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Frames from memory

Delite cinema opened on the periphery of Shahjahanabad in 1954 with Angaray.

Delite cinema opened on the periphery of Shahjahanabad in 1954 with Angaray.  

Excerpts from the introduction to the recently released Delhi 4 Shows.

As a child, I used to get a rupee as pocket money every Sunday. Of this, 40 paise were lavished on the weekend edition of Patriot. Over time, the price for the weekend edition went up to 60 paise before peaking at one rupee. Fortunately by then, my weekly entitlement had been hiked to two rupees! Films were strictly forbidden at home, with the exception of the Sunday feature film in the heyday of Doordarshan. So I satiated my appetite for films by looking at insertions in Patriot.

For years on end, I would sit with the pages, skimming over news, and scanning advertisements instead. On festive occasions, Patriot used to have three, even five pages devoted to film advertisements. Most of them were two column-wide and 10 cm-long insertions. I would carefully read and memorise the names of films, the cast, the directors and the banners. At the bottom of each advertisement would be the name of the distributor.

Thanks to the now defunct Patriot, names like Bobby Art International, Moti Talkies and Distributors, Rajshri Release and so on, became an integral part of my life. All the advertisements seemed to follow a pattern. The list of cinemas invariably first gave the name of the hall in Connaught Place showing the film, followed by an Old Delhi talkies, and thereafter by halls of North, West, South and East Delhi. At the end of the listing would come the halls on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, concluding with the name of a Ghaziabad cinema showing the film.

For instance, the advertisements of Sholay (1975) used to mention Plaza first, followed by Jagat, Filmistan, Amba and so on. Or take Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978) that opened, we were told by newspaper insertions, at ‘Plaza, Jagat, Filmistan, Amba, Vivek, Vishal, Alankar, Eros, Radhu, Vasant (G’bad)’.

The advertisement gave a fair idea of every star’s box-office appeal. Hence, Amitabh Bachchan lorded over the visuals, leaving only a little space for co-stars Vinod Khanna, Rekha and Rakhee, and none for villains and character actors like Amjad Khan, Ranjeet and Nirupa Roy. Hero (1983), according to advertisement insertions, graced ‘Shiela, Jagat, West End, Vivek, Rachna, Uphaar, Alankar, Radhu, Chaudhary (G’Bad)’. Though projecting Jackie Shroff and Meenakshi Seshadri, the film’s lead pair through big visuals, the text informed cinegoers that ‘Pakistan’s noted artist, Reshma’ had sung for the film. The reference was to the popular song, ‘Lambi Judaai’.

Thanks to them, I came to know that films like Jugnu (1973), Chambal Ki Kasam (1980), Samadhi (1972), Mela (1971), Azaad (both 1955 and 1978), Khoon Kharaba (1980), Gupt Gyan (1974), Raftaar (1975), Sky High (1985), The Body (1974), and earlier Prem Pujari (1970), Do Badan (1966), Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya (1966) collected decent numbers on the morning show circuit.

Every ad began with the grand announcement ‘2nd Houseful Week’, if the film was in its second week. If the film was in its third week, it had to be ‘3rd Grand Week’. When the film was in its fourth week, there was a one-liner — ‘Defying all opposition, marching ahead…’. By the 50th day or as it was better known then, the ‘8th Glorious Week’, the film was declared a smash hit! By the 15th week — many films showed that long in those days — advertisers announced in bold letters ‘Super Hit’. Hindi and Urdu newspapers, on the other hand, informed their readers about the films showing in halls with simple expressions like ‘Doosra shandaar hafta’ (Second Glorious Week) or ‘Bhaari rush le raha hai’ (Drawing huge crowds).

Silver jubilees were announced in bigger adverts with elaborate floral patterns, and pictures of bells and earthen lamps, and an accompanying advisory: ‘Book your seat in advance to avoid disappointment.’ Since plans — the term used in film circles for advance booking — for Hindi films opened on Mondays, it effectively meant that the weekend was sold out before the film’s release! For Hollywood films, though, bookings for an upcoming Friday started on a Sunday.

