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Moving images... unreeling history

Amba Cinema... past perfect, present continuous.

PRAKASH CHAND Sethi, the Chief Minister of a State wanted to watch "Sholay" with his wife and three children. He ordered the Assistant District Magistrate, North Delhi to get him five tickets. Reaching Amba, one of the oldest and biggest cinema halls in Delhi, he was not able to buy any. The film, which completed its silver jubilee later, was running to full houses, with expectant crowds thronging the corridors before every show. The ADM requested Gopi Chand Sharma, the manager of Amba to get him tickets. There was not even one left. Sharma strolled around the hall, asked even touts but to no avail. He saw a small boy displaying his three tickets while his parents stood nearby. Sharma asked him, "What are you doing with your tickets?" The boy immediately understood. "I am playing with them. You want these?" Taken aback, Sharma queried again, "Then how will you watch the film? And your parents?"

"If I give the tickets to you now," replied the boy, "I can ask you anytime, any day and you won't be able to refuse, right?" The parents added, "If you want them, you can have them. We will go home. Don't worry."

Sharma bought their tickets, arranged two more at the lower stall and managed to entertain the CM's request. The ticket rates at that time rose to a record of Rs.6.40 for the balcony and 4.80 for the less expensive stalls, whereas the normal rates ranged from Rs.1.25 to 2.50.

"If that boy were to come to me now, I would shower affection on him, and do anything for him," says a sentimental Sharma.

When the hall opened on Friday, April 5, 1963, he recalls, it created a craze among people, as nobody knew about it even a day before, since there had been no prior publicity. The first screening was of "Gehra Daagh" - an O.P. Ralhan film starring Mala Sinha and Rajendra Kumar that went down well with the area's middle class crowd. In 1964, "Sangam" gave the hall its largest crowd till "Sholay". Later "Beti Bete", "Milan" and "Shaan" also generated tremendous business for the hall.

Political giants - be it Lal Bahadur Shastri with his family, Morarji Desai, or the Transport Minister in 1978, Chaudhary Chand Ram - would squeeze out time to visit this cinema often, recalls Sharma, who has rendered 41 years of service to Amba. A photograph of the hall as it was originally built hangs in his office.

For now, the old structure is witnessing many changes which might alter the old look altogether. The 1053 seats - divided into a balcony with 207 seats and two stalls with 766 - are now new, and though not of best of quality, are comfortable, with space for placing a glass or a soft drink. "While other halls have 70 mm screens, ours is 85 mm," claims the veteran manager. Both four and six-track digital and latest Dolby sound system can be accommodated.

The exterior of the hall has been painted purple and red, but is it likely to turn into a multiplex with a cineplex?

"We have plans but, with new cinema halls at every corner, it does not seem a viable option. Cinema viewing has witnessed a major downfall in recent years. We might make some more changes in the near future but we would like to wait for the right time," says Sethi.

Because of Government's recent relaxation of entertainment tax from 60 to 30 per cent, the admission rates here are now Rs.60 for balcony, 30 for rear stall and 20 each for middle and front stall. Aziz Mirza's "Chalte Chalte" is slated to kiss Amba's screen this Friday.


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