My Mirror column:
Regal, one of Delhi’s iconic single-screen theatres, closed down this week. But what exactly is ending with its closure?
Regal Theatre downed its shutters on Thursday. Born in 1932, as the New Delhi Premier Theatre, the hall was the first to come up outside of Shahjahanbad, giving New Delhi a sahabi theatre to match its status as the newly-created capital of British India. Regal came up on property belonging to Sir Sobha Singh, the civil contractor and builder hired to construct much of the new city. Sobha Singh was commercially perspicacious enough to buy up large tracts of land within the emerging capital city, becoming known as “Addha Dilli da maalik”. He was clearly also a man of vision.
Among a host of other buildings, Sir Sobha gave bungalow-lined New Delhi its first apartment complex, naming it Sujan Singh Park after his civil contractor father (and his son, the writer and journalist, Khushwant Singh lived in one of the apartments there until his death in March 2014). The Regal building, with its arched porch, vaulted half-domes and pietra dura mosaic work, was designed by the British architect Walter Sykes George, who also designed Sujan Singh Park and St Stephen's College, among other iconic Delhi buildings.
George and Singh conceptualised the Regal complex as a sort of protomall, containing not just the theatre, but also a panoply of restaurants and shops. It is not a coincidence that the memories of watching films at Regal – of which there has been a veritable flood in the media and on social media – are almost as much about the eating and drinking that accompanied it. People in their fifties, sixties and seventies remember their Regal outings alongside the chhole-bhature at Kwality (the also-iconic restaurant in the same corner block of Connaught Place), or continental fare at Davico's on the top floor of the building. (Davico's was later replaced by Standard Restaurant, where even I have eaten my share of perfect mutton cutlets, up until the late 1990s.) In more recent years, there was the Softy stall, tucked into a sort of alcove next to the cinema.
The multiplex era began in Delhi in 1997, when Anupam Cinema in Saket was bought by Ajay Bijli's PVR group and a new four-screen building built in its stead, creating what we now know as PVR Anupam. Over the last two decades, several of Delhi's best-loved single-screen cinemas – Alankar in Lajpat Nagar, Eros in Jangpura Extension, Savitri in Greater Kailash II, not to mention Odeon, Rivoli and Plaza in Connaught Place – have been converted into multiplexes. Others, like Chanakya or Paras or Kamal, have not survived at all.
Regal was one of the last single-screen theatres that continued to function. This grand old edifice, which started out showing Prithviraj Kapoor plays and Russian ballet to British officers and diplomats, and to which the posher Indian families and postcolonial grandees like Nehru and Radhakrishnan came as a matter of course, seemed like a connection to a more genteel world. So the last day, last show at Regal – like the closure of Chanakya in 2007 – feels like the end of a civilised age. And if you go by everything I've just told you, it certainly is.
But what did Regal signify in the last two or three decades? And to whom? Even as its Connaught Place cohort of halls reinvented themselves as multiplexes and wooed a post-liberalisation elite, Regal started to play desperately lowbrow fare, like Chhupa Rustam in 2001 and Raam Gopal Verma Ki Aag in 2007. My own last memory of Regal is a near-traumatic one from 2003: I cannot quite remember why, but I subjected myself to Guddu Dhanoa's sex-horror film called Hawa, in which Tabu is raped more than once by “the wind” — which has, of course, taken on the ghostly shape of a man.
A cinema is, after all, a business — and films like Hawa were clearly Regal's frank attempt to put bums on seats. The management was quite cognizant that the theatre's technical quality and comfort levels were no longer good enough to attract the class of people who used to come to it until the 1970s, making successes of such films as Shyam Benegal's Nishant and Ankur, Basu Chatterjee's Rajnigandha, or melancholy Amitabh-Jaya romances like Abhimaan or Mili. Those people had better alternatives. The people who came to Regal were those who couldn't afford the 200 and 300 and 400 rupee tickets that multiplexes charge – and that Regal will no doubt charge in its new avatar.
But those who filled up Regal's seats in recent years, keeping it afloat for two or more decades, are not the ones being spoken to. The Delhi Times is filled with upper middle class people who have returned to be present at Regal's grand farewell party, and are happy to pay Rs. 300 in black to let their mothers watch Raj Kapoor's Sangam and reminisce about their youth. There is no mention of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of viewers who could, until yesterday, afford to watch a film in a Connaught Place theatre, and who have been quietly been added to the vast masses that will now no longer be able to go to the cinema.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 April 2017.