A little under 20 years after its release, Meena Kumari’s Bahu Begum continued to run to warm response in the morning shows at cinemas in Delhi. Delhi’s Jagat cinema first showed the film in the late 1970s, then had a number of repeat screenings in the early 1980s. Almost always, the film did good business. Such was the film’s abiding affair with Jagat’s morning slot that its placards and leaflets stuck in the hall’s gallery had begun to fade. Meena Kumari’s legion of fans did not mind as, week after week, they turned up to watch the tragedy queen of Hindi cinema. More than a decade after Meena Kumari passed away, her fans continued to throng Jagat, often finding themselves singing, “ Hum intezar karenge tera qayamat tak”, a hit song from the film first released in 1967.
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In an industry which tends to pay inordinate obeisance to its leading men, Meena Kumari’s case was a rare exception. In the Walled City of Delhi, her films played at Jagat. It was the hall that showed Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, the 1972 film that entered the record books of Hindi cinema after the news of Meena Kumari’s death soon after its release. It was also the hall that showed Meena Kumari’s Phool aur Patthar (1966). The O.P. Ralhan film completed a silver jubilee.
Meena Kumari’s visit
It was common for the film’s hero and heroine to visit cinema halls on the occasion of a film’s silver or golden jubilee; in those days films stayed on cinema screens long enough that their fate was not decided on the first weekend. When Meena Kumari came to Jagat, news spread like wildfire. Almost everybody wanted to see her, hear her. The actor’s car could make no headway from Daryaganj to the cinema located not far from the historic Jama Masjid. Not one to disappoint her fans, Meena Kumari walked down to the hall, waving to fans, signing a few autographs and agreeing to be photographed at the cinema’s reception.
The Raj Kapoor circuit
What Jagat was to Meena Kumari, the grand old Regal was to Raj Kapoor, a man who for two decades could not put a foot wrong until he decided to helm Mera Naam Joker (1970). Every time a Raj Kapoor film would be released in Delhi, the hugely popular actor would follow a clear template. The film would open at Regal in Connaught Place besides Moti and West End in Old Delhi. Kapoor would arrive at Regal for the first day, first show of his film. At Regal, the film would start early, around noon. He would visit the hall, wave to his fans, say a few words and go right back into his waiting yellow Ambassador to drive to Moti cinema in Chandni Chowk. He would arrive at Moti with his entourage, often K.A. Abbas, Shankar-Jaikishan, Hasrat Jaipuri and Radhu Karmakar. Here the film started around 12.30 p.m. Almost all his films played at Moti, ranging from Barsaat in 1949, Awaara in 1951, Jagte Raho in 1956 to Sangam in 1964 and Mera Naam Joker in 1970.
Dilip Kumar at Golcha
If Kapoor was associated with particular halls for his films, Dilip Kumar was too. His films would open at Golcha and Novelty besides Plaza. The print of K. Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam, starring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala with Prithviraj Kapoor, arrived on an elephant’s back at Novelty in 1960. It was the director’s way of giving a royal feel to the audience about the film started over 14 years earlier. When the film’s colour version was released decades later, Golcha was once again chosen as the hall for its first show.
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Even in repeat runs, Kumar’s films were screened in certain halls, such as Excelsior in the Walled City. Be it Madhumati (1958) or Leader (1964) or Ram aur Shyam (1967), Excelsior played them all, some in the daily four shows, others in morning shows alone. Ever year Excelsior used to have a festival of Dilip Kumar’s films with films changed daily. Back in the 1980s, Vidhaata, Mashaal, Duniya, Shakti, etc were all screened as part of a festival of his films. For a low-profile hall, it was a masterstroke, one that brought at least some discerning audiences to the hall which was otherwise well known for its creaky seats and bread pakore and tea vendors selling their stuff inside the auditorium during a film’s screening. In fact, with their earthy ways and ability to strike a quick bargain, the vendors gave Excelsior a unique identity, not to forget the fact that almost all through the year, Excelsior played a Dilip Kumar film in the morning show. That’s not all. The film which played at Excelsior’s morning show one week would be transferred to West End the next, making sure that Kumar’s fans didn’t miss out on his film.
Ticket on the wrist
Away from the star fixation of most upmarket halls in Delhi was Robin cinema in Sabzi Mandi. It looked so tiny from the main road that if you walked by briskly, you could miss it. It catered to fans of Shatrughan Sinha and Mithun Chakraborty. It issued no tickets. There was no advance booking. A few minutes before the screening, people would queue up at the ticket window. They would pay for the film but no ticket would be issued. Instead a man would stamp their wrists. This gave them the right of admission for the film. Most people in the audience were immigrant workers who had left their families at home to eke out a living on the mean streets of Delhi.
Prime Ministers too
It was not just actors, even Prime Ministers and the President were associated with particular cinema halls. Jawaharlal Nehru preferred Regal and Sudarshan, then called Mohini; Indira Gandhi went to Shiela; and Rajendra Prasad to Delite.
Unlike today’s multiplexes where a Brahmastra can play at every multiplex at the same time, in the good old days of single-screen cinemas, film distribution and exhibition was a craft honed over the ages. Each cinema had its identity, each banner and star identified with a hall.