A Nostalgic Look at Naaz Cinema

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020

Naaz ki Kahaani Meri Zubani. (The story of Naaz and my testimony)

By Ramzan Allan

Up till the time that the Naaz Cinema finally rose up at this site in the early fifties, Messrs Samji Kala and their company Majestic Theatres ruled the roost. Other than the Regal Cinema which screened mostly English films, there was no competition and films lay canned in Samji Kala's warehouse at times for more than two years before being released. There were no DVDs or VHS or Internet at that time! Then the Moons [Cinema] loomed up on the horizon and the race was on! 

Enter Naaz with its popular movies like Awaara and others that gradually forced almost all roads to lead to Mithu's Naaz Cinema. In no time, Majestic declared an all-out war - fortunately to the advantage of the film going public - by offering 'special shows' at special price..... one shilling all round, special ladies show, jagraan show, two movies for the price of one, etc! Still Naaz stood tall and steady! In no time, Majestic Theatres changed gears and surprised the public by putting up the Queens Cinema almost overnight! And the rest is history! 

Apart from the regular patrons of this theatre back then, it was a place where many relationships started innocently and went on to be sealed with the marriage vows! There were many other budding relationships that had begun in earnest but were nipped in the bud by 'heartless' elders before sprouting wings as the courting couple was caught red handed.

Syed Muhammed Shah, popularly known as Mithu, was the manager of Naaz Cinema and was always dressed smartly, mostly in safari suits or kaundas and on special occasions he cut out an imposing figure sporting a well pressed white shirt and a red tie. He would be found strolling carefree in the terrazzo-covered foyer of the theatre taking stock of the situation. Sales depended on the movie itself and the first releases were almost always money spinners at least for the first few screenings till the reviews from the patrons hit the street. Mithu would always be seen with a tin of '555' in one hand and a heavy bunch of keys in another. He was referred to as 'Bwana 555' in our little neighbourhood group in Kibokoni!

Right at the front entrance of the theatre there used to be the all favourite popcorn machine. To the right was the canteen that did roaring business during all intervals. The inside was air conditioned and initially it boasted of a sky blue heavy brocade curtain on the stage and I think there were stars cut from golden coloured metallic fabric that were sewn on that heavy curtain to complete the picture of a star studded sky. There was also a row of coloured lights that were hidden from view but cast very soft shades of lights along the bottom edge of that heavy curtain.

Outside the theatre, one would find vendors of assorted goodies selling katchri, bateta, ganthiya, jugu, bisi, watana, dariya, hambul, chewing gum, toffee and other such items. With some snacks, we would retreat into the half lit well of the theatre's metal spiral staircase which came down on one of the side walls located in the dusty lane between the cinema and the fence of the police station where we would seat ourselves on the raised concrete landing at the bottom of the gaazi, (stairs), then open the package with fumbling hands and unhidden urgency and spread the paper all around so that none of the rus (sauce) got away and dug into the mouth-watering mix.  

One night, I remember standing outside the Naaz Cinema in pouring rain, just by that spiral staircase, lying in wait with the hope of catching a glimpse of Sunil Dutt who was to make an onstage appearance as part of launching and promoting his song laden movie Ye Raaste Hai'n Pyaarke. Later on in life, there were a few Baluchi lads who were my neighbours in Makadara that worked as ushers in Naaz, Regal and Kenya cinema as well and therefore I was at times 'smuggled' in by these 'kind' friends..... so long as there was enough space inside the auditorium. When English movies were screened at such places, the feature film usually began after the second interval and so I would first finish my dinner and then go to either Regal or Queens or Naaz to kill my time gulping kahawa that was vendored by the likes of Salim Karama who also resided in Makadara.  Being my neighbour, he too would never charge me a dime no matter how many pegs of kahawa I gulped or even if I was there with a friend. 

