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Cover Story

Cinema Halls In Mombasa In The Mid And Late 20th Century

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020
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By Anjum Asodia

MY PERSONAL STORY

I joined Coastweek, at its inception in 1978 as a typesetter.  Desktop publishing was unheard of then, so I would type all the stories, captions and headlines on a typesetting machine (very noisy with just one small line as the visual screen) on photographic paper. The canister with the rolled up paper was then developed in a dark room. Sometimes the paper would get stuck in the rollers because of the chemicals and I would have to retype everything all over again (very painful at 3.00am on a Wednesday night as it was always a full day and night work for us).

Editor Adrian Grimwood would then measure the stories on the sheets, cut and paste the stories making sure everything fitted properly. Those were the days of cut and paste jobs. An error there sometimes meant having to retype and redo the entire page again.

Having been a good storyteller and writer (no professional training) I was given the task of writing the film previews for the paper. Both my father and grandfather were huge movie buffs. In the absence of Google, cine goers relied heavily on the film previews - the catch was that the film was only released on the Friday which was when the paper went out on the streets. That meant I had to write the preview usually on the preceding Tuesday or Wednesday when the film had not even arrived in Mombasa. So I used to get press releases or synopses from the theatre owners which gave me either the whole story or a shorter version.

The first few weeks were quite difficult but then I got the hang of it and I ended up writing film previews for Coastweek for more than 32 years.

DRIVE IN CINEMA

This was the only cinema, where one could drive in with their cars, park at the best spot possible, lug a heavy speaker on your car window and enjoy a film on a massive projector screen in front. With a capacity of about 375 cars, in good weather one could sit on the ground on mattresses and enjoy the film. This extra seating could take about another 300 to 400 viewers.

Going to the Drive In was not just a cinematic experience, it was more of a social event. Sundays being the day for the newest film to be released, people would dress up in their finest (especially the youth who were on the lookout for ‘eye candy’), pile into their cars and join the queue as early as 5.00pm for the 7.00pm show.

The hours preceding darkness when the film would start was as good as any fashion parade when decked-up teenagers would walk around between cars, elders would be sitting outside their cars on mattresses chatting or playing card, kids could enjoy themselves in the playground at the back (it was very safe to leave children alone in those days).

It reached a peak in the seventies when one could be sitting in the queue for more than an hour to get in, starting from the box office right up to Makupa Causeway, sometimes causing you to miss the beginning of the film.

An ingenious idea was born then. Those with more than one car (neighbours would pool) would drive to the cinema as early as 2.00 or 3.00 pm. At 6.00pm or slightly earlier the second car would be brought out and driven to the cinema, parked outside the gates on the main road (it was very safe then) and the passengers would walk in, pay for their tickets and get into the car already parked inside with their chairs and mattresses. There were times when tickets would be bought in the afternoon only to be shown as they entered on foot to save more time. After the film, one male member would then get off outside and collect the parked car and all would drive home. The second show at 9.30pm would be a ‘house full’ if the film was good but the lengths people went to to catch the first evening show was just amazing.

The Drive In Cinema screened both English and Hindustani films, the latter pulled the largest audiences. The biggest English film crowd pullers were the James Bond films whose visuals on this huge screen were fantastic.

Sundays was reserved for the latest Hindustani film. A repeat English film would be the first show on Saturdays to be followed by a repeat Hindustani film at 9.30pm. Wednesdays was a favourite for many. Only one Hindustani film (a much older repeat) at night and to see that, one did not pay per person but by the carload regardless how many people were crammed into the vehicle. So all sorts of ‘box bodies’ (or vans in today’s world) would be fitted with mattresses to accommodate eager film-goers packed like sardines. The entry charge used to be only Kshs10 shillings for the car!

I met up with Gordhanbhai Patel (a very good friend of my Dad) who was in charge of the booking office at the Drive In Cinema and got some history. Umedbhai Patel and Bhoghilal Patel owned the Bellevue Drive In Cinema in Nairobi. Seeing the popularity in this, a plot of land was identified in Changamwe and the Mombasa Drive In Cinema was established in the late 50s early 60s.

Apparently despite the favourable weather conditions and the amount of interest, the Cinema initially did not do well and was showing losses. Bhogilal approached his friend Manubhai (who was Gordhanbhai’s brother-in-law) to lease the Cinema for five years. Gordhanbhai was roped in to run the show at night, while working at a full time job in the harbour.

Within a year, the Cinema was showing good profits and after the second year, the owners wanted it back with a condition that Gordhanbhai would remain at the helm. This made him a very popular figure in Mombasa and most of the South Asians knew him. A deal was struck with Manubhai and as a result Gordhanbhai left his day job to continue at the Drive In Cinema for the next 25 years or so.

According to him, the canteen (whose main sales were chips, sausages, beers and sodas) had a bigger turn over then the ticket sales, thus it was the canteen that was the driving force at the Drive In Cinema, proving yet again that a visit to it was more social than film-driven. He revealed that they used to start making chips in the morning and in spite of that, on a good day, the chips would run out at the interval (I can vouch for the queues that used to wait for their chips even before the interval break).

