Mumbai: In mid-1990s, when renowned artist M.F. Husain became infatuated by Bollywood diva Madhuri Dixit, he decided to watch the blockbuster 'Hum Aapke Hain Koun' movie 50 times and then create some paintings on the actress.
He chose the iconic Liberty Cinema in south Mumbai where the movie was premiered in August 1994 and occupied a paid upper stall seat. And, whenever Madhuri danced on the screen, the elated Husain himself would start dancing to her steps in the aisle,
The other patrons were irritated and complained to the theatre management. The owner, Nazir Hoosein, offered Husain his private box minus the seats, where he could dance to his heart's content - but the celebrated artist rejected it.
Years later, a Husain classic of Madhuri, celebrating his artistic series of woman as 'Shakti', still adorns the foyer of Liberty Cinema.
Now, 68 years after it was built (in 1947) by the late Habib Hoosein and named Liberty to celebrate India's Independence, the cinema, which had seen some glorious days, is now donning a new avatar - an elite cultural centre, courtesy businessman and culture czar Neville Tuli's Osianama Group.
"Osianama has taken up nine cultural clubs (within the theatre) which will be gradually inaugurated over the next 15 months. These clubs will be meant for appreciating and discussing areas like vintage automobiles cinema, antiques and fine arts, books and poetry, photography, architectural heritage and preservation, animal welfare, design craft and popular cultures, and sporting heritage," Tuli said.
The Osianama Cinefan Club will premier at least 50 top films and the best of global cinema this year and organize a dozen exhibitions on Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers et al.
This will help revive the 1,200-seater Liberty Cinema, among the hundreds of single-screen cinemas which were sidelined by posh small-capacity multiplexes since 2005.
"Many cinema halls were built to satisfy the entertainment needs of allied forces based in and around Bombay (now, Mumbai) during World War II. But all the cinemas in south Mumbai screened only English movies," the 74-year old Nazir Hoosein said.
Hindi movies were screened in cinemas on Lamington Road and beyond, barely five kilometres away, considered congested middle-class, down-market localities. A majority of them have closed down over the years or have become sad reminders of their erstwhile glorious days.
Post-WW II, the Indian film industry desperately needed good cinema halls in south Mumbai and businessman Habib Hoosein quickly envisaged Liberty Cinema as the "showpiece of the new nation".
His friend Manu Subedar, who was guiding the fledgling Indian government's economic issues, had acquired certain land in south Mumbai from which he gave one plot where Liberty Cinema took birth in 1947.
Designed by British architect Ridley Abbott, who died in an air crash en route home to London, it was completed by an Indian, J.B. Fernandes.
The interiors and the eye-catching Plaster of Paris work within and outside the cinema were the brainchild of the artistic Hoosein and his friend Waman Namjoshi.
At the Liberty Cinema's inauguration on March 20, 1949, the maiden movie screened was Mehboob Khan's "Andaz" starring Dilip Kumar, Nargis and Raj Kapoor - the only time the legendary trio ever worked together.
Liberty Cinema suddenly acquired a new halo and all top film-makers vied to screen their new movies here, making it a sort of socio-cultural hub.
By the 1960s, Liberty alone could not cater to the burgeoning demand of the Indian film industry, Hoosein explained.
This spurred Namjoshi to create other icons like Maratha Mandir and Naaz cinemas in central south Mumbai which originally screened movies of A. R. Kardar and V. Shantaram.
Early in 1970, due to his failing health, Habib Hoosein hired out Liberty Cinema to a group of distributors for 20 years, but its neglect and decline started.
The dispute between the owners and tenant was finally resolved in the Supreme Court which reinstated the property to the Hoosein family.
Liberty is described as "an exquisite jewel box of rococo decoration enhanced by a coloured-lighting scheme suggesting a fairyland far away from the bustle and tumult in the streets outside," by David Vinnels & Brent Skelly in their book, 'Bollywood Showplaces: Cinema Theatres in India'.
Besides, there is a small 30-seater called 'Liberty Mini' richly decorated with pre-Independence artefacts, and used for media previews, private or exclusive screenings.
After stopping screening commercial movies, Liberty offered its magnificent heritage interiors for musicals, stage events, film shoots and other major activities, and now it will be transformed into an incredible cultural hub through Osianama Group.