Pila House: Interview with Sayeed Bhai, Owner of Gulshan Talkies and Its Restaurant
Director: Madhusree Dutta
Duration: 00:19:12; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 207.821; Saturation: 0.059; Lightness: 0.231; Volume: 0.176; Cuts per Minute: 0.365; Words per Minute: 137.188
Pila House is a living museum of change – while on one hand painted hoarding have given way to digital posters – Pila house is a showcase of some of the film industry’s all time favourite films / actors – with repeat shows. But what becomes significant there is the audience. Who are the ones getting entertained and how? Who the people who keep Pila House alive?
A momentous shift from the educated Parsis, Bohris and Anglo-Indians who urged the then British rulers to carve out an entertainment district at the heart of a growing modern city to the daily laborers from UP and Bihar who spend their spend their weekly pittance today. Sayeed bhai’s family had acquired the premises which now include Gulshan Talkies and the adjoining restaurant, he apart from registering the property in a new name had also brought about significant structural changes and today continues to invest and carry on a profitable business.
Various histories can be drawn of an area such as Pila House, for instance simply the architecture of the area tales the history of the building of the city. But more than a particular style of building, it how and for what purpose a site is built, and how is subsequently adapts itself to continuing needs, that is interesting. These building then change hands, from a Parsi owner to a Muslim, from an Afghan tenant to a group of young Bihari boys. So in my journeys into the Pila House I have often wondered about the countless cultures that have passed through it. And it is quite literally amidst the bazaars of Bombay, midway between Girgaum Chowpatty and Bombay Central. It is still located within what can be called Mumbai’s prime real estate, and must somewhere possess the commercial viability to survive the wrath of time. Pila house is an intersection both spatially and in time– a crossing, a route you are bound to take at some point, steal a quick glance hoping for a glimpse of those it hides more than it reveals. Pila house is suspended somewhere between a prayer and a secret fantasy – a super-mall of desires.
This event is an interview is of Sayeed Bhai, who continues to run a successful business, both with his theatre as well as the restaurant which runs alongside, within the precinct of Pila House. His interview is one of a series of three interviews we conducted with various people to recollect the history of the area from the point of view of people who have either lived or worked there, i.e. in some way belonged to that space and were currently associated with some sort of trade in that area.
Madhu (M): Salem walekum Sayeed Bhai. We are making this documentary about this place. This place has prominent place in Bombay's history. There is Pila house here, there was a graveyard before, then there is Kamatipura which comprised of Kamatis who constructed houses and also involved in other professions also. So all in all it's a very important place in the history of Bombay. I've heard that nobody knows about this place as much as you do. So tell us what relation do you share with this place?
Sayeed Bhai (SB): According to the old custom house records, starting from do talkies to Alankar this place was a graveyard. In 1857 the graveyard notification on this place was withdrawn. There was this limited portion of land which is known as old graveyard, was earmarked as graveyards. Now there are 2 mosques in that area. The remaining places underwent a lot of development. These pious and religious places were left out of the development process. Later the educated section of people like the Boris, Parsis and Anglo-Indians requested the government to setup theatres for entertainment. In those days there used to be theatres. Because of these developments the number of people visiting these dargahs reduced considerably. Once the government observed this they constructed lot many theatres in the dargahs of these areas. You will find dargahs along with all theatres here like, new Roshan, Alfred, Taj Cinema, Nishad everywhere mainly because these dargahs were here from the very beginning.
M: Let me ask you something. In today's context the perceptions of things have changed considerably. If we would construct these entertainment hubs in dargahs or say temples or churches today it would just not be accepted but that was not the case in the past right? What do you feel?
SB: Like I have already said these theatres were constructed only after the number of people visiting these dargahs reduced considerably. This happens everywhere, if somebody leaves a place and it is occupied by the people from different locality, then they gradually transform the area according to their wishes.
Even in Punjab, after the Babri Masjid incident, a report was carried by Times of India which said that when lot of Muslims fled the place the mosques were deserted. Gradually people of the neighborhood turned it into animal shed. Then it was turned into a diary farm. So you see whenever a place is deserted the place undergoes these changes.
