Among the more glamorous halls of Delhi, Ritz was first called Capital in 1932 and renamed Ritz only in 1942 with the screening of director PC Barua’s Hindi film Jawab (1942) on 1st November, 1942. The cinema started amid predictions of doom. Though Ritz was adjacent to the Inter-State Bus Terminus (ISBT), it also lay on the path to Nigambodh Ghat, a crematorium. Matters of bereavement and entertainment could not co-exist, many argued. Life had to lose to death, they felt, so the cinema would have to fold up. ‘Agar ye cinema chal gaya to Nigambodh Ghat par bhi chal jayega’, (If this cinema works, then one at Nigambodh Ghat could work too) a trade hand told Jagat Narain Seth, its proprietor. Seth, though, did not listen to their doomsday predictions and set about establishing a hall that made a name for itself over time.

Ritz played A-grade Hindi films to family audiences who came from far and wide to the hall. It offered boxes for a family. Among the audience were also women viewers from Old Delhi. Back in the 1950s and even up to the ’70s, women from respectable families were either not supposed to watch films, or watch them alone. A few die-hard fans in the Walled City found a solution: they would not watch a film at a hall closest to their haveli, mohalla, kucha. But they were not confident enough to go out too far either, so they opted for halls in the vicinity of Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk. On the one side, Golcha and Delite cashed in on this, as did Minerva and Ritz on the other. Ritz, with its private box, gave them greater freedom and safety. Women would gather in groups at Purdah Bagh near Daryganj and then proceed to Ritz in tongas or cycle-rickshaws. The Ritz management under proprietor VN Seth reserved seats exclusively for them. They paid Rs 1.25 though the stall tickets were priced as low as 5 and 10 annas.

Films for the families and the singletons

Keeping in mind the profile of the audience, Ritz usually concentrated on neat and clean family films though occasionally films with skin show were shown too: these films were for the wayfarers, the travellers, the crowds which boarded inter-state buses from the terminus close by.

A large space was reserved for putting up hoardings of the current and forthcoming films, even taking care to write the week of the film’s run at the hall. While it played top mainstream films in daily four shows, its morning show was the most prized one for several reasons. Art films made their presence felt here, as did Hollywood movies. Even controversial films ahead of their times like Mann Ka Aangan (1979) had a fine run in the morning slot. Incidentally, morning shows used to be a weekly affair till 1968, with screenings only on Sunday. Then they became a daily feature.

It also screened the occasional adult film. In the 1950s and the ’60s, most films with an ‘adults only’ certificate used to flaunt the ‘A’ sign in bold fonts. While this was done partly to keep away younger cinegoers, the major aim of the display was to titillate the audiences and lure them with the unsaid promise of a film with ‘scenes’. It was generally not thought that a film could get an ‘A’ certificate because of too much violence or an adult subject needing sensitive handling. For many, an ‘adult’ film could mean only one thing—nudity.

Youngsters often found ingenious ways of getting into the hall for an adult film. Many would rise on their toes at the time of check-in to appear taller, others wouldn’t shave for a few days before the show so they could point at their stubble, still others would talk loudly about college to give the impression that they were not in school. Winters provided an easier alternative: cover your face with a shawl or a blanket and sneak in quietly.

It was an option exercised by one teenage boy to watch Bob and Sally (1948) at Ritz. The film was said to be ‘garam’— with hot, steaming bedroom scenes. For the night show, he went covered with a blanket from top to toe and easily fooled the gatekeeper to gain an entry. However, in those days, even an entry did not guarantee watching the film in its entirety. In every adult film screening, the torchman used to throw light every now and then at audiences in a bid to catch any underage viewer. The boy watched a good part of the film from a tiny opening in his blanket that covered all his body except his eyes, looking very much like a woman in a burqa. Closer to the end, though, an usher came to him, saying, ‘Beta, you have watched the film almost fully. Now take off that blanket!’

Embarrassed, he took off his ‘veil’. This boy, GK Sharma, would later be the manager of Amba cinema, where he started as an usher, then a booking clerk and gradually progressed to the top.

Sharma was not the only one with a story at Ritz. The hall was strategically located next to the ISBT and was just a kilometre from the railway station. It was an option for men who had only a few hours to idle away before taking their bus or train. A number of Hollywood flicks and Hindi films with objectionable scenes raked in the riches.

Ritz was renovated in 1961 with the release of Junglee, which ran here for 33 weeks. Similarly, the Farouque Sheikh-Poonam Dhillon starrer, Noorie (1979), was initially booked for four weeks. Following good performance at the box office, the film was extended to 36 weeks. In the early 1980s, KC Bokadia’s Pyar Jhukta Nahin (1985), the classic poor boy-rich girl tale, cocked a snook at the doomsday pundit’s predictions. Bokadia and director Vijay Sadanah went against the action-hero image of Mithun Chakraborty and cast him as a loverboy and the turnstiles could not take the rush of audiences who flocked to see the film for six months. Before this, there had been Shakti Samanta’s Awaaz (1984), a halfbaked, belated attempt at capitalising on Rajesh Khanna’s Aradhana (1969) magic. As the film’s music started doing the rounds, people came in droves to watch it, me among them. Then a teenager, I stealthily boarded a public transport bus from my house in Lajpat Nagar and came to Ritz without the fear of being seen by a neighbourhood elder, much like those self-effacing ladies of Old Delhi.

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