We used to carry newspapers and some people carried raw potatoes in the car in case it rained.  We would rub the paper or the cut potato on the windshield to make the rain drops slide off faster so we would not have to use the wipers too much and interrupt the film.

However, with the advent of television and particularly videos whereby people could watch the films at a fraction of the price in the comfort of their homes, attendance at the Cinema declined and the cost of operations went up. The Drive In Cinema was then closed down for a few years and eventually sold to Combined Warehouses as a storage depot. This was very sad as the Drive In Cinema was a major icon in the history of Mombasa.

REGAL CINEMA  

Its story is covered in a separate article.

MOONS CINEMA

Very little is known about this theatre which was in the Makupa area. I remember going there as very small child. It was supposedly built in the fifties by a Parsi then bought over by Mahendra who eventually closed it down and moved to Nairobi. The first film shown there was the 1952 Baiju Bawra with Bharat Bhushan and Meena Kumari, a musical megahit.

PLAZA CINEMA

This was also a very small cinema which did not last long. It was situated in a shop on Makupa Road and owned by an Arab proprietor.

CHOX CINEMA

This was an unusual cinema theatre. Previously called Liberty Cinema and Princess Cinema, it was the only open air cinema hall in Kenya in that it had the four walls but no roof. Located in Majengo, it was run by a person called Fakhru Noorbhai.

He had borrowed money for the venture but the cinema was not doing very well, so it was eventually auctioned by Datoo Auctioneers in 1962 and bought by Kurji Rajan. The cinema operator, Mohamedali, ran it for about 14 years on lease from Kurji Rajan. Thereafter, it was run by Kurji Rajan’s grandson Sadrudin Merali and became a very popular movie hall in that area as it was not very expensive and did not need fans because of the open roof. Mosquitoes were a bane to cine-goers there but apparently that was a small price to pay for a good movie at a very reduced price.

Most of the films there were repeats and I remember sitting on one of the 150 metal (later plastic) chairs watching the film which was projected onto the wall (not even a screen). And because they owned the property, thus no rental, the owner’s costs were very low in turn relating to cheaper tickets. The previous owners used to run English films but after Kurji Rajan took over he just played Hindustani films and their Eid or Diwali attractions (even though repeats) usually ran to full house.

Of course the movie could only be played after dark and when it rained people still sat through the film despite the rain, Mombasa was great in that when it rained it did not get cold, but was pleasant. Of course if the rain was very heavy, the show had to be cancelled. Sadru Merali remembers how people sometimes used to throw stones over the wall to disturb their patrons.

NAAZ CINEMA

As the local population started moving out of Old Town to settle nearer to the centre of Mombasa, a cinema was built on the periphery of Old Town, just outside of Kibokoni Road and on Makadara Road, very close to the Central Police Station.

Harbans Lal owned Shaan Cinema in Nairobi and decided to expand into Mombasa. Syed Mohamed Kassamali Shah (aka Mithoo) was brought in as a partner/manager of the newly built and very modern Naaz Cinema. Despite not being very exposed to films beforehand or having a fixation of watching films, Mithoobhai just loved the ‘movie scene’ and all that came with films.

Samina Sheikh, Mithoobhai’s daughter, recalled some stories from her childhood, including running up and down the ramp that led to the hall. Shortly after the cinema was built, part of the roof caved in so it was closed for reconstruction.

Naaz was the only theatre in Mombasa to show Pakistani movies in Mombasa and in what had become a trend that was started with the Majestic group, the lead actors were brought in for the opening of the film. Notable Pakistani actors who were brought to the enamoured audiences in Mombasa were Shamim Ara, Zeba and Mohamed Ali. Sometime in the mid-fifties Princess Margaret and the then Governor of Kenya visited Naaz Cinema to attend an event that was taking place there.

Mombasa being a predominantly Islamic population, Naaz also introduced (like the other theatres) the Ladies’ show (usually on a weekday afternoon). During these shows, tickets were only sold to women and their contact with the male employees was very limited. These Ladies Shows, or aptly named Zanana Shows, were extremely popular at all the theatres and were mostly sold out. Samina remembers how the women used to love Mithun Chakraborthy’s films. Prior to that, when Bobby was released in 1973, all the young girls and women created hungama at the theatres when it was released. The downside was the cleaning up of the miraa and cigarette debris later on!

Samina fondly recalls some of the staff who worked for her father. Bakari was the bartender until the cinema closed down, Suleiman was at the helm of the box office and during a new release the phone would not stop ringing from clients and friends of Mithoobhai who would request Suleiman to book their seats on the phone, to save them queueing up in the long lines. Then there was Saleh, and the indomitable Mbarak, who were the only ones who could control the ladies during the Ladies’ Show.

Even here, as in the Regal Cinema, the special ‘box seat’ (lovers’ seat) was very popular among the youth.

Despite being rivals in business, Mithoobhai and Ramanbhai (of Kenya Cinema) were best buddies and would get together almost every night. Eventually ill health forced Mithoobhai to sell the establishment and it was relaunched as Lotus Cinema. It ran for a few more years before it too (same as the Regal) was consumed by a fire and shut down permanently. To date the plot remains vacant.

