Book review

How Delhi watched movies before the age of multiplexes

History, apocrypha and name-dropping dot this journey through Delhi’s old single-screen cinema halls.

Among the many bits of information and trivia in Delhi: 4 Shows, Ziya Us Salam’s paean to the single-screen movie halls that once dotted the capital, here is one that caught my attention: South Delhi’s first cinema was probably the Gautam Nagar-located Sudershan, established soon after Independence and originally known as Mohini. (Jawaharlal Nehru watched Baiju Bawra there in the early 1950s!)

This came as a surprise because I had spent a lot of time in modest-sized Gautam Nagar during my post-graduation years without ever hearing of this theatre – which once catered to a good-sized audience for “devotional films” such as Har Har Mahadev and Jai Santoshi Maa – or even seeing its fossilised remains.

But then, Ziya’s observation that the hall was doomed by the growing tendency of upper-middle-class South Delhiites to watch films on videocassette hit close to home; when I was a child, my family numbered among those non-theatre-going killjoys. We moved to Saket in the mid-80s, our flat just a five-minute walk from the Anupam hall that would, a decade later, be transformed by the PVR group into India’s first multi-screen theatre.

When that happened in 1997 I saw the first film shown there, Jerry Maguire, and have been a multiplex rat ever since. Yet in those earlier years when Anupam was a single-screen hall, we never watched a film in it.

There was a practical reason for this: I was living with a single mother and a widowed grandmother, we weren’t the sort of family unit that could comfortably venture to a shabby, not-too-well-maintained theatre. But also, like many other urbanites in those years, we were perfectly content getting prints of new releases on cassette each weekend and watching them on our own time. (Which also invites a sheepish admission: as a film writer, I spend a lot of time tut-tutting at people who watch movies on small – or tiny – screens; yet, during my own formative years as a movie buff, roughly between ages 10 and 20, my total hall visits, not including sporadic film-festival outings, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.)

In the sepia years

There is a little about Anupam in the South Delhi segment of this book – along with a short description of the quiet, green Saket of yore – but some of the most involving passages in Delhi: 4 Shows are about the long-demolished or radically refurbished theatres in the first parts of the capital to have movie halls: central Delhi, including the Connaught Place and Paharganj areas, and what we now call Old Delhi – Chandni Chowk, Kashmere Gate, Sadar Bazaar, the Jama Masjid area. Ziya covers those parts of the city before turning his gaze up north, westward, south and “along the Yamuna”.

Describing what the halls looked like in their pomp – from grand edifices such as Chanakya (originally given the goofy fusion name Chanakyarama) to the asbestos-sheeted Chanderlok in CR Park, which recreated the ambience of a small-town mandva for the migrant workers living around the area – he briefly sketches their histories, provides anecdotes, mulls the reasons for their decline (or in some cases, examines the possibilities that still lie ahead).

Back when show times were fixed

Delhi: 4 Shows is a wonderful idea for a book, and more importantly a lot of serious research has gone into it. I have to admit to not being a fan of what I have seen of Ziya Us Salam’s reviewing, and I didn’t think much of his anthology Housefull – a collection of facile write-ups about some of the major films of Hindi cinema’s “golden age” – but he is on firmer ground here, allying his journalistic strengths and nose for information to his passion for the subject.

This isn’t a book you would read for a strong narrative flow (it is essentially a collection of vignettes, categorised by region), but it has definite archival value in a country that can be terribly careless about preserving records of its cultural past.

Evoked here is a period when movie timings didn’t have to be looked up because it was understood that there were four fixed shows – 12, 3, 6 and 9 pm – each day; when producers and distributors would make carefully thought out decisions about where to screen a particular film, keeping in mind the locality and the audience profile (the contrast with the sterile, homogenised multiplex culture is obvious); when theatres like Ritz (Kashmere Gate) had private boxes for burqa-wearing ladies and the proprietors of Alpna (Model Town) hired buses to fetch their viewers from ISBT or the railway station; when theatre employees sat in tarpaulin-covered cycle-rickshaws shouting out information about a movie through loudspeakers; and families had to book tickets days in advance, because communal movie-watching could be as much of an event as organising a birthday party. (The idea that movie outings were once a meticulously pre-planned ritual is probably as quaint to today’s youngsters as it was for my generation to learn that in the 1950s people would don their best clothes and jewellery for plane journeys.)