Sayeed Bhai speaks with the pragmatic voice of a businessman, and displays a working knowledge of the space. He tries to project the space as a promising space for investment and an economy which still holds scope for growth. But what seeps through the conversation is the city's acute awareness of land and its capacity to change the use of the land according to the available trends and opportunities.
Pila House, Falkland Road, Mumbai
M: Sayeed Bhai could you tell me the graveyard that you were talking about was meant for which section of the society?
SB: It was meant for the local residents.
M: Local people from the market?
SB: No. These markets came much later. After 1857. Till then this place was very deserted and had graveyards. Gradually the government began the development process. Those were the days when there was not much discrimination, people were not very educated, informed and as and when people started leaving these places, government took advantage and changed these places in this manner. Nobody objected to it either.
M: So who were the audiences of this play house?
SB: They were locals. Not many migrants were there in those times like the ones that you see now. The labourers especially… Migration was very less. There were Kolis, Kamatis, Bohras, Parsis and Anglo-Indians etc., who used to come here for entertainment because there were lot many theatres in this area. Since there were so many play houses in this area, the place was called play house, but in the local slang it was changed to Pila House.
M: There was an official notification called Play House right?
SB: Oh yes it was there for play house and not Pila House. The public has made it Pila House.
M: This notification of play house was extended from where to where?
SB: It was from the corner of Do talkies to Alankar corner.
M: But now we hardly find Parsees and Anglo Indians here?
SB: Yes these people also left this place gradually and it is now occupied by the migrants. It has now become an entertaining hub for the migrants.
M: Which language do they speak?
SB: Oh all the languages. The very specialty of this place now is that we have people from every corner of India residing here.
M: So tell us what kind of entertainment was provided when these play houses began?
SB: For instance, this was Bombay theatre and the kind of things that were shown was Marathi lavani, small marathi plays and to your amusement Shakeela Banu Bhopali one of the very popular Qawali singers of the country gave the first performance of her life in this theatre. These were the kinds of entertainment that were provided here.
M: There would have been Parsees theatre also?
SB: I read it an article that the theatres in these areas mainly belonged to Parsees and Bohras, these sections was educated and also was good at business. That's the reason why they jumped into this profession and so were also responsible for the development of this area.
The history of Pila House, in a way, is also the history of urban entertainment industry. Parsee theatre is proscenium theatre tradition that functioned in multiple languages. With painted backdrop and elaborate histrionics it was a very distinct form of drama. Early Indian cinema, specially the Bombay cinema, was hugely influenced by Parsee theatre. Lavni and Tamasha are Marathi folk performing arts. Broadly it can be said the early days of Pila house were marked by performing art shows of various genre.
shakeela banu bhopali
M: How did films come then?
SB: Around 1900 all these places were gradually converted into cinema. The year, their original names, about plays, the year when theatre was converted into cinema is all mentioned in the article that I was talking about.
M: There were quite a few markets also in these areas right?
SB: Yes, gradually there were lots of markets that were coming up. Like I told you the people did not object to anything in the past, after a saturation point, the ones who got place remained and settled and the matter settled there.
M: Could you tell us when did the Kamatis come?
SB: I don't have any knowledge about them.
Abeer (A): You were telling us yesterday about how were things when your father was there, the story from 59 onwards.
SB: We came in the 60s here when I was quite small. Yet I used to come to this hotel. It was very deserted then, it was sparsely inhabited. The population was less; the roads were also not too crowded.
When we bought this around 1961-62, my father dreamt of Baba (saint), an old man with white beard, white jubba (gown), who said 'do I not even deserve some flowers as offering from you' … he saw him twice in the dream. So my father felt that this Baba is demanding something from me. So he spoke to the pious people, the maulanas (priests) and told them about the dream. But he did not get any reply from anybody. Then he came across an old person who asked him if he had bought some new place recently. He replied yes. Then he said there is some tomb there, please go and check properly. My father said there is no chance of a tomb's existence in that area because that is a very bad and indecent place.
