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Home > Discover Mumbai > Sight Seeing > Mumbai > Esplande Mansion

 Esplanade Mansion - a piece of film history 

July 7th, 1896 - A momentous day in the history of India, when the Lumiere Brothers presented the first cinematograph show at the Watson's Hotel in Mumbai.

The Esplanade Mansion  as it stood 100 years ago104 years later in December 2000 - Only the rusted classic styled carving of 'W' on the railings of the building remain testimony to its glorious past. Hundred and four years later, Watson's Hotel no longer remains, but the stately 'Esplanade Mansion,' now declared a heritage building, in the Kala Ghoda art district, has stories to tell for generations to come. From British soldiers to Persis Kambatta, Sabira Merchant, Pearl Padamsee, Sunil Dutt and Sharon Prabhakar, the Mansion is associated with India's best in terms of film and theatre. Few are aware of the past glory and present status of this Mansion.

Smart & Hollywood, The building, which was built by French architects bears first traces of India becoming the largest film producing country in the world. As history goes, on July 7, 1896 the Lumiere Brothers presented the first cinematographic show in Mumbai at the Watson Hotel, an exclusively European hostelry. The great American author, Mark Twain, who had stayed their earlier had described the building as "something like a huge birdcage" because of the iron frame structure.

Esplanade Mansion todayOn the historic day, an advertisement in the morning's 'Times of India' invited the residents of Bombay to come and witness 'the marvel of the century, the wonder of the world.' The marvel was more explicitly described as ' living photographic pictures in life-sized reproduction by Lumiere Brothers'. The first day's programme featured six items, which included an introductory piece on the new invention. The titles shown were, Entry of Cinematograph, Arrival of a Train, The Sea Bath, A Demolition, Leaving the Factory and Ladies and Soldiers on Wheels. The entire show lasted less than an hour with each film being 17 metres long. The transparent screen was about 20 feet away from the projector which, as it was hand-driven, made no sound. There were four shows daily at an admission fee of one rupee.

Esplanade Mansion - A perspectiveThe audience watched 'with bated breath and cheered lustily at the end.' The success of the Lumiere's pioneering enterprise had planted the first seed of a new industry of rapid growth and vast potential. Among the enthralled audience at the Lumiere showing was a portrait photographer, Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatvadekar, better known as Save Dada, who became the first Indian to import a motion picture camera from London at the cost of 21 guineas.

A look inside the mansionLater the Watson Hotel was sold to Raja Mahendra Singh, the King of Saurashtra (Morvi) and the building was renamed 'Mahendra Mansion.' It later passed through several hands - the Tatas, who named it 'Esplanade Mansion' and to its present owner Sadiq Ali. This heritage building flanked by metal pillars on the front and small balconies with ornate railings, today houses two old businesses, Smart & Hollywood (tailors) and the Army Restaurant, both historic in their own right. Advocates and chartered accountants form the maximum number of tenants in the building - of the 200 tenments, only about 50 are residential. Little rays of sunlight play pranks on the 10 feet wide wooden stairways, which make their way up the four floors, with dark long corridors and small offices scattered all alongside. One of the houses on the top most floor has been leased by Tata Sons to their driver D'silva. "We have stayed here for the past 16 years," says his wife, Carmelin D'Silva, who remains unaware of the historic nature of the building she inhabits. Most of the occupants do not know that the building was the venue for India's first cinematographic show.

The Army Restaurant, the oldest establishment on the premises, boasts of a 65 year old relationship with the Esplanade Mansion. Maintaining the old world Irani charm, the 2000 square feet cafe, a favourite with the British Army before Independence, still boasts of stately furniture and remains unchanged over the decades. "My father, Husain, bought the cafe from the Maharaja of Saurashtra 65 years ago for a deposit of Rs 1000/-. My father even insisted on a bill from the Maharaja," says Mahmood Husain, who runs the cafe. Recalling the stories told by his father, Husain says, "The restaurant owes its name to the British Army, whose officers were its regular patrons. Army officers used to come in groups, join all the small, square marble topped tables together, making a makeshift mini dance floor. Then they would drink, dance on the tables and make merry the whole night. They would be so drunk that they would tip the waiters (mostly Keralites) double the bill amount." Many of their waiters were even able to build big mansions in their hometown from the tips, he adds with a laugh. Today the place with the Civil Session Court next door is frequented mainly by lawyers, law students and policemen, only 10 per cent of their patrons are office goers.

The former Dancing Hall of the Watson Hotel has been converted into a simplistic darzi (tailoring) centre called 'Smart & Hollywood,' 60 years ago, linking the best of Bollywood to the mansion. This place would not afford a second glance, with its nondescript appearance, except for the fact that Persis Kambatta, Sabira Merchant, the Spencer Sisters, Shobha De, Pearl Padamsee, Sunil Dutt, Sharon Prabhakar, Mira Nair and ladies from the Consulates were dressed by the darzis here. "We won the 'Kingfisher Mastercutter Hall of Fame 2000' awarded by the United Breweries Group in November this year," say the three darzis, Nafish Ahmed, Imtiaz Ahmed and Mumtaz Ahmed. These mastercutters charge from Rs 275/- onwards for a ladies outfit and Rs 3000/- for sewing a men's suit. "We can stitch from Victorian costumes to the most modern day outfits," the trio say with confidence. Their outfits have been worn by artists in popular productions like Evita, Tarantula Tanzi and even the occassional Shakespearean play.

In 1996, to commemorate 100 years of the building, the entire 'who's who' of Bollywood was there at the Esplanade Mansion to install a metal plaque. Just two years ago, a gust of heavy wind brought the plaque down and it was promptly stolen, never to be found again. Plaque or no plaque, no one can wipe out the hundred years of history of this stately building.

By : Anupama Vinayak
Photographer : Vinayak Prabhu

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