THE Shah Jehan in Grey Street in the late 60s or early 70s.
THE Shah Jehan in Grey Street in the late 60s or early 70s.

Then and now: A movie palace fit for an emperor

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published Apr 10, 2021

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Today’s old picture features the Shah Jehan cinema on the corner of Grey and Lorne streets, (today Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Ismail C Meer) which was once Durban’s largest.

The picture was taken in the 2 400-seater cinema’s heyday, probably in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

The movie billed is probably the 1965 film Shaheed, a biography of one of India's greatest patriots Sardar Bhagat Singh, directed by S Ram Sharma and starring Kamini Kaushal, Nirupa Roy, and Anand Kumar. It could also have been a rerun of the 1948 Bollywood rom com Shaheed, written and directed by Ramesh Saigal, which depicts India's struggle for independence.

The first cinema to open in Durban was The Electric Cinema in a converted chapel opposite the new city hall in West Street on July 29, 1909. In December 1910, the first “Electric Theatre” for “Coloured People Only” was opened on the corner of Grey and Alice Streets. The first programmes showed scenes outside the mosque in Grey Street.

THE site of the Shah Jehan at the corner of Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Ismail C Meer streets today. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency(ANA)

During the days of silent movies two cinemas operated in the Grey Street area ‒ the Victoria Picture Palace and the Royal Picture Palace, both in Victoria Street. “Rawat′s Bio”, as it was fondly called, was the first Indian-owned cinema in the Grey Street area. In 1940 Abdulla Kajee and AB Moosa opened the Avalon Cinema which also served as a venue for community meetings.

The Shah Jehan Cinema, named after the emperor who built the Taj Mahal in India, was established by the Rajab Brothers in 1956. Located in Grey Street, it was the largest cinema at that time, seating more than 2 400 people with a main circle and a balcony with three private boxes.

In the days before television, going to the cinema was an event. Families would dress in their finest outfits to catch a glimpse of screen stars such as Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Meena Kumari. The Shah Jehan screened Hollywood and Bollywood movies and was famous for its double features.

In a recent chat on Deepika Naidoo’s blog which records the narratives of the South African Indian community, Mahmoud Rajab remembered the struggles and beauty of owning a cinema.

Rajab remembers that going to the cinemas was a treat. “On a Saturday afternoon, women in saris and men in suits would attend the movies. The cinemas were larger and more formal. Without television at home, they were people’s primary form of entertainment. For snacks, we would serve pies, popcorn and coke; sweets became popular later on.

“One thing the Shah Jehan Cinemas was known for was its 2 400-seater movie theatre. It was the largest film theatre in the Southern Hemisphere. Each Saturday, we would have free films for children. There would be three shows a day packed with children, some even sitting on the stairs.”

Things changed in the 1980s as the cultural boycott against apartheid bit hard, limiting the movies that could be shown from India. At the same time, the market was flooded with cheap, bootleg VHS versions of popular films which film lovers could watch at home. As South Africa emerged towards democracy, restrictions were lifted, but sadly, for many of the cinemas that once entertained thousands of people, it was too late.

Shelley Kjonstad’s picture taken this week shows a very different scene. The lights of the grand cinema have gone dark, and the building, while still standing, has been converted into flats.

The Independent on Saturday

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