He had been staying there for the past 8-10 years and had not come across any. But the old man said you go and try.
Then my father asked people around, the ones who were new said they have no knowledge about this. Then my father came across a man from the theatres who, used to do the curtain raising in theatres. He was supposedly the oldest resident of the place. Then when my father met him he said I don't really know about what you are saying but I will show you something may be you have come searching for this. Then he got my father to this place and showed him the Dargah. So from that day onwards our family always sends flowers to this Dargah.
Sayeed Bhai comes from a class who acquired and owned property around Pila House. So his information has that perspective. His own life, growing up and learning the tricks to carry on a successful business has taught him a few things about this place. He also commands a certain amount of control and respect among the people I met in the area. In fact I was told by a number of people that the right person to question about these matters was in fact, Sayeed Bhai, or Haji sahib as he is called.
(Javed Bhai in his interview refers to him as Haji Sahib). Owning a place of worship in India is one of the definite methods of becoming prosperous and influential.
M: But the Parsees and Anglo-Indians that you were talking about are no longer seen here right?
SB: Infact my father bought this place from a Parsee named Jehangir Nasarwanji Daruwala and family. This was their family property. My father got it in 1960-61. The amazing part is that the day when all the necessary papers were signed, the very next day my father dreamt of this saint. I come here regularly right from 79-80s.
M: You are talking about the Parsees who had property but there were would have been other ordinary Parsees and Anglo-Indians who are the residents here but who did not have much property…
M: But now, things have changed right?
SB: Oh now everything has changed.
M: You would have seen this transition right?
SB: Yes. Have seen it a lot.
M: Now the place comprises of migrants who have just come some 20-30- years back right?
M: Which means there was space here for people to live. You were saying this place was quite inhabited, so when did people start coming?
SB: Around 1900, when these theatres were constructed, it attracted lot of migrants and the Parsees and Anglo-Indians started leaving this place.
When the migrant population increased, as you know Parsees are peace lovers. They cannot tolerate crowd, so they decided to leave. In this building in the past, 7 Parsees and 3 Christians mostly Anglo-Indians were residing here but because of the crowd they opted to move out. This was the same with everyone.
M: So what you mean to say is the advent of theatres only brought about all these visible changes of today to this place right?
SB: Very true. The development of this entire area was definitely because of the theatres.
M: How is the theatre business going now?
SB: The advent of television gave a blow to the theatres but because of some aids from the government the theatres have picked up again. Our hotel business is thoroughly dependant on the theatres only. If it's a good picture the crowd will be more and we will also gain but if it's a flop film it will adversely affect our business.
Sometimes the development is measured by the success of the business in cinema theatres or restaurants; sometimes it is by the flow of migration; yet at another time by way of gentrification. Urban development is a definitely a complex social construction.
M: The place has changed from the past considerably. In the past it was supposed to be one of the indecent localities now it is not the same right?
SB: Yes right. There were around 30-40 % of people who migrated from here. The areas where the call girls used to be there now people have changed their occupation. There are washer-men there, tailoring shops, wine shops etc., I believe in the coming 5-7 years all these will completely be cleared out from here.
M: Is this change good for your and the theatre business?
SB: Theatre business is totally dependant on whether the picture is good or flop. Good pictures attract more crowd and the flop ones don't.
M: So if the residents keep moving, migrating that will not affect the business.
SB: Yes it will not affect.
Abeer (A): If we look back we have just said that there were people from different parts pursuing different professions but one such profession also involved those people whom we term as indecent right?
SB: Yes. The ones of the red light area.
A: Yes. Exactly. Did you hear anything about them? How did they come? How did they go?
SB: Well as I said I do not know how they came. I was quite small when I first came. The migrant workers who came from Bihar, Orissa, Bengal etc., were poor and for the poor there were just two kinds of entertainment, one was the red light area and the other was cinema. This area had both of them, so they used to spend time here and leave. Later this place was inhabited more by residents who had families and so there was a pressure on them to leave the place. Now to avoid problems almost 40% of people have cleared out from red light area. The few that remain I feel will also leave within 5 years. But this will not affect our business in anyway.