Though I was well into my teens when I watched my first film in a cinema hall, I felt as though I had ‘seen’ and ‘lived’ all the movies, thanks to those insertions I habitually pored over in Patriot and occasionally in The National Herald.

In the early years after Independence, cinema-viewing in Delhi was unassuming, and had the simplicity of street plays: no state-of-the-art technology, no lofty banners, no grand premieres. There were two kinds of viewing arenas: temporary, mobile cinema houses, and theatres. Before showing a film, often a play was staged in many halls, hence the suffix ‘theatre’ attached to many cinemas. Parsi theatre reigned supreme in those times.

Theatres like Imperial screened silent films too. In the 1920s, like its counterpart in Bombay which used to host orchestra soirées, Imperial in Delhi — similar in architecture and design to the one in Bombay — used to organise dancing as well as orchestra soirées. Only after the screening of Alam Ara, India’s first talkie, starring Master Vithal and Zubeidaa, in 1931, did most cinema halls acquire a different identity.

As the silent era gave way to the age of black-and-white films with songs and dialogues, most theatres started screening films regularly, with some even specialising in select Hollywood shows. The newly proliferating halls were called ‘talkies’, and many halls added the term as a suffix to their names — Moti Talkies, Kumar Talkies, Robin Talkies. Being a ‘talkies’ was fashionable, a sign of modernisation. …

The culture of ‘talkies’ subsisted for more than half a century after Alam Ara. Of course, the frontbenchers also referred to them as ‘mandva’. Cinema halls in Chandni Chowk were the oldest, most dating back to the early 1930s or even the late 1920s, followed by the ones in Connaught Place. Between Chandni Chowk and Connaught Place stood two landmark halls of Paharganj — Imperial and Khanna, the former built even before the ‘talkies’ of Old Delhi. These were permanent theatres with their next release and premiere guaranteed, unlike temporary theatres in other parts of the city. Each permanent hall had dedicated banners that offered it their films. Each hall had its loyal patrons — the Muslim gentry preferred Jagat, which was near Jama Masjid; Hindus took the narrow alleys of Chandni Chowk to Moti. To avoid being easily recognised at Jagat, a few old nawabi families too went to Moti. For the burqa-clad Muslim ladies, being seen at a cinema hall in and around Jama Masjid would invite opprobrium. So they chose Ritz and Minerva near Kashmere Gate to satiate their thirst for movies. Ritz, in particular, with its private box, was an ideal place. Women would gather at Purdah Bagh — a women’s-only park near Netaji Subhash Marg — then take a cycle-rickshaw or tonga to the theatres at Kashmere Gate.

Getting the audience to the halls was no mean task. Illiteracy among the masses was a prime concern. But more importantly, some cine-goers could read only Urdu, while others could read only Hindi. Exhibitors and distributors had to cover all bases, and hoardings would have the names of films written in three languages — English, Urdu and Hindi. This was true not just of films like Anarkali (1953) and Mughal-e- Azam (1960) which had very obvious Muslim subjects, but also of movies like Hanuman (1960) and Jai Santoshi Maa (1975). It was a comment on the times when Urdu was not regarded as the language of any one community.

In the 1970s, major cinema halls started putting up film posters at strategic points in the city, with a little slip at the bottom giving the name of the nearest hall showing it. The slip merely informed people that the film would be shown in ‘daily four shows’ without specifying the time. It was understood that meant noon, matinee, evening and night. Posters were put up on Thursday nights and scrupulously avoided any place of worship. Faith and fun were not to be mixed. Besides, on Thursday nights, the set-up in the halls changed with each new film to be screened.

A hall like Shiela, which played Hollywood films till the Emergency, used to book major traffic intersections up to a radius of about eight km, its presumed catchment area for target viewers. Others enlisted the help of local distributors. Spectacularly huge hoardings with visages or portraits of the lead cast in garish colours, and, at times, scenes from the movies, were an integral part of the Delhi skyline.

