Memories of a monolith

Paras cinema in New Delhi. Photo: Sandeep Saxena   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Back in 1975, Jai Santoshi Maa, a Hindu mythological film, was a roaring hit, smashing all box office records. It gave Usha Mangeshkar, otherwise better known as Lata Mangeshkar's underachieving sister, more than a nodding acquaintance with posterity. From every street corner, from every paanwallah, one could hear Usha's voice, “Main to aarti utaarun re, Santoshi Mata ki”. When the film released the expectations were low key, as despite the presence of the likes of Bharat Bhushan and Anita Guha, it did not quite have the star power to make an immediate impact. However, things changed after release. When the film opened at Paras cinema in South Delhi, it evoked religiousfervour like no other movie, sending the faithful into bliss. Paras was then among a handful of cinema halls in South Delhi and easily the Capital's largest, though Vishal was later to clinch the top spot. In fact, in the entire Kalkaji area — all the classification of extensions, enclaves, etc. in the vicinity came about later — Paras lorded over it all, its majestic building which laid a lot of emphasis on breathing space, towering over buttonholes passing off for offices all around.

In a sad irony, Paras closed down in 2007, dwarfed physically and metaphorically by the multiplex challenge symbolised by Satyam next door in Nehru Place. However, life was blissful back in 1975. Santoshi Maa was in heaven and her believers could not have enough of her in cinema halls. Jai Santoshi Maa ran to packed houses for weeks on end. The hall, located not too far from the famous Kalkaji temple, often resembled more a place of worship as the faithful brought prasad with them to distribute during the film's interval. Women, otherwise not as conspicuous at halls without the menfolk of the family, came out in huge numbers with their thalis, conch shells, marigolds and the rest of the paraphernalia. The moment Usha or for that matter, Mahendra Kapoor launched into a bhajan in the film, there would be impromptu performances in the hall! Everybody would sing along with poet Pradeep's lyrics!

A big hit though Jai Santoshi Maa was, it was not the first taste of a blockbuster at Paras. That honour went to the very first film shown at the hall: Manoj Kumar's much-talked about Purab aur Pashchim. The East-West divide film was the inaugural screening at Paras when the hall opened on January 21, 1971. Incidentally, the cinema got ready in a record 13 months' time as the owners, Malhotra exhibitors, raced against time to get it ready for the film! They had got permission for the joint family owned hall only towards the end of December 1969. Though the hall was not supposed to be limited to either the middle class or the working class, the initial admission rate of around Rs.5 meant Paras was never short of patrons. A little later, Kora Kagaz was to have a fine run at Paras, proving that family audiences could make a film tick at the box office.

Smashing hit

Much later, in 1984, Paras was to become a sidelight of history as Manmohan Desai's Coolie, the film that hit the headlines for Amitabh Bachchan's famous injury on the sets, hit the silver screen here. The film, needless to reiterate, was a smashing hit with Big B's fans queuing up from the morning show for a ticket to the noon show! This time, cinegoers were left moist eyed as Bachchan lip synced “Madine wale se mera salam kehna”!

Cinema, across religions, was a unifying factor. And Paras happy to host the bonhomie. Though the 1200 seater hall — 900 for stalls and 300 for balcony — is widely known in cinema circles for its seating capacity, which, incidentally, at one time went up to 1340, Paras has been the only hall in the Capital with a dedicated screening of Nepalese films. Of course, the presence of a significant Nepali population in the vicinity has meant that Nepalese films have not been short of patrons, right from the 1990s to the hall's closure. While other halls would prefer to play arty films or South Indian flicks in morning shows, Paras catered to the Nepalese-speaking niche audience.

Though Paras, all along, has been known as the choice centre for mainstream Bollywood fare, it has occasionally experimented with Hollywood films too. However, the presence of Archana in the neighbourhood with a dedicated English film-watching clientele meant the experiment had to be aborted soon enough. More successful though has been the morning show concept at Paras where super hit films have found a ready audience. Mainly youth centric films have had a field day in this slot here, thanks largely to the student crowd from Lady Sri Ram and Deshbandhu college in the vicinity.

Though it has been four years since the lights quietly went off at what was once New Delhi's biggest cinema, efforts are afoot to revive the hall. This time the mantra is no longer ‘the bigger the better'. Rather, it is going to be ‘small is beautiful' as the once grand Paras seeks a toehold on the cinematic map of the city with a 300-seater auditorium. The show will soon be back on public demand. Small and beautiful rather than majestic and magnificent in the new avatar.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 12:03:04 AM |

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