If you’ve never seen a Bollywood movie before, think John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease, then pump up the colour saturation, quadruple the number of dancing extras, switch the soundtrack to an A.R. Rahman masala mix and imagine Indo-Western hybrid outfits that grow more extravagant with every change of camera angle.
Like their classic forerunners of the 1970s and 1980s, modern Bollywood blockbusters demand the biggest screens and heftiest sound systems on the market, and they don’t come bigger or heftier than those in the Metro BIG in Mumbai, the grande dame of the city’s surviving Art Deco picture houses. A palpable aura of old-school glamour still hangs over the place, at its most glittering on red-carpet nights, when huge crowds gather in the street outside for a glimpse of stars such as Shah Rukh Kahn or Ashwariya Rai posing for the paparazzi in front of the iconic 1930s facade.
A sense of occasion strikes you the moment you step into the Metro BIG’s foyer, with its plush crimson drapery and polished Italian marble floors. A 2006 revamp transformed the auditorium into a state-of-the-art multiplex, complete with six screens, lashings of chrome and reclining seats, but the developers had the good sense to leave the heritage features in the rest of the building intact. Belgian crystal chandeliers still hang from the ceilings, reflected in herringbone-patterned mirrors on the mid-landing, with original stucco murals lining the staircases.
While the Metro may have had a makeover, the same quirky conventions that have styled Indian cinema for decades still very much hold sway – in spite of Bollywood’s glossier modern image and bigger budgets. So while the waistlines have dropped and cleavages become more pronounced, the star-crossed hero and heroine still have to make do with a coy rub of noses rather than a proper kiss.
Down in the stalls of the Metro BIG, meanwhile, the new decor hasn’t subdued behaviour in the cheaper seats. Shouting at the screen, cheering every time the hero wallops someone, and singing along with the love songs are still very much part of the experience – even if overpriced popcorn has supplanted five-rupee wraps of peanuts.
Mumbai’s Metro BIG Cinema is at Dhobi Talao Junction, at the top of Azad Maidan, a short cab ride from CST (VT) Station. For details, see www.bigcinemas.com.