Then the bell for interval would sound ... and the foyer of the theatre would get crowded with patrons looking for something to munch, or to enjoy a steaming cup of  kahawa  (sugarless swahili black coffee) or tangawizi (cinnamon tea without milk but with sugar). Then another bell would signal the end of the interval and all of a sudden the whole place would be deserted, and it would become quiet as if the earlier busy scene was some kind of a dream. I would wait patiently for my usher friend to beckon me from the steps at the main entrance of the cinema. He would usually whistle and then shine his torch in my direction flashing it on and off to signal to me that it was all clear. Then I would make my way towards the entrance of the theatre where my usher friend would part the dark heavy curtain at the entrance door and lead me to my seat by swinging the ray of light on to the floor in a front and back motion and once the right row was reached, he would raise the torch and aim it at the seat that he would want me to occupy.

There was an instance when I was still a kid, may be ten or thereabouts, when there was a partial collapse of Naaz Cinema resulting in the death of at least one lady who happened to be the mother of a very very dear childhood friend of mine. The exclusive weekly ladies shows were a hit with all 'our' women on the island who had nothing better to do and - in most cases, unknown to their husbands - had managed to save a few shillings through cutting corners when planning the daily meals. On that particular day of a ladies’ show, all roads led to Naaz cinema. These festively draped women, dressed in all their fineries would be seen hastening towards their destination in the scorching coastal sun. 

There was no tropical rain storm vicious enough that could force these women to stay in their barracks. Some in their buibuis and others dragging a couple of little ones behind them whilst ordering another little one to clutch her dress so as to keep pace with her! It was like a mad house out of control. Many Swahili, Baluchi and Arab women anointed themselves with assorted attars ... all having their own distinct fragrances. Others would be sporting strings of sweet smelling flowers like asmini and mtundaufu in their hair. There was however one specific breed in this crowd that also literally fumigated itself  and its clothes with auood and the fragrance in many cases was very 'intoxicating' even to a pea brained katoto like me. Hijab or the plain head covering so common today had not yet been 'discovered' amongst the Muslim women in Mombasa, although one could occasionally see one or two at the most. 

Suleiman, the senior booking officer and Mithu's confidante and right hand man, could be seen lurking in a dark office. One could hear the thumping of his rubber 'stamp' that he so rapidly banged on the tickets that were flying out of his booking office ... and then suddenly he would slam shut the window of his booking office after slapping the dreaded ‘HOUSE FULL’ sign on it. Suleiman was one guy who was partially responsible for the disappointments and miseries of so many patrons, not to mention those half a dozen ticket touts who made all the hay possible by scalping the scores of tickets that they had on them! As soon as Suleiman disappeared from the premises, magically these black marketeers emerged out of nowhere like a menacing shoal of barracudas that suddenly appear from the depths of the ocean ready for easy prey! These guys were absolutely ruthless in their trade and rumours of inside collaboration at almost the highest level were not uncommon but I will let all those souls rest in peace!  

Because the older women of the household had no interest in seeing any movies, they would look for a male chaperon for their daughters and if the brother or a cousin was not available, then I would be selected as their Dobberman. Though I was only knee high to a grasshopper, the mums considered me one smart cookie and trusted me as their watch dog for their frisky fun loving daughters. They would hand me a penny saying: Haya mwanangu … pokeya hilo peni na nenda kaji nunuliye chakaleti kwa Bereki! (Here my son ... take this penny and go and get yourself a candy from the shop of Bereki.)

Mithu, the Naaz icon, passed away on 24 July 2004. In an obituary in the Coastweek dated 30 July, Shakur Bythea wrote that when questioned by a friend about why he was glued to the cinema business for so long, as a person of his calibre who had formerly been a Mombasa Municipal Councillor, he sighed and quietly admitted: ‘Because the word CINE...MA has a sentimental value for me - it ends with MA and I loved my mother'.

Life for Ramzan then was one long picnic pleasantly interspersed with food and drinks, song and dance! But of course, nothing lasts forever. May Naaz rest in peace!

Courtesy: http://kenyanjustice.blogspot.com/2012/09/enjoy-mombasa-nostalgia-old-photoswrite.html

The above article by Ramzan Allan was posted by Natwar Joshi, and forwarded to AwaaZ by Laura Fair.

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