For the LGBTQ movement in Delhi, few spaces have been as iconic as an 84-year-old building in the heart of the city. Regal Cinema in Connaught Place is where queer activism in the city, strictly underground in the 1980s and 1990s, first came out in 1998.
On December 7 of that year, filmmaker Deepa Mehta and 30 activists had held a historic candlelight vigil in defence of her film Fire outside the Regal Cinema building. A tale of two women who discover the joys of queer love, Fire had come under attack from right-wing groups. The protest at Regal Cinema became the site of the first-ever public show of solidarity for the LGBTQ community.
“There were some 200 people on the road screaming… people beyond lesbian [circles],” said freelance editor and queer activist Lesley Esteves. It was the same day, Esteves said, that she realised she was not alone in her struggle against repressive sexual norms. Years later, Regal Cinema featured in stand-up comedian Pramada Menon’s acclaimed documentary And You Thought You Knew Me (2013). Menon had asked LGBTQ activists and sympathisers celebrating the 2009 Delhi High Court verdict on Section 377 to create a dateline of historic gay events in Delhi since 1900.
“FIRE, public protests at Regal – 1998,” read a blue scrawl across the display.
This Friday, Regal Cinema will be screening its last film before shutting shop. Film and literary critic Ziya Us Salam described the building as a “cine monument”. In its colonial past, the building was an elite culture club for the city’s sahibs, which featured ballets, plays and the then nascent talkies. Soon, it became a part of the city’s cinematic history with red carpet premiers and blockbuster shows, until it was finally reduced to a decrepit hangout, sandwiched between hawkers, eateries and shops.
An Art Deco confection designed by Walter Sykes, full of plaster flourishes, grand stairways and exclusive boxes, young Delhiites of a certain generation saw their first trip to Regal as a rite of passage until the 1990s. “It was an adventure, a thrilling parikrama that started with Keventer’s milk and ended at Regal,” said artist Malati Shah, whose tribute to the city is captured in a series called The Delhi I Loved. “It was about liberation, arriving. I remember landing up at Regal for an adult film with a friend, both in saris to look older. They let us pass the gate but we I tripped at the top of the stairs and all the pleats came undone. The usher gave us a knowing look but let us watch the film.”
Up until the early 1960s, getting to Regal was an excursion – you could take an ikka or a tonga from Old Delhi for 25 paise. “You never said ‘I want to go to Connaught Place’, you said ‘I want to go to Regal,’” recalled Salam. In his book on the Capital’s single cinema halls, Delhi 4 Shows, Salam talks about Regal’s landmark moments – it was once patronised by political nabobs like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, and Hollywood reels were brought here to be screened, before they went to the censors.
Regal was sought after for big blockbuster releases and red carpet premiers. The cinema’s first brush with controversy came in 1978, with the film Satyam Shivam Sundaram. Regal was among the first theatres in the country which agreed to screen the film, controversial for its scantily clad “tribal” heroine, Zeenat Aman. As per filmi legend, the cinema actually conducted a havan to propitiate the gods of the box office for the film’s success.
“Remarkably, Regal was the only cinema that agreed to host art house films in the 1970s and 1980s, at a special morning show,” recalled Salam. “Every Shyam Benegal film had a showing here, from Ankur to Manthan.”
The cinema’s decline set in sometime during the 1990s. Connaught Place was no longer the only fancy shopping district in the city. Crowds began to drift elsewhere. Regal failed to keep in touch with changing technology and market practices.
Its neighbouring theatres, which shared its colonial and design history, saved themselves by going the multiplex way, big money allowing them to keep their elegant, festooned interiors intact. But Regal battled on until it was reduced to a lonely, somewhat crummy state, often showing B-grade films. Word spread that the morning Malayalam movies had racy stuff spliced into them, effectively putting off the “ladies and family” crowds.
Today, millennials in the Capital hurry past it without another look. It may be hard to believe now, but Regal once held in its triangular fork a clutch of cool, iconic and markedly alternate establishments, some around, others long dead or struggling to stay alive. Still a force to reckon with, is the cozy, breakout design studio and shop, People Tree. Then there is the understated establishment known simply as The Shop, famous for its quiet block print cottons.
People Tree continues to be a hospitable space for alternate, socially-charged voices from the 1980s and 1990s. The Shop hosts writings on Bhopal gas tragedy and Narmada Bachao Andolan, along with T-shirts bearing subversive messages and handmade jewellery. It also stocks literature associated with the queer movement. “The founder Gurpreet [Sidhu] was always generous to causes like ours,” recalled Pramada Menon.
The city’s first discotheque, The Cellar, was set up in 1968 and was the hippest hangout, around the corner from Regal up until the 1980s. Fashioned rather self-consciously for flower children and their “international dress code of blue jeans”, as city chronicler Malvika Singh wrote in her Delhi chronicle, Perpetual City, it transformed several times before giving up the battle over a decade ago.
A little further down the road was the Indian Coffee House at Mohan Singh Place, the ultimate adda where revolution was just an argument away. It too nurtured the nascent LGBTQ movement. The earliest of such collectives was the Delhi Group, according to American scholar Paola Bacchetta. In her paper Rescaling Transnational Queerdom, Bacchetta wrote that people met here to discuss “pressure to heterosexually marry; familial and societal lesbophobia; economic independence; countering antilesbian media; relations to the IWM; and heterosexist law”. Then there was the Red Rose Rendezvous (identified by a red rose at the centre of the table) of the 1980s and in 1990s and CALERI, or Campaign for Lesbian Rights which regularly met here as well.
Right below all this simmering social change was the café famous for its “veg humburger” and vada-sambar, next to a warren of “jeans masterjis” or tailors who made bespoke denims. In the 1970s and 1980s, most people wore stylish jeans only if they had generous relatives abroad – this was where you came to get cheap ones tailored from denim yardage, the tailors here are still adept at creating rip-offs of every chic design in the world.
All of these corners together made the Regal corner a buzzing niche in an otherwise dull city. “In recent years, the question was not so much if Regal will shut down, but when,” said Salam. Nobody is quite sure what will spring up at the site when the cinema closes. There is talk of a multiplex. When Anushka Sharma’s otherworldly starrer Phillauri wraps up its last weekly show this week at the cinema hall, Regal too would have become a ghost.