On a cool evening in the 1970s, a siren-blaring car rolled up at Rex Theatre in Bengaluru, with an entourage of security personnel on motorcycles. Dressed in a suit, the owner of the talkies waited to receive the special patron -- Governor of Karnataka, Padma Vibhushana Dhrama Vira.
"The governor loved watching movies and he would come to Rex once in a while to catch a movie, and my father would sometimes receive him. Everyone came to the movies - the rich, influential and the working class," says Anil Kapur, the joint managing director of Rex Theatre.
As plush multiplexes have flourished throughout the city over the last decade, Rex Theatre stood out as a bastion for the bygone years of single-screen cinema in the Central Business District. But with over 80 years of history etched into its walls, Rex Theatre on Brigade Road will darken its screens for the last time on December 31.
"There is one acre of land here and the theatre occupies very little space. Even if we refurbish it, the cost would be too high and it is not feasible," Anil Kapur says.
The news of the theatre's closure follows several other iconic single-screens in the erstwhile cantonment area, most of which were either shut down or converted into commercial spaces or multiplexes.
Empire and Liberty theatres rolled down their shutters in the 1970s, BRV was converted into a military canteen in the late 1980s, Imperial, which was also owned by the Kapur’s, closed in the 1990s, Blu Moon and Blu Diamond bit the dust in 1994, Galaxy theatre shut down in 2002 to make way for a commercial space, Plaza was razed in 2005 for the metro rail, Symphony is now Fame Shankarnag, a multiplex, and Lido has become INOX.
And Rex will soon join that group. In a joint venture between Kapur Investments and the Prestige Group, the old theatre will be turned into a multiplex with four screens, as well as shops and restaurants.
Where it all began
In the late 1930s, Rao Saheb Pasupalety Venugopal Naidu bought one acre of land on Bangalore Cantonment’s prestigious Brigade Road. Pasupalety, who called himself PV Paul, built two auditoriums on the grounds, and in the 1940s, the theatres began screening films. There were two screens; one where the current auditorium is located, which screened English films, and the other, where a dosa stall stands, which was meant for screening regional language films.
Rex Theatre in 1982
"No regional language films were screened there, though. Somewhere down the line, he went bankrupt. He took loans which he could not pay back," Anil Kapur recalls.
In 1951, Paul obtained a loan by mortgaging the theatre for Rs 5,09,000 with the Palai Central Bank in Ernakulam. Unable to repay the loan, the court decided to liquidate it. The bank then bought the property, but a decade later, the bank also ran into financial trouble. In 1960, the High Court of Karnataka ordered the liquidation of the bank.
In 1961, the court-appointed liquidator held an auction at what is now the parking space of the theatre. Anil's great-grandfather Nand Lal Kapur, who had settled in Bangalore 10 years earlier, decided to attend the auction. The bidding had reached its peak and Nand Lal called out Rs 8,51,000 as his bid.
"That's when he realised that no one was offering a higher bid and he became the owner of the property," Anil Kapur says. The screens raised its curtains for the first time as Rex Theatre in 1962 with The Sleeping Beauty, which became an instant hit.
The age of air conditioning
Though air conditioning was not a reality in the 1930s, Paul's Rex was known for the broad tunnel that passed under the cinema hall and had an outlet under each seat. This seemingly innocent structure was not without repercussions for audience members. The Anglo-Indian women found that wearing their best skirts and dresses to the movies proved to be an inconvenience.
“If the ladies did not remember to put their hands on their thighs, their dresses would fly up because of the fans," Anil Kapur says.
In 1971, Anil's uncle, Kamal Kapur, the Managing Director of the company, came back from England after graduating from college. While most of the theatres in the cantonment area had air conditioning, Rex was still stuck with the dreaded air vents.
At this point, Kamal Kapur decided it was time to refurbish the theatre. "And so my uncle decided to close the place and renovate the interiors and include air conditioning. That's when Rex took a turn. Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox became their distributors and the moviegoing trend was at its peak. There were no other forms of entertainment. You could go to a park. There were no TVs. There were radios. Coming to the cinema was very special. This was a place which would unify people of all classes. We have four classes. The balcony, the first second and third stalls. People from all economic backgrounds came here. Society is divided based on the wealth of the people. From the richest man to the most common man would come to the cinema, use the same parking area, eat the same food, the same sandwiches, and paid the same prices," Anil Kapur says.
A string of hits followed in the 1970s and 1980s, and Rex played some of the most popular movies of the time. One of the longest playing pictures at the theatre was Charles Chaplin's Modern Times. The longest running film at the theatre was the Sylvester Stallone-starrer Cliffhanger, which ran for 29 weeks, followed by the 1979 Bruce Lee film Return of the Dragon, which ran for 27 weeks.
"We also played a Malayalam movie among all the English ones. It was called Chatakari and we were given a trophy as it ran for 25 weeks, still lying in my uncle's cabin. When Cliffhanger opened, all the shows were full. Back then theatres played only two shows - the first show at 6.30 pm and the second show at 9.30 pm. We started playing with three shows after the series of hits and then made four permanent shows. Now we have played up to seven shows in a day," Anil says.
Rolling the credits
This is not the first multiplex plan that had come to Rex in the recent decade. In 2008, the Greater Union, an Australian company, approached Kamal Kapur with a plan to build four new screens. But since Rex's property was tenanted, it became challenging to vacate the tenants, and the plan was shelved.
Local rock band Spartas perform at Rex Theatre in 1969
The Kapurs also ran two other theatres in Bengaluru - Symphony and Imperial in the 1960s through the 1990s. Hollywood actor Michael Keaton visited the theatre in 1989 on the day Batman premiered at Rex, and distributed the film’s merchandise to audience members. Rex was also the first theatre in Bengaluru to introduce DTS sound system, which was developed by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).
‘It’s time to move on’
Recalling the nostalgia surrounding the magic of cinema halls, Anil Kapur recalls the change in the pattern for film enthusiasts over the years. "There was something special about going to a cinema, people would wear their best clothes. The meaning and feel of the moviegoing experience was completely different and it has changed so much now,” he says, “People would come to watch movies at all times even during the weekdays and not only the weekends like now.”
Anil continues, “Today there are many cinema halls. There are over 300 screens in Bengaluru. TV has advanced, there are home theatres and the Internet to watch movies. It’s not a special thing to watch a movie in a theatre anymore.”
Once the theatre shuts at the beginning of next year, the new mall and multiplex will open in three years. "Yes, the mall will be called Rex," Anil says.
When asked how he is coping with the change, Anil did say he felt bad about the end of single-screen theatres. However, he has also accepted the change and felt that it was time to move on.
Abhishek the program manager at Rex (left) and Joint Managing Director Anil Kapur (right)
"When I came to manage Rex in 1992, I had quite a lot of passion to run the cinema at one time and as my passion tabled out, I have always been happy about crowds coming and when they are happy after watching movie. It’s the happiness of people, the hustle, the bustle when people come to the movies with their families, with their girlfriends or boyfriends or even alone. But all are happy. That percolates into why I love it. But over the years, I realised there is a time for everything. Change is a part of life and change is the only constant. You either remain where you are and everyone will go ahead. It’s time to move on," Anil says.
All the old pictures were sourced from Bangalore - Photos of a Bygone Age