The Alfred Talkies in Mumbai might just be the closest thing left to the old school grindhouse experience left in the world. However, the genteel owner Najma Loynmoon would not want to hear that. She insists on running a clean and orderly establishment, for the sake of the friendly spirits haunting the building. Under her protective stewardship, the Alfred operates much the same as it did when her stern grandfather was in charge. Most notably, that means they still employ Sheikh Rehman to hand paint banners for each week’s feature. Frankly, his grandly lurid murals are much more visibly pleasing than the scratchy prints the theater screens. Rehman reflects on his supposedly obsolete profession in Florian Heinzen-Ziob & Georg Heinzen’s Original Copy (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Fantastic Fest.
Ironically, Mumbai’s construction boom has altered traffic patterns in ways that are not beneficial to the Alfred Talkies. Their dwindling clientele now comes more for the air-conditioning than a second run Salman Khan film (or more likely an explosion-heavy chestnut from the 1970s or 1980s). Yet, Rehman still hand crafts his poster art, just like his father did before him. He carefully signs each weekly masterpiece of sneering, gun-toting Bollywood idols, even though he knows he will paint over it in seven days’ time.
Although Bollywood fans might expect something flashier than the Heinzens’ meditative approach, there is something about the Alfred Talkies that old fashioned cineastes will find seductively compelling. It is a real deal movie palace, with a large balcony in everyday use (not that they need the extra seating). Any Fantastic Fest patron who happens to be in Mumbai will want to take in a screening there, just the faded glory experience. In a world of cookie-cutter multiplexes, you just don’t see theaters like that anymore.
Of course, Rehman is crusty in a manner befitting an underappreciated master. You could say he can be a little curt with his apprentices, but at least he livens up the studio scenes. His paintings are also works of exquisitely sensationalistic beauty. Arguably, he is the world’s greatest oil painter of hand guns and crashing helicopters.