25 August 2008

The Romance of the Single Screen

The demolition of Chanakya Cinema, December, 2008. Designed by PN Mathur (Photo courtesy Ram Rahman's blog)

My first memories of watching films in Delhi are rather hazy. I remember watching Masoom and crying, and being taken to see a film in which Rishi Kapoor sang a qawwali. If I really dredge the depths of my memory, the image that floats up is from when I was about five – an expedition with my father, to watch a ‘children’s film’. What I remember is not something from the film (it must have been in English, which I barely understood at the time), but the morning sun, a crowd of people and a poster with a picture of a girl and a dog, propped up at the entrance to a hall that I am convinced was Chanakya. The year was probably 1982.

Chanakya remained centrestage in my movie-going life through the 1990s, though Priya provided stiff competition. School expeditions to Priya were where a whole generation of girls were weaned into expressions of undying love by Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. (The Terminator probably didn’t do as much damage to the boys.)

Last winter, I happened to be in Delhi when the NDMC managed to wrest control of Chanakya from its long-term leaseholders and decided that it would be demolished to make way for a mall-cum-multiplex. “Last day, last show at Chanakya!” said the city supplements. A friend and I showed up to say our farewells. We weren’t the only ones. Tickets were sold out. A huge crowd surrounded the hall – strangers smiling at each other, middle-aged men swapping memories with twenty-somethings. We finally bought tickets in black. Going out with a bang, I remember saying, with a tinge of something like pride.

But going, all the same. Most of the halls that people remember from the seventies and eighties have either gone, or shrunk: from the great, hulking, comfortable beasts they once were into unrecognizable glossy creatures with tinsel wings that shimmer in the night. I was young enough to celebrate the transformation, once: in my first year at college, I woke up at seven on a Sunday and braved a full-scale Delhi stampede to get a free ticket to the first-ever show at the city’s first-ever multiplex – PVR Saket, where once had been Anupam. But I didn’t quite realize then the shape of things to come. Within a few years, the multiplexes increased in number as well as clout. They managed, for example, to get rid of the clause that had required them to sell a small percentage of tickets at low prices (in PVR Saket in 1997, any seat in the first two rows was a joyful Rs 7).

I left Delhi soon after. When I came back, Alankar, my mother’s old favourite from long-ago Defence Colony days, had become 3Cs and Eros, where I had watched many an evening (while casting sidelong glances at the “morning show” posters) had disappeared. Where the hall had been was nothing but a crater – and the name. Like thousands of others, I mention Eros every time I give directions to Jangpura, where I now live. It strikes me that Eros is but one name in the vast geography of a city marked by absent cinema halls. Think of the hundreds of times you’ve jumped into an auto and pronounced tersely, “Savitri”, or perhaps, “Kamal ke paas”, or “Archana-wale road par”, with no need to say another word. Sometimes I wonder if the ease of that communication, that common language of the city, evokes an earlier time when cinemas were spaces that the middle class shared – if sometimes grudgingly – with the working masses. Everyone knew the difference between Regal and Rivoli and Odeon and Plaza, even if they were all in Connaught Place. In contrast, there is something untranslatable, incommunicable, about the difference between Citywalk and Square One – both are merely “Saket wale naye mall”. One reason why the autowala thinks they’re indistinguishable might be that he will never see the inside of either. But perhaps the real reason is that they are no different.

My nostalgia for the old halls isn’t blind – they were (and the survivors still are) cavernous, often dirty and predominantly male. Seediness came with the territory. You didn’t need to be bunking school or watching an A-rated movie to feel transgressive: if you were female, just being in a cinema alone was enough. The first time I went to watch a film alone was during IFFI 1996. I caught a bus from college to Sheila to see Sai Paranjpe’s Papiha, and bought a front stall ticket. It was an innocuous, feel-good tale about a forest officer amid tribals – but I will never forget the rousing reception I got from the men around me when the lights came on. Another memorable time I took a cousin and an unsuspecting French friend to watch a Govinda film at Stadium Cinema. The hall had clearly seen better days, but we were intrepid, and the tickets were Rs 20. It was only when a worried-looking ticket checker set about finding us seats with his flashlight that we realized a) that only a third of the seats were unbroken, and b) that there no other women in the audience, let alone foreign ones.

Multiplexes, for all their cookie-cutter aesthetics and ridiculously overpriced snacks, probably do make life easier for women who can afford them. But most single-screen cinemas in Delhi seem to be going the Stadium way: interesting variations include Imperial in Paharganj, which now fills up every night by showing 80s multistarrers for twenty bucks a ticket, and Moti in Daryaganj, which has tied its fortunes to the rising Bhojpuri tide. Some few have managed to survive the transformative years without losing their identities completely – one model is that of Priya, which keeps afloat because it’s part of the PVR family. But another model is Delite, now divided into Delite and Delite Diamond, its wooden panelling and illuminated, jewel-like ceiling clearly a labour of love for its owners. The neebu pani and samosas and photos of Dilip Kumar visiting the hall in its older avatar make people describe it as retro. Yet the place is as far from being a museum as possible, with the crowds rolling in every night. Clearly there is a space for something that’s beyond the multiplex – why aren’t there more people seeking to fill it?

Published in Time Out Delhi Vol 2 Issue 8 (July 11-24, 2008)

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