Delhi has just got one of its strangest guidebooks.
The book by Ziya Us Salam of The Hindu does not list the city’s tombs or museums, or its street food or spice bazaars. It is about cinema halls.
Delhi 4 Shows: Talkies Of Yesteryear is a survey of the Capital’s extinct and surviving movie halls. Some of these landmarks have been turned into multiplexes, many others carry on as single-screen auditoriums, and quite a few now live only in memory. But each of them resonates with stories that inadvertently cast light on the changing face of the Capital.
The whitewashed Regal in Connaught Place, which is currently playing the Hindi sex comedy Hunterrr, began screening movies in 1939. The first film it screened was the Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable starrer Gone With The Wind. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho opened in 1960 in the nearby Rivoli theatre, and Hitchcock himself was in the audience. Rivoli, which only screened English films, turned wholeheartedly to Hindi films with Rajesh Khanna’s Aradhana in 1969. Odeon, another Connaught Place theatre, too has a history of showing timeless films (such as The Sound Of Music), but it was also notorious for its side lane, which was frequented by sex workers looking for business.
Not far away is the red-brick Imperial cinema in Paharganj. It screens potboilers from the 1990s; the morning shows are reserved for naughty English films. The Imperial began as a colonial-era theatre and often hosted balls for British officers. It is believed to be the first theatre to have been turned into a cinema hall. The first movie shown here was Alam Ara, India’s first sound film.
The building which was once Khanna Cinema in Paharganj’s Main Bazaar lies sandwiched between cafés and hotels. Nobody ever thought highly of it. It rarely happened to show brand-new releases. In fact, it was famous in the 1970s and 1980s for two women pickpockets.
Delite cinema is noted not only for its many chandeliers but also for its jumbo-sized aloo samosa. Old Delhi’s historic wall once passed through this point. Opened in 1954 with Raj Kapoor’s Angaray, the hall’s waiting lounge now has restaurant-style tables, and the ladies’ washroom has a regal-looking settee. In 1994, the producers of the superhit Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! initially released their film in Delhi in only two theatres. One was Sapna in East of Kailash; the other was Delite.
The nearby Golcha theatre opened in 1954 with the movie Sant Kabir—the theatre was inaugurated by philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who later became India’s president. Golcha screened the legendary movie Mughal-e-Azam when it was first released in 1960, and also screened the full coloured version decades later, in 2010.
Talking of courtesans, one of the greatest Hindi movies made on the subject was Meena Kumari’s Pakeezah. This movie ran for six months at Jagat, the Walled City cinema hall opposite the imposing Jama Masjid (it screened Mughal-e-Azam, too). Originally named Nishat, it was referred to as “Macchliwallon ka Talkies" because of its proximity to the fish market. The story is that a poetically inclined resident of the Matia Mahal neighbourhood would come daily to see Pakeezah, travelling on a tonga with the women of the family. The entire party would wait for the famous song, Chalte Chalte, and then leave the theatre, only to come again the next day.
Only the Jagat building survives; the hall itself was shut down a few years ago following “allegations of soft porn clips being inserted in a dubbed foreign film", according to the book. The lobby is closed and stray cats slip in and out freely through the iron grills.
These numerous snippets are merely a trailer to the charming 70mm film that the book is. A quick browse through its content list alone takes you on a magic carpet ride over place-names that feel so familiar and yet so remote: Minerva in Mori Gate, Milan in Karampura, Paras in Nehru Place, Robin Talkies in Old Subzi Mandi, and Radhu Palace in Laxmi Nagar.