Imperial chronicles

If some films are beyond the logic of time and space, so are some cinema halls, finds Ziya Us Salam on a visit to Imperial cinema in Pahar Ganj

July 17, 2011 06:28 pm | Updated 06:28 pm IST - New Delhi

Built in 1930, Imperial cinema once screened 'Alam Ara'. It used to play Hollywood films too. Photo: S. Subramanium

Built in 1930, Imperial cinema once screened 'Alam Ara'. It used to play Hollywood films too. Photo: S. Subramanium

On the main Pahar Ganj road, a dog rests on a broken pavement, his wagging tail keeping flies at bay. A vendor is busy peeling boiled eggs, his face partly hidden behind his neatly stashed trays. Next to him is a cherubic middle-aged man; his spotless unlined dhoti and vest quite in contrast with his betel-stained stall. He sells, you know it, paan, bidi and cigarette. In the vicinity are a money changer, sundry hotels with names like Merry Gold, Cottage Yes Please, Bless Inn and plenty of readymade clothes stalls. The salesmen have to outshout each other to attract customers, many of whom though have nothing more than window shopping on their mind.

The salesmen create quite a din; but raising a stink next to them is an open-air loo with minimum privacy. Right next to it is the good old Imperial cinema. Its façade manages to retain a semblance of majesty. A senior staffer claims Imperial dates back to pre-talkies days. It was built in 1930 and was a theatre to begin with. Then came Ardeshir Irani's Alam Ara , the first talkie that had a historic run here. Soon, Imperial turned its back on dance floor and theatre days and got busy playing top notch Hindi and even Hollywood films. Then the Brown Sahibs and the British used to frequent the hall. It was renovated big time a few years after Independence in 1952. But today in 2011, Imperial is not really in august company. The fare it dishes out is predictably plebeian.

This week, the cinema, which can no longer afford even top notch Bhojpuri films, is celebrating a ‘Daily Change' festival. Effectively, it means a new film every day. ‘New' though is a term to be used with a lot of caution here. It could mean anything from a decade old flick to one your parents watched before they got married! ‘Daily Change' could be a ruse to get greater footfall but with middle-of-the-road titles like International Khiladi , Main Khiladi Tu Anari and Salakhein , it is not an idea that will get the registers ringing. The films are too recent to evoke nostalgia and too old to ride on novelty.

Of course, there is a morning show that takes you back to the times when pot-bellied middle-aged men forever looking for satiation competed with high-on-testosterone boys for a seat to watch films like The Body or Sky High . At the Imperial though, they have to make do with Ladies Game . The posters helpfully add, “the games that wives play when husbands are away”. Chances are the husbands would be the ones watching all the games at Imperial.

The air-cooled cinema with 580 seats and a maximum admission rate of Rs.30, however, plays its part in a society more disparate than ever before. In a city where tickets for select shows in multiplexes have gone up to a whopping Rs.700, it fulfils the working class requirements. The patrons are the actual warriors for cinema — the kind who need no Dolby digital sound or gleaming new prints with perfect air-conditioning, the faceless multitudes who have never been face-to-face with a star and watch a film for pure entertainment. They have not heard of Kurosawa or the Makhmalbafs. And could not care less. They are undemanding souls who turn up week after week, and accept all that comes their way. Much like votaries of the karma theory.

Imperial's elegant staircase walls and a little signboard ‘Ladies' Cloak Room' outside women's toilet offer testimony that once the cinema was as good as its name. Interestingly, today the patrons are almost all men! As the booking clerk who doubles as the usher leads you into the auditorium, you discover the seats have lost most of their upholstery. The spring of the cushions often juts into the bum, and at times protruding nails make you wary of the armrest. The stairs have dirt, grime, and marks of betel nut juice, courtesy patrons who refuse to use the bin helpfully placed in the little lobby. Cigarette butts are extinguished behind the backrest of the seats in front! And wrappers are strewn around.

Its role in history

Yet Imperial counts. Located just a kilometre or so from Connaught Place and a few brisk steps from New Delhi railway station, in the middle of the budget tourist hub that is Pahar Ganj, Imperial has always played a crucial role in cinematic history. At one time, back in the 1950s when most of the residents were Punjabis uprooted from Lahore or Peshawar, it used to play Punjabi films with regularity. A film like Yamla Jat had a jubilee run. Even Pakistani Punjabi films had screenings at the hall.

Back in the 1970s, following heightened interest in mythological cinema, courtesy the great success of Jai Santoshi Maa , it satiated the needs of the local immigrant Sikh community by playing Dara Singh's Bhakti Mein Shakti , a film that completed a diamond jubilee in the city, and had a 52-week run here! A little closer to our times, when most of the workers at the neighbouring shops hailed from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, the cinema changed with the times and played Bhojpuri films to thunderous response. Now as Bhojpuri cinema has turned into a sunshine industry, Imperial is again mirroring the aspirations and culture of the working class by playing a series of Mithun Chakraborty films. Films like Jallad , Chandal and Mard , etc. which would not be seen at the nearby PVR Plaza or Shiela cinema halls, have had a fine run here.

Indeed, look closely at the profile of cinegoers here, and it seems like our film industry operates in watertight compartments: the cinegoers of Plaza never venture to Imperial, and vice-versa. While the patrons of multiplexes cannot bear the kind of fare here, the Imperial regulars cannot afford or identify with the NRI dreams being peddled at top halls. Yet the show goes on.

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