My parents’ love for cinema was genetically passed onto me, and we’d sit bewitched by a different reality in front of a screen on Fridays. Movies travelled from VCR to digital, from single screen to multiplexes to torrents. But the tingling excitement before watching a movie remained just as it was.
I don’t remember anything about the first movie I watched in the theatre, except for the golden sheen on the floor and the ceiling against the redness of seats. A few of such single-screen theatres that came to preserve that history of childish delight have been brought down, humbled by a mindless modernisation – replaced with taller seats, multiple screens, and even the samosas during intervals turned into nachos. The movies went on, except it was never the same.
The iconic Regal Cinema in Delhi’s Connaught Place has become the latest target of cruel modernisation. Built in 1932 in the British era, it has seen immense star-studded popularity, but the magic of cinema wasn’t enough to save it. Perhaps, that is enough to make it a heritage sight.
Photos of stars who frequented this grand theatre adorned the walls. Most of them died before the movie hall did.
The ornate interiors are far too different from the no-fuss modern architecture of the mechanical multiplexes. The mass production of films with lighter digital cameras, teamed with an audience attracted to new-age multiplexes, have dismantled older single-screen theatres, brick by brick.
Speaking of stars, every employee of Regal has an anecdote on Bollywood actors coming to Regal for first shows and matinees.
“It used to be packed. Once Shashi Kapoor didn’t have a seat and he had to stand at the back, quietly, without letting the audience know,” Mohan says pointing out to the space behind the seat where he’s sitting. He has been cleaning the hall since 1978.
As I climb up to the projection room, I find Ramesh Kumar kick-starting the digital projector for Monday’s first show of Phillauri. He explains the mechanics of the reel projector, complaining that it needs constant human attention.
“In digital projectors, you can start it and disappear,” he pauses, “but it’s not the same. The old movie projector shows you the truth, the digital is...” he struggles to find an appropriate word, “...it is different.”
The first movie he projected in the first day of his job at Regal was Pakeezah. He deftly pulls out the one reel preserved in the projection room – and he shows it to me.
“New movies don’t captivate you anymore,” he laments, “You should watch Kanun, you will sit still through the entire film. I guarantee you.”
Regal’s manager Aman Singh Verma has a lot to complain about new movies.
He has 40 years of his work as manager to conclude before the theatre shuts down on 31 March, and can spare only two minutes, he informs.
“I don’t like movies, I don’t watch them,” he says flatly. “I used to like Raj Kapoor, but ever since he died, I stopped watching films. He had come here for a film and I met him,” he says, his stern facing slowly softening to nostalgia.
“Then I watched Oh My God, it was horrible! That was the last.”
Bhoop Singh, who has been a ticket collector since 1986, has a bone to pick with new movie halls. “Everybody is allowed here. This hall is for the common man. PVRs have expensive tickets and they even profile the audience,” he says.
“My friend had an hour to kill one day, so he went to PVR Naraina in his chappals, and they wouldn’t let him in!” he tells me.
“So I have not watched a single movie in any multiplex,” he announces.
This hall was no match to the modern glitz and glamour that the new halls have to offer, and its ticket sales, too, have dropped drastically. The last film fetched no more than a meagre sum of Rs 12,000 roughly.
But perhaps, patrons of nostalgia awoke to the death knell and came pouring in in unusual numbers to pay homage.
It’s 11:50 am and the first matinee show of the week is about to start. The cafe revs up to feed its audience. “There is something about the aroma of popcorn that draws people to the theatre like a flame to the moth,” a cafeteria worker muses.