Liberty – the Legacy
World War II saw Bombay and its environs as major allied bases for the war in the East. This brought the need for entertainment to keep the forces occupied while in transit, training, etc. The simplest form was cinema and the Late Mr. Habib Hoosein, the creator of the Liberty, went hammer and tong to provide as many cinemas as he could in the shortest time possible. Some were in tents as still exist today in parts of this country. One cinema in nearby Deolali called the Cathay was built from ground to first screening in 100 days flat! It was a proper structure and in the words of Mr. Habib Hoosein – I went to the Commandant at Deolali and said: you have a lot of troops here, permit me to build a cinema for them if you give me a location. The Commandant stated that there was a demarcated plot where two named roads met. and Mr Habib Hoosein started construction the next morning. The paperwork followed and 100 days later, Cathay screened its first film!
On the conclusion on World War II the cry for independence reached its crescendo and the Indian movie industry began in right earnest on this wave of sentiment. A great need then arose for a proper presentation of Hindi films which were till then confined to cinemas at Lamington road and such areas. All of South Bombay’s cinemas screened only English pictures. The need for an outstanding cinema for the Hindi film industry stared at Mr. Habib Hoosein in the face. This had to be no ordinary cinema as it now bore the stamp of independence and it had to be “The showplace of the nation.” By that time, the newly formed Indian Government had written to the British Government to suggest a brilliant economist to guide the economies of this fledgling nation. The British Government responded with the name of the late Mr. Manu Subedar who had topped the London School of Economics exam many years ago and the policies that emanated from him proved to be a true indication of his brilliance. In his dealings with the Indian Government, Mr. Subedar acquired the land that extends from West End Hotel to the Lotus House in Marine Lines as on a lease for 999 years. Mr. Habib Hoosein’s close association with Mr. Subedar provided the land on which the Liberty now stands and construction commenced in 1947 with the naming of this picture palace consuming no time at all! The architect was an Englishman, Mr. Ridley Abbott and he followed the ‘Art Deco’ architectural norms as were prevalent at the time. Unfortunately, Mr. Abbott and his wife flew off for a holiday to London when the Liberty had been raised till the first floor and tragically perished when their plane crashed. Work then continued with an Indian architect, Mr. J. B. Fernandes. The interiors as well as the magnificent plaster of Paris work were the brainchild of Mr. Waman Namjoshi and Mr. Habib Hoosein himself. A drawing as originally envisaged and signed by Mr. Namjoshi is in the brochure that was distributed on the opening invitation show on the 20th of March 1949.
The first commercial screening was that of Mehboob Khan’s Andaz, starring Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. In subsequent years, Nargis worked with both Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor but the three of them never acted together again. The legacy of the Liberty was then set and every major producer wanted to screen his film at this cinema. The favourite means of tranport was the Victoria and the end of the show, especially the last show, saw a long line of Victorias waiting for the families to pile in as the taxis of that time, the Premier and the Ambassador were far too small to cater to the needs of the families. Streetlights were gas lamps / diyas which were also the lights at the extremities of the Victorias. A “hit” meant a run of 25 weeks having 3 shows a day with a seating capacity of 1196 seats. There were many pictures that achieved this target with the result that the Liberty alone was unable to fulfil the growing needs of Indian cinema. Mr. Namjoshi then went on to create the Maratha Mandir at Bombay Central and subsequently the Naaz at Lamington Road, which was initially the home of the films of Mr. A. R. Kardar and Mr. V Shantaram.
By 1970 due to his failing health, Mr. Habib Hoosein gave running of the Liberty to a group of distributors headed by the Late Mr. Shankar BC on a hire arrangement for 20 years and that began the decline of this heritage cinema. This resulted in an open confrontation which led to the matter reaching the Supreme Court before Mr. Nazir Hoosein, Habib Hoosein’s son, was able to get the property back to the Hoosein family. Restoration of the torn seats and carpets and paint was then tackled in earnest and the Liberty came under the viewfinder of Rajshri Productions who then desired to release their latest offering Hum Aapke Hain Kaun at the Liberty. The film was an outstanding success and ran to full houses screening three shows a day for 44 weeks!
The multiplexes came into being around 2005 with the Maharashtra government giving them a tax holiday for 5 years which exempted them from the payment of the 45% Entertainment Tax on the ticket rate. This created an artificial market which resulted in all the cinemas in South Bombay screening Hindi pictures. This led to an excess of screens showing the same films and started the closure of a large number of single screen cinemas in Maharashtra.
Today, the Liberty is acknowledged as a Grade 2A heritage building with the cinema well on its way to being recognised as one of the finest examples of an ‘Art Deco’ cinema in the world. Currently it no longer screens pictures regularly and it now offers its incredible heritage interiors to musical and stage events, film shoots and other activities that require a venue of the Liberty’s stature. Mr. Nazir Hoosein’s vision to convert the Liberty into a cultural hub catering to the varied needs of South Bombay which can enjoy classical opera to Bollywood mayhem is now well on it’s way.