Distributors or proprietors of cinema halls supplied billboard painters with material for them to capture the lead cast’s likeness. A few hoardings had cut-outs too. Both portraits and cut-outs were in demand till the late ’80s. Though the local newspapers, notably, Partap, Punjab Kesari and Veer Arjun, carried much information about films showing in the city, Patriot was miles ahead. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, The National Herald joined in, and the two newspapers found their readership in the cinephiles of Delhi.

In the 1940s, ’50s and even the late ’60s, films were promoted in Old Delhi and pockets of west, east and central Delhi by people on moving carts and cycle rickshaws. The practice still continues on a much smaller scale in Azadpur, Najafgarh, and some pockets of east Delhi. Usually, proprietors of cinema halls kept cycle rickshaws ready for the task — a fresh coat of paint would be applied to them; then these would be covered with tarpaulin and on all four sides, a film’s posters would be pasted. A man with a loudspeaker would sit inside and, at a traffic intersection or in a lane, he would repeatedly announce the name of the film playing at the hall.

Occasionally, the more enterprising ones would reel out the names of the cast and even play snatches of the film’s songs. This was to draw in those who could not read the posters.

Some cinema halls went a step further. Besides having a loudspeaker in the rickshaw, they employed at least half a dozen local artistes. One of them walked ahead, beating a drum suspended from his neck. In front of him would be two boys dressed up as girls, doing a little jig every now and then. They would also sing a few lines from the movie’s songs.

Towards the end of the 1960s, when north and south Delhi had a considerable number of movie halls, their owners took unusual steps to draw the crowd. For instance, special buses were arranged to and from Alpna to ferry viewers. The hall, located in Model Town, was not easily accessible, so buses were parked at Kashmere Gate and other vantage points to transport viewers to and from the hall. Deep Cinema too employed special buses from Subzi Mandi, while tempos plied for Suraj in Najafgarh.

Most halls would announce the forthcoming films, and design boards and sections of the lounge to publicise them. During the interval, a trailer from a forthcoming film would be played. In addition, every hall played the national anthem at the end of the film, unlike Bombay, where it was played at the beginning. 

Till the mid-’70s, cine-goers were mainly men. However, devotionals or family dramas saw women queue up in large numbers as well at the ticket counter. The booking clerk was a much sought-after man; even when he was off duty, people would strike up a conversation with him to ensure they were in his good books. But once the counter opened, there would be mayhem, requiring the intervention of security personnel….

Often, cops had to resort to a mild lathi-charge to restore order. Part of the chaos would be caused by black-marketeers who booked a bunch of tickets in advance and sold them many times over the market price minutes before the show. Many were in league with the local paanwala, the hugely popular chaiwala and the ushers and guards, who would happily keep tickets with them. That way, a black-marketeer would be let off after a reprimand as the cops couldn’t recover any extra tickets from him. Of course, the cops themselves were not always above board.

Speaking of the good old paanwala, he did brisk business in the days of yore. Many balcony patrons were habitual consumers of betel nuts, and the paanwala provided them several other alternatives. Aware of such habits, the cinema management placed spittoons on the staircase and in the lounge. This did not necessarily mean that the walls were free of stains.

The men who queued up for tickets were chivalrous. The moment a lady arrived at a ticket counter, they would tell the clerk, ‘Pehle ladies ko de do’ (First, give the ticket to the ladies). The word ‘ladies’ was always used in plural, even if it referred to a single lady. The management too was mindful of their concern for security and privacy. Many halls had a specially designated box attached to the balcony where ladies could watch films without the fear of any intrusive male gaze. The boxes were used by families too. Some cinemas like Liberty, which did not have a box, seated women in groups in the balcony and the stalls, out of concern for their security….

In later years, a thousand love stories must have bloomed in the boxes of Ritz, Jagat, Regal, and the dress circle of Shiela. And of course, there were stray instances of indiscreet couples being bundled out of the hall too. Back then, nearly every hall had a different audience profile for each show, and a different crowd for each section of the hall. Working-class men preferred night shows while families would stream in to catch the evening show. Matinee shows were frequented more by women while noon shows often had sex workers, nautch girls and undergraduate students. Poorer audiences went for the more affordable stalls, while the middle or upper middle class opted for the expensive balcony and box. This was not the case in the morning shows when balconies were seldom full, and most viewers opted for the stalls.

