day!
I did not give Radio Talkies much custom, but on such occasions I would run to a suitable bench (no seats, no numbers) in the dark hall with its plaster of paris ceiling and industrial fans. If you raised
your hand you could poke the projector’s beam and make funny shadows on the screen. The audience, largely local residents and market workers would rarely amount to a ‘Housefull’ board, but fillums were shown, complete with accoutrements like a Gujarati thali: advertisements, Indian News Review, Films Development Board Documentary (Hum Do, Hamaare Do; Nasbandi kijiye) and coming attractions. One intermission. Pee/smoking breaks optional, during songs.
Radio Cinema offered another urban pleasure, rare even for those times. It was a modest, one storey building, set back into large compound, bounded by low walls and a gate, always open (the other grounds I recall, with warmth-tinged sadness, is the former West End, on Poona’s Main Street). You could walk right up to the booking office with impunity and gaze at placards of the ‘Next Change’ persuasion. The grounds of the Radio always exuded an odour of cigarette smoke (everybody smoked) and fish. The Crawford Market sold meat but you had to cross the road to the shed alongside the cinema, abutting the Palton Road Police Chowkie (estab.1918), to buy everything from fresh paplet to dry kolbi soda.
When Radio Talkies was consigned to my memory so were its grounds. The old fish market soon followed. Manish Market would be built right on the road, denying even a reasonable footpath outside it. The Bombay of my childhood used to be an accommodating sponge; Mumbai today is its fossilized after-avatar, solidified, rocky and unyielding.
Radio Cinema lives on in name, in its cousin around the corner- the Radio Hotel. A true city survivor- a hotel in a standalone, erstwhile warehouse that has its former owner’s name (Akbarally Mulla Rasoolji Dharangadrawala) engraved in Gujarati above an entrance you could drive a truck through. Its whitewashed stucco façade is in the baroque style, with a centrally ornamented widow typical of mid- 19th century Bohra architecture. The Radio Hotel’s interior volume is certainly the largest in the city with a vast open floor and a ceiling that rises to more than twenty feet. The hotel has seen better days, but still offers an Irani menu, one of the last surviving places you can order gurda (goat’s kidneys) for breakfast.
Consider this: the Radio Hotel, the Musafirkhana, the police station, the Pedrushah Dargah and the Crawford Market all survived the ‘Fort Stikine’ blast at the Bombay Docks in 1944 that devastated many of the buildings adjacent to them. These places and artefacts that will go; no doubt, but let us at least pay them the respect of memory, give them a last hurrah.