MAJESTIC CINEMA

Just two years after the first cinema in Mombasa was built (Regal in 1931), a new cinema opened its doors in the Old Town of Mombasa on Princess Street (now Nehru Road).

Mohanlal Kala Savani had gauged the enormity of cinema and how it could be a successful business enterprise. Having imported some films directly and screening them in the newly opened Regal Cinema, he knew he had hit a jackpot. Later going into the business of importing and distributing the films, and eventually buying rights for the films was a win-win situation!

Mohanlal developed Majestic Cinema right in the midst of where the major South Asian and Arab population of Mombasa worked, traded and lived. It was touted as a 650 seater luxurious cinema and was thronged by cine-goers, especially when new films were released.

Between 1949 and 1952, Majestic Cinemas (the entity) had three major fires which destroyed hundreds of film prints with posters, brochures and film trailers. The fires, two were in Mombasa storage locations and the third was in a Jomvu godown. Until 1952 the celluloid films were nitrate based worldwide. These were highly flammable especially if they were stored under high temperature, as was the case in Mombasa with the lack of air conditioning. 

Thousands of films world-wide were destroyed, some of them permanently,  including some classics. Outside of India, it was only Kenya that was the main market for Hindustani films at the time. So when some films were similarly lost in India, the producers and the archivists relied on Majestic Cinemas to retrieve the old gems. Alas, often the loss was irreparable and these classics were only alive in the minds of the movie-goers. Some early silent films plus pre-1940s films of KL Saigal, Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Madhubala are no longer available.

Not satisfied with a Majestic, Mohanlal decided to create an even more luxurious cinema hall outside of Old Town, right in the town centre on Nkrumah Road (across what was the Ministry of Water and now the NSSF Building). This was to cater for the upper classes and those that lived in the more affluent areas of Ganjoni, Kizingo and Tudor.

KENYA CINEMA

Built in 1953 and called Queen’s Cinema (it changed to Kenya Cinema after independence), was the first fully air conditioned theatre with Cinemascope screen and Stereophonic sound in East Africa – a true game changer by Mohanlal Kala Savani. Daag with Dilip Kumar and Nimmi opened the doors to the theatre, and this was followed by super hits over the many years it operated. Being the buyers and distributors of course was the icing on the cake.

Yet another gimmick adopted by the Majestic group was of bringing in the lead actors of the big movies on opening nights. This was an exceptional move as now the film-hungry audience could actually see its hero and heroine in the flesh; something Mombasa had never experienced. Some of the major actors that graced Kenya Cinema on their film’s opening night were Dilip Kumar, Bindu, Jeetendra, Helen, Sunil Dutt, Raj Kumar, Sadhana and Asha Parekh.

When BR Chopra and Yash Chopra’s Waqt was released Yash Chopra, Sunil Dutt and Raj Kumar were invited after two months into the release to re-energize interest in the film. The crowds went wild with excitement and traffic came to a standstill. Women mobbed the theatre and wanted to touch Raj Kumar with the result his wig was pulled off - a secret until now! Rooms in more than three hotels were booked under their names and they were finally checked into a fourth hotel to avoid the crowds.

When the roof of Naaz Cinema fell in, Queen’s Cinema, though a newer building, was also asked to close down and redo their roof as the architect was the same for both cinemas. The structure of Kenya cinema was such that it was very conducive to host live performances and I do remember attending a show by Pakistan’s ghazal king Mehdi Hassan, while Hema Malini had also held a dance recital there.

Jayanti Solanki started working at Kenya Cinema as an usher but was promoted very soon as a doorkeeper and then onto the ticket office. He knew how to handle the rough hooligans (mostly rich folk) who thought the world was at their beck and call. Black marketers who would buy bulk tickets and then sell them at exorbitant rates outside the theatre were also wary of Solanki who worked, for 34 years, with Chotara who was head of the security office.

The famous actress Mumtaz after marrying business tycoon Mayur Madhvani used to live in Mombasa for many years. Solanki narrates that every time she wanted to watch a film, she would call him and reserve her seat, a side door would be opened for her when the film had just started and she would leave the same way before the movie ended.

The sixties were known for mythological and historical films and romantic dramas, while the seventies and eighties were more into action-oriented love dramas. Since Majestic Cinemas were the owners and distributors of the films and each film was between two or three rolls, the first roll would be shown at Kenya Cinema, then rushed over to the Drive In for their first show. The second roll would follow in the same way and the first roll was returned for Kenya Cinema’s second show. This happened many times and especially for a very popular film. Sometimes the same roll was screened at three different locations - we did not have traffic issues in those days.

The 1980s saw a widespread slump in movie-going following the advent of videos and pirated copies. Kenya is among several countries spanning three continents where an organised video racket ring is making a fortune out of pirating top shows from abroad. Illegal copies of top films and TV programmes which take years to reach the Kenyan screens, are already in the homes of video-owning families in the country.

However, of late there has been a revival with ultra-luxurious cinemas and small theatres in multiplex where one has a choice of more than one film. But I don’t think that movie-going can ever reach the popularity and level of the 60s, 70s and 80s that was indeed the golden era of cinema.

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