Trivial delights

There are many engaging details here for film historians. How interesting to learn that Paharganj’s Shiela missed out on being Asia’s first 70-mm-screen cinema because the electricity department got tangled up in red tape. Or that New Amar (Hauz Qazi) informally reserved stalls for sex workers, owing to its closeness to the red-light area GB Road. Or that people flocked from miles away to Rajouri Garden’s Vishal in 1984 so they could thrill in the novelty of watching Chhota Chetan with these newfangled things called 3-D glasses (Vishal was the only hall in the city that showed the film for the first few weeks).

There are also apocryphal stories such as the one about a monkey who would regularly drop in to watch screenings of Hanuman Janam at Sadar Bazar’s West End. (Whether the story is true is almost beside the point; movie halls are places of worship for many of us, so why not believe in miracles.)

And there is name-dropping. When the Hollywood epic The Robe was screened at Regal in 1953, the hall installed cinemascope for the purpose, and Nehru was in attendance again. Alfred Hitchcock visited Rivoli when Psycho opened there, and President S Radhakrishnan came for a Come September screening at Odeon in 1962. Halls in far-flung places had to make do with less exalted visitors though: Najafgarh’s Suraj had its small brush with stardom when the comedian Jagdeep came for the premiere of his B-film Soorma Bhopali.

Personal histories

Since this is a collection of standalone write-ups on a few dozen cinema halls, there is inevitably some repetition, and the less engaged pieces can read like a roll-call of the major films shown at a theatre over the decades. But the better pieces – the ones on Paharganj’s Imperial or Chandni Chowk’s Moti, for example – provide a sense of a movie-hall’s place within the larger socio-cultural theatre of the nation, and in turn, the culture that grew up around it. (The Hindu families who had come to Paharganj after being displaced from the newly created Pakistan, Ziya says, were initially so scarred that they couldn’t watch the popular Muslim socials of the time – so Imperial complied by showing them mythologicals and Punjabi family dramas.)

These halls were dream-palaces where business, art and entertainment commingled, but their personal histories also intersected with the larger national narrative. Reading about murderous rioters attacking the Sikh-run Swarn hall after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, I couldn’t help think what a grotesque merging of real-life tragedy and reel-life drama it was that the film playing at the time was Jeene Nahin Doonga. Or that when Badarpur’s Seble hall reopened after a similar mauling by rioters who had the covert encouragement of politicians, the film it showed was Dharm aur Qanoon.

Landmarks even now

If you’re a Dilliwallah and a movie buff, this book can make you feel nostalgic about an era and place that you never personally experienced. But though its main tone is one of longing for a bygone time, Delhi: 4 Shows is also a reminder of the many movie-going cultures that still exist outside (and to a degree, within) the big cities.

Describing the Samrat hall in Shakurpur, a shrine to Mithun Chakraborty’s B-movies, Ziya notes that even in the 2000s “Cinema lovers in other parts of Delhi did not come to know, but Jallad, Chandaal, Guru, The Don and Gautam-Govinda set the screen on fire at this hall. No English newspaper mentioned these movies in its cinema lists, no music channels played their songs, and no critics reviewed the films, yet they all ran full house to an audience that knew what it wanted.”

After all, multiplexes with their limited seating, expensive tickets and “highbrow” viewers (who often do decidedly lowbrow things like barking into their phones during a screening) cannot replicate the visceral experience of watching a popular Salman Khan or Sunny Deol film with a single-screen audience, surrounded by seetis and taalis.

Besides, as Sharmila Tagore points out in her Foreword, even long-defunct halls continue to be part of the Delhiite’s everyday discourse since areas are still identified with reference to those landmarks: we still talk about the Uphaar or Kamal or Archana complexes while giving directions.

Which reminds me of one of my favourite PVR Saket-related encounters. I was walking home from the complex once when a group of men, dressed in dhotis and worn shirts, looking fatigued and confused, hesitantly sought directions. “Bhai-saab, yeh Anupam taakees kahaan hai? (Where is Anupam taakees?)” they asked. It was only when they added “phillum jahaan lagti hai” that I realised they were saying “Anupam Talkies”. A plush new multiplex had been reclaimed by the language one today associates with a world of noisy projectors and “air-cooled” sheds. The Ghost of Dilli Past would have approved.

Delhi: 4 Shows – Talkies of Yesteryear, Ziya Us Salam, Om Books.

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