Parallel cinema offerings, few and far between, had more discerning viewers while dubbed versions of South Indian and Hollywood films were preferred by men looking for ‘scenes’. In fact, a hall or two had their permits cancelled for inserting objectionable scenes in routine movies!

From the 1930s to the year 2000 and beyond, tickets were slips made of recycled paper. Usually garish pink, but occasionally light green or blue; they were of such poor quality that if you kept a ticket in your shirt pocket on a hot summer afternoon, chances were you would end up with a stain.

Separate boxes, cooled and air-conditioned comfort, and big screens were a part of the permanent cinema halls in Delhi.

While Old Delhi and Connaught Place had a well-established cinema culture in the ’50s, cinema became an entertainment in south and west Delhi in the ’70s, with most of its leading halls coming up then. Eros was, for a long time, the premier hall in south Delhi.

And until 1971, there was no hall in Rajouri Garden. The closest was Amba in Shakti Nagar, some 15 km away. That year, Vishal came up in Rajouri Garden, filling a vacuum.

Temporary halls came up on barren stretches of land for a period of two to six months at a time. Makeshift tin-and-tarpaulin structures with foldable chairs, they would show films thrice a day. A white sheet with ‘maskings’ acted as the screen. Mobile toilets used to accompany every such ‘hall’.

Areas like Model Town, Zakhira, Subhash Nagar, Shakarpur, Rajouri Garden and even R.K. Puram used to have naturally air-cooled temporary cinemas. They showed leading films of the time such as Aan (1952), Nagin (1954), Naya Daur (1957), Har Har Mahadev (1950). Later, some temporary permit holders were granted permanent licence, and over time, most areas of Delhi had at least one hall in the vicinity — Suraj in Najafgarh, Lokesh in Nangloi, Samrat in Shakurpur, Raj in Tilak Nagar, Seble in Badarpur and Gagan in Nand Nagari.

People beyond the geographical proximity seldom frequented these areas, yet permanent halls here enjoyed a fine run. Each had a spin-off effect: the neighbourhood bioscope-man who showed snatches of songs, the local music bands that hung around the hall for possible business before or after the show and signboard artists who sought work from hall managers. A hall was a hub of social interaction.

Film-viewing was not just an escape from the humdrum of everyday life, it was a passion and an art in itself. Little wonder then that cinemas were named with style and care, the idea being to cultivate a bond with viewers that went beyond a show.

Nearly all cinemas had their unique ways of wooing cine-goers. While Alpna was named following newspaper advertisements asking readers to suggest a possible name for a new cinema, most others had lofty, pretentious names. Coming up soon after Independence, before the nation could wean itself away from its colonial past, or from the reign of the local ‘rajas’ in certain pockets, cinema halls had names that directly or indirectly alluded to royalty. Hence, there was Regal in Connaught Place, Imperial in Paharganj, Majestic in Chandni Chowk and Palace on Old Roshanara Road. Later, there was Samrat in Shakur Basti. Only one hall’s name reflected that India was an independent nation — Liberty, established in the mid-’50s. Some halls were also named after parts of the universe — Lokesh (firmament) in Nangloi, Suraj (sun) in Najafgarh, Jagat (the world) near Jama Masjid, Gagan (sky) in Nand Nagri, Chand (moon) in Trilokpuri, Chanderlok (realm of the moon; heaven) in Chittaranjan Park and Aakash (sky) in Adarsh Nagar.

Other halls had equally impressive but clearly British or European names — Plaza, Ritz, Odeon, Rivoli and Delite. Only a handful had names spelling out their direct relationship with films — Jubilee in Chandni Chowk, Filmistan on Rani Jhansi Road and Sapna in East of Kailash, alluding to the dream world of movies.

From Raja Harishchandra (1913) to Bombay Talkies (2013), they have seen, and shown, them all. Delhi 4 Shows, a culmination of my passion for cinema, would not have been possible without the Sunday editions of Patriot.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 10:43:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/frames-from-memory/article7018548.ece

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