Growing up in 1960s’ Calcutta, Sunday morning movie screenings at the Metro were special. The distinctive art deco structure on Chowringhee Road has, over the years, defined the culture of the city. Initially it screened only films produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM), which has a roaring lion at the beginning of its signature tune, just as the ‘Tiger cinema’ down the road played the ‘Tiger Rag’.

Gradually, Hollywood films made way for Hindi cinema and, occasionally, a Bengali film. The changing posters reflected the changes in public taste and culture. From a surfeit of Laurel and Hardy films, which kept entire groups of children enraptured in the mornings, to later shows for teenagers and adults — the theatre also witnessed generations coming of age.

“Meet me in front of Metro cinema” was an oft-heard refrain for rendezvous, but not for those of us who lived dangerously close by.

Today, as standalone movie halls go out of business one by one, there is word that the Metro will soon be converted into a multiplex offering a choice of four halls.

And, understandably, this has evoked strong feelings among the people. “It’s like waking up one day and finding the GPO (general post office) or the Town Hall no longer there,” says Aditi, an architect.

The area once buzzed with moviegoers flocking to the many theatres here, including Globe, Minerva, New Empire and Lighthouse (it also staged plays), which had pubs attached and dazzled onlookers with framed pictures of dashing Hollywood stars. Today, garment shops and pizza outlets jostle for space inside their premises, and the fear is that Metro too will meet with a similar sad fate. The entire area now wears a seedy look and it is mainly associated with noisy political meetings.

An old city like Kolkata is defined by its heritage buildings, many of which are striking with their impressive Corinthian pillars and high domes.

The Metro’s architectural design was clearly inspired by the Art Deco movement; its asymmetrical or “waterfall” lines are similar to those of its cousin in Mumbai, setting it apart from other theatres in the city. The two-storied structure was designed by Thomas Lamb, a Scottish architect settled in the US who built a chain of movie theatres around the world, including many in New York and San Francisco. MGM commissioned him to build two theatres in India for screening its movies exclusively.

Metro in Calcutta came up in 1935, while its famous cousin at Dhobitalao Junction in Mumbai was built in 1938; both had a similar façade, a red-and-blue neon sign, and marbled interiors. And true to one form influencing another, the spiral, uneven ‘Metro design’ became a rage after it was replicated in gold necklaces during the 1950s in Bengal.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation prescribes a long list of dos and don’ts when it comes to the preservation of heritage buildings. But that has not stopped many a heritage structure from going under the bulldozer every now and then. Now that sanctions are in place for the transformation of the Metro, those who are passionate about the city’s architectural heritage are keeping their fingers crossed — they hope at least the façade will stay intact.

Well-known writers have raised their voice against the move and are calling for turning the place into a cultural hub.

However, architect Partha Ranjan Das underlines the importance of balancing a love for the past with the needs of the present, when it comes to preservation of heritage: “Old buildings, even if they are heritage ones, need to be modernised for reasons of safety, and so on. We must be judicious instead of being sentimental. That is why, while we may create a furore over some public buildings, others may quietly disappear off the radar. Just as Dunlop House on Free School Street has!”

Pictures by Ishanee Sarkar

(This article was published on August 23, 2012)
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