The renowned Regal movie theatre in Connaught Place will shut down and be remodelled as a four-screen multiplex. The heritage landmark, designed by English architect Walter Sykes George, has enough room for interior structural changes, and the facade will stay the same. But for many long-time visitors, including members of Delhi’s queer community, Regal 2.0 simply won’t be the same experience.
One of Regal’s fixtures is its oldest employee, the 75-year-old manager Amar Singh Verma, who has been working with the establishment since 1977. The cinema has attracted the attention of chroniclers of Delhi’s film culture, with at least two videos, one by Tehelka TV and the other by The Big Indian Picture, recording its beautiful design and memories of eminent visitors, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Louis Mountbatten, Indira Gandhi and Raj Kapoor.
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Verma pops up again in a short film by The Big Indian Picture, where he shares anecdotes about Regal’s now faded glory.
The theatre was initially owned by the Wazir Dayal family and sold to the Mahajan clan. “The property where Regal was built initially belonged to Sir Sobha Singh and was transferred to the Dayals in 1938 when Wazir Dayal, after whom the Wazirabad bridge in north Delhi is named, was a chief executive engineer with CPWD,” Ziya Us Salam writes in Delhi: 4 Shows Talkies of Yesteryear (Om Books International). “In pre- Independence India, Regal was easily the most illustrious hall in central Delhi. For the first three decades since then, it was like a conductor of an orchestra of halls in Connaught Place. Like its counterparts in the Walled City, it too began as a theatre in 1932. To this day, it has a stage where Prithviraj Kapoor’s plays like Pathan were once presented.”
Salam writes about Regal’s enviable status as the numero uno cinema of Connaught Place. “The age-old green room is still there, bringing back a taste of the days when the cognoscenti preferred to watch plays over movies,” Salam writes. “In the early years as a theatre, it staged The London Review Company and The Russian Ballet Troupe shows for British diplomats and Indian royals. It even had a bar inside.”
The 1970s and ’80s were the most fruitful decades for Regal. Like several other single screens in Delhi and the rest of the country, Regal’s sheen wore off in the ’90s and the 2000s. Viewing habits had changed, with audiences preferring multiplexes to single screen cinemas, and Regal’s operating costs could not be met by low ticket prices.
Regal no longer resembled the theatre where “watching a film, irrespective of how it eventually panned out, was an experience in itself”, as Salam says. In 1996, two floors were sold to Madame Tussauds for its Delhi branch. The theatre has applied to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi for permission to be converted into a multiplex, and it will be a year before any remodelling work begins.