Indian cinema has grown by leaps and bounds over the years as mainstream films get massive viewership and openings at multiplexes across the country. But gauging the success of Bollywood only by looking at the crush of fans outside an average multiplex in urban India would be unfair. We need to look beyond, and go back in time a little, for before the wave of multiplexes hit urban India, there was this thing called the single-screen cinema: a quaint remnant of our cinematic history that is, as it turns out, still holding together, even if barely. Most of these erstwhile entertainment hubs in Delhi have now either shut down or are on the verge of closure. Some have been acquired by big names such as PVR and Big Cinemas, while others are yet operating independently, continuing their struggle for survival.
Some of the first single-screen cinemas in Delhi sprang up in the Connaught Place region back in the day. The four main players here were Regal, Rivoli, Plaza, and Odeon. While Rivoli and Plaza are now PVR Rivoli and PVR Plaza respectively, Odeon has now become Big Cinemas: Odeon.
Regal has tried to stay true to its roots, and has remained unchanged in the face of widespread acquisition all around it. The first film to be screened here was Gone with the Wind way back in 1939. It belongs to an era when movie stars would frequent cinema halls to promote their films, and not appear on every reality show on TV to do so. Startling silence during the screening of a Salman Khan film might be an indication that things are not going too well.
“Popular movies used to run here for 20-25 weeks at a time, and now we change movies every second or third week. People have numerous options to watch a movie now, and they choose to do so at expensive places because they have the money to do so.”
He says, “People have numerous options to watch a movie now, and they choose to do so at expensive places because they have the money to do so.” He concedes that this particular cinema might soon have to get the multiplex facelift in order to survive in the face of increasing competition. “We cannot survive on nostalgia alone, as we have a staff of people to pay. Other expenses such as electricity bills etc. are also quite high. So there is a slight chance that we will soon be taken over by a corporate entity.”
Another aspect that has changed the dynamics of the market is the way movies are distributed. Verma adds, “Decades ago, if a movie was to release in Connaught Place, a distributor would sell it to only one of these four main halls, while the other venues would be sold other movies. This meant we had exclusivity, which translated to greater viewership. There was also a minimum four week contract, which meant every movie ran here for a month at least.”
Although many tourists come here to visit for an old-world charm, some choose to visit purely out of a sense of nostalgia. Prakash Sharma, a 70 year old businessman says, “My first memories of watching a movie are at Regal. So every once in a while, I watch a movie here or just stop by when I’m in the area.”
On the other hand, with a more corporate setup, refurbished venues such as PVR Rivoli might be losing touch with their past. The duty officer here, Mohit, has been here for a year but knows little to nothing about the history of the hall. He says, “New people get employed very frequently, and many are transferred every now and then. So we don’t have always get time to keep ourselves updated with everything.”
Connaught Place is not the only location with historically rich cinemas in the capital. While its pivotal location has helped venues like Regal remain slightly relevant, multiple ones have had to shut down right in the neighbourhood: in Paharganj, for instance.
Nestled in its cramped lanes are remains of single-screen theatres that also date back to pre-independence India. Khanna cinema, which was shut down years ago, now lies in ruins. Another, Imperial cinema was recently closed as well. Imperial cinema is one of the oldest halls here and locals estimate that it was established in the 1930s. Having relied on screenings of Bollywood movies from the 1990s or sleazy horror flicks during its last years, the hall had to shut down recently. Neeraj, a shopkeeper in the area says, “We don’t know the exact reasons, but it would be safe to assume that Imperial had to shut down due to heavy losses. We saw fewer and fewer people visiting with passing time.”
“Due to an explosion in the number of cinema halls, ones like ours have had to struggle to stay relevant. People have no problems dishing out more than Rs 100 on popcorn these days. The more expensive the place, the better it is presumed to be. However, we have not changed our rates for years now.”
However, not all fortunes have turned out to be this bleak, since many single-screen cinemas have managed to stage a turnaround after having been in dire straits. One of them is Sheila. Prakash Dubey, the manager at Shiela cinema in Paharganj disagrees with the idea of the single-screen cinema dying out. Established in 1961, the theatre is one of the few that has been given heritage status and is known as the first 70 mm screen in Delhi. He says, “We realise that we have a different class of customer, and that is whom we focus on. Even today, we get 100 percent attendance on the day of a big release.”
Some of the single-screen cinemas from the era of “talkies” have had to adopt ingenious practices to survive. Previously known as Moti Talkies, Moti Cinema is one of them. Due to a growing number of halls that already screen Hindi movies, it now caters to a niche audience and screens only Bhojpuri movies or dubbed South Indian fare.
On a leisurely Sunday afternoon, when most people go out for their fix of movies, the 80-year-old Moti Cinema is defiantly silent, like a proud grandfather whose children refuse to visit him. A poster of the Telegu movie, The Return of Rebel is plastered up on multiple walls. Starring Prabhas of Bahubali fame, the excessively bright posters catch the attention of passersby, many of whom are just strolling by. Other posters include those of Inspector Chandni and Kacche Dhaage, both Bhojpuri films.
The crowd here is a little more laidback than usual. A visibly drunk man sits next to me outside the ticket counter. He is here to watch The Return of Rebel. Mansoor, who hails from the Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh travels here from the India Gate area to watch a movie every single week. He says, “I don’t know many people in the city. Watching Bhojpuri movies here helps me when I’m feeling homesick. But I come here irrespective of which movie is playing because I don’t have much else to do on a Sunday.” After speaking for about ten minutes or so, he tells me he is here for the 3 p.m. show. When I point out it’s 4.15 p.m., he sprints inside in disbelief.
Chandra Mohan(name changed), a supervisor here, claims it would not have been possible for him to sit down and have a leisurely chat with me a decade ago, as the place was brimming with patrons. The first film that screened here during his tenure was Coolie. Having spent more than 30 years doing what he does, he has seen drastic changes in the movie consumption habits of the public from up close. He claims that screening Hindi movies is just not profitable enough anymore, which is ironic considering that Hindi movies are raking in more money than ever before.
He says, “Due to an explosion in the number of cinema halls, ones like ours have had to struggle to stay relevant. People have no problems dishing out more than Rs 100 on popcorn these days. The more expensive the place, the better it is presumed to be. However, we have not changed our rates for years now.” Tickets here range from Rs 35 for a first-class ticket, to Rs 80 for a box seat. He adds, “Since no one else is screening Bhojpuri films, we do have a monopoly over this particular audience.” On being asked about the future of Moti Cinema, he signs off saying, “It is likely that we may be closed if you visit again in a few years. But we will always matter to the select few who remember movie-going as a significant event in their lives and not just a routine weekend activity.”