Edward Talkies: Small Talk with Fred Poonawala

Edward Theatre is seeking a cultural revival after surviving a dark tunnel of the single screen’s demise

Slated to open towards the end of the month, the Goethe Institut’s ambitious Poets Translating Poets Festival, which will be staged across the city, brings to spotlight one of the oldest gems in the city –The Edward Theatre -located in bustling Kalbadevi. In December, a Bangalore-based performance arts company will present Christmas Shoot Out at the heritage theatre. Its 55-year-old owner Fred Poonawala is quite thrilled about hosting two back-to-back events at a space “which has barely five people in the audience right now“, he says, referring to the screening of a B-grade matinee Yudh ­ Ek Jung, which was playing at the cinema on Saturday.“The plan is to repurpose, refurbish and reimagine the space, without changing its structure, its look and its feel.“

Article by Reema Gehi  | Times Of India

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Four years ago, the British Council had brought to the theatre a live cinema performance, Light Surgeons.Two years later, two Swiss bands, Eric Trufaiz and Plaistow, performed here.There was even a charity auction conducted by the Mumbai Art Room.“And we thought a well-educated audience would love the space and start bringing in shows. Though there hasn’t been any sort of consistent pro gramming,“ he says, adding. “I have been speaking with people such as Dev Benegal, Ramu Ramanathan, Sanjna Kapoor and Kunal Kapoor, who think it’s a nice place, but needs to be done up.“

Taking a cue from his friends in the performance arts and film industry, the Pali Hill resident is in talks with a few realty experts to spruce the 500-seater again. “We have an idea of what we want to do. But nothing is signed, sealed and delivered,“ he says.“For years, it has been a chicken-andegg situation for me. You think, if you do something, people will come, or wonder when people come should you do something.“ If all goes as Poonawala has planned, Edward Theatre joins the ranks of the Royal Opera House and the Liberty Theatre, which have transformed into performance venues in the city. Poonawala points out, “This space actually was meant for plays and performances before it turned into a single screen theatre. It was meant for entertaining British expats who came to Bombay during the war.“

Built in 1800s, the theatre belonged to Poonawala’s grand-uncle Bejan Bharucha, “who was a man of many tastes. He loved his horses, cars and theatres. In fact, he had shares in 40 theatres across India,“ says Poonawala. “As a kid, I would often drop in at Edward to watch old American cowboy movies, and my grand-uncle would be very happy. I remember there used to be a staff of 63 -today, we are only 10 -because it was buzzing with people and we needed manpower to control them.“

Bejan later passed on the legacy to his German wife Gertrude. “The theatre was already not doing well when my aunt passed away in 2005. Single screen theatres were not doing well as multiplexes already sprung up,“ he says. “Besides, my grand-aunt was very determined to keep the prices of tickets low because she wanted the poor to watch cinema and get away from their lives for those few hours.The most expensive ticket was Rs 24,“ he says, pointing, “Today, the most expensive ticket is Rs 35, which isn’t much anyway in these times of inflation. I continue putting my own money to maintain this place; it’s not a profit-making endeavour. I am looking for generous donors who will help this cause.“

A collector in his own right, arts have a special place in Poonawala’s life: he also runs a lithography firm and is the go-to man for leading contemporary artists, and top gallerists such as Shireen Gandhy, Usha Mirchandani and Dadiba Pundole to print limited editions, reproductions of artworks and exhibition brochures.Working with artists is a different experience, he says. “(MF) Husain would land up twice a week at our office when his projects were going on. He was an easy-going person. He knew what he painted could never be reproduced the same way in print and didn’t keep any big expectations,“ says Poonawala, “He was experimental and would oblige us with his impromptu drawings and canvases.He painted a Ganesha for me, which I still count as my favourite.“