M: As far as I could understand about this place one is that there are lots of theatres - Pila house and is associated with a lot of dargahs. I also heard that there were lots of markets in the past that went out of the city now. I am not talking about women but markets like nal bazaar, chor bazaar where people used to visit and leave. They were also a kind of migrants who paid occasional visits, who came for short time, worked and left. I heard that Pila House also constituted of such people. Did you hear anything like that?
SB: No. Those people did not reside here. People then used to reside where they worked. If he was working in nul bazaar he would stay close by, if he works in chor bazaar he would live closeby only, bhendi bazaar then he would live in bhendi bazaar. This is because traveling was not so easy in those days, places were available easily, and there was not much of a problem.
Today things have changed. If one is working in Crawford market he will stay in Versova or Nalasopara. This is because of the shortage of space. In those days there was no such problem. Since 8-10 years, because of the shortage of place, irrespective of where he works if he wants an economical or a low budget place then he has to choose suburbs only. Now suburbs have crossed Borivali also. Earlier till Mahim it was called suburbs now it is extended to Dahisar and other places.
Though reluctant to make any comment about the red light area Sayeed Bhai had to admit that Sex work is sort of part of the popular culture. And the appeal of the area is dependant on the cinema as much as on the red light area. But in his anxiety over talking about sex work in front of a upper class woman he become inarticulate. What, in short, he tried to communicate is that currently the area has become gentrified and conducive to middle class living as the sex workers had to shift out under social pressure. Actually in the wake of anti aids campaign the red light area had come under severe state surveillance and then slowly got disintegrated. One wonders whether businesses like Dargahs and low class eating joints that people like Sayeed Bhai own can survive this drive of cleansing and development.
red light area
M: So Pila House has nothing to do with people who used to work in these markets?
SB: No. Because these people had an area where they used to work like the bhendi bazaar, chor bazaar, null bazaar etc.,
M: What I am trying to understand is in those days when the population was so less how were so many theatres running then? There were not many people also right?
SB: The theatre never used to be full. Even if 55% of it was occupied they used to consider it houseful. When I asked the oldest resident who is no more alive he told me that when Shakila bano was giving her performance only then when it was 100% houseful. Never before was it 100% houseful.
A: Another specialty of Bombay is the port. So many people would have traveled to and from here. Javed saab was saying that there were Pathans here, and a few would have settled also. I have heard that there is a Japanese restaurant close-by in kamatipura side, there used to be ladies also. Chinese people would also come have you come across any such stories?
SB: In our building there were Anglo-Indian, Parsees, Chinese and very few 3-4 tenants were Muslims. There were Pathans in nearby areas who were involved with cloth business. Because of the port the seamen used to come in these horse carts, Victoria – these horse carts were full of these people. There used to be wrestling competition between India and Pakistan in stadium. There used to be these wrestlers who used to come to my hotel. They used to come to drink lassi. Akram, Gama, Bholu have all visited our hotel and I have seen all these with my own eyes.
M: What did the Chinese do in this area?
SB: They were mainly dentists and were also involved in flower making. 5-6 in our building were involved in flower making the rest were dentists.
A: I guess they are still there near Delhi Durbar.
SB: Yes. He is the grandson of this person. His grandfather had opened the dispensary and his grandson is now running it.
A: Javed bhai showed us some dargahs in the other area where there are no theatres, they have huge ground? How is that done?
SB: It is because that place is now full of our people. Because of this increased inhabited space there the government did not want to disturb us and so we were spared. You will find a lot of godowns there now. But dargahs remain where they were.
Nul Bazaar, Mumbai
The visiting population from the Bombay Port was one of the colourful characteristics of Pila House. In the era of sea port there were far many visiting traders from other regions in Asia than can be seen now in the city. The water borne trade was more conducive to cultural exchange than the air cargos and shipping cargos of contemporary trade.