During the Indo-Pak war, 1971, Delite remained steadfastly patriotic. At the time, cinema houses in the city were known to cancel their evening and night shows, under instructions to switch off their lights. But Delite was the rare theatre that played the latest news from the warfront during its regular shows.

At the height of the war, when it showed Upasna (1971), a Sanjay Khan-Mumtaz-Feroz Khan starrer that did reasonable business, regular news despatches were aired at the beginning and interval of the film.

The hall made provisions for two intervals, so that they could provide three updates during each movie. It pleased the patrons, who often said a silent prayer for the soldiers, and also emphasised the patriotic zeal of the management.

This ability to take on the odds was not a new principle of the Raizada family, which owned the cinema hall. Brij Mohan Lal Raizada led the way in the 1950s, despite having no prior experience of running a cinema hall when he founded Delite.

He had largely been in dealerships with well-known automobile brands like Morris Minor. Yet, when he learnt that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted Delhi to have its own landmarks built by Indians after Independence, he went ahead with his plan. The government earmarked a plot of land on the periphery of Old Delhi for a fresh new cinema and Delite came up at the spot where once stood the age-old wall of the Walled City; the wall was demolished to give way to the cinema.

This enterprise cost more than Rs 6 lakh. After that, the construction of the hall cost a further Rs 30 lakh. Most well-wishers advised Brij Mohan Lal against investing so much capital in a cinema which was neither here nor there – Delite was on the cusp of Old and New Delhi. But he stuck to his guns and Delite was built, with around 1,100 seats.

It opened in 1954 with Raj Kapoor’s Angaray, which was widely promoted through loudspeaker announcements on cycle-rickshaws and ekkas. Soon, Delite came to be regarded as the loftiest cinema in the city, its building being counted among the tallest, its wide columns, its majestic pillars and its polka-dotted front, all became its signatures.

The who’s who of Indian politics and cinema such as President Dr Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Babu Jagjivan Ram, came to the hall.

Stars like Raj Kapoor and Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Dharmendra also visited Delite in the 1950s and ’60s.

For residents of south Delhi, travelling here meant a leisurely drive while those who came to Delite from Old Delhi wanted to watch a film in an ambience that was better than that of the Walled City cinemas.

With films like Waqt (1965), Humraaz (1967), Vandna (1975) playing regularly, Delite was never short of classy films. Sanjay Dutt’s movies, from Main Awara Hoon (1983) to Khalnayak (1993) and others, ran to packed houses, as did Akbar Khan’s Haadsaa (1983) and Raj N Sippy’s Qayamat (1983). Subhash Ghai’s films enjoyed a good run here too and Yash Chopra also made Delite the go-to hall for his movies.

Among those who frequented Delite were also transgenders.

From the 1990s, they opted for Delite as their favoured venue for watching films over the halls in Connaught Place. By this time, many Old Delhi cinemas had either shut down or offered the barest minimum amenities, with no top banner releases. So, many would come to Delite from near and afar to watch the first day-first shows. Among them were the purdanasheen women who would come here for matinee and evening shows. Delite offered both privacy and accessibility.

In the early part of the millennium, a local women’s organisation chose Delite as the venue for watching films. From as early as 2001, every Friday, the members would show up in a group of around 50, usually for family dramas or the NRI dreams peddled by Yash Raj Films.

Over the years, the hall created a little niche for playing regional fare in the morning shows. Bengali films, in particular, enjoyed a good run. Suchitra Sen’s Megh Kalo (1970), which was booked for just one week, attracted such a rush that it eventually ran for eight weeks.

In 1994, when the movie business was down in the dumps, most cinema halls were reduced to playing forgettable potboilers, some even resorting to sleazy flicks. The films’ posters used to be smeared with blue ink to arouse greater curiosity – a desperate attempt to bring in viewers.

Only a handful of halls avoided such films. During these uncertain times, Delite’s management decided to go in for an overhaul of the cinema: in came fresh seats (reduced to 900 from the earlier 1,100), better air-conditioning and revised admission rates.

With rare enterprise and an ability to take huge risks, Delite’s management was able to turn the tide of insecurity prevailing in cinema halls at that time.

Rajshri Films, known for soft, gentle, family dramas, released Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (1994) in a selective manner. Initially, only two prints ran, one at Sapna, the other at Delite, where it went on to complete a jubilee run.

In hindsight, it was a masterstroke on the part of Shashank Raizada, Managing Director of Delite, since back then, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! was a family film at a time when families had stopped coming to cinema halls. In the same spirit, Delite improved its facilities at a time when the returns were low.

For almost two decades, Delite has had the best ambience among single-screen halls in the city: plush interiors, marble flooring, a tasteful foyer and a canteen big enough to accommodate a crowd. A mini theatre, Delite Diamond, came up in the vicinity in 2006.

The 1971 war ended decades ago but war films continued to be screened at Delite. JP Dutta’s LoC Kargil (2003) was shown, as was Mangal Pandey: the Rising (2005), Ketan Mehta’s big budget dream. With 1971, a Manoj Bajpai film released in 2007, the hall that had started with news of an actual war, had come a full circle.

Excerpted with permission from Delhi: 4 Shows – Talkies of Yesteryear, Ziya Us Salam, Om Books.