In a cinema-loving country such as India, the single-screen cinema hall was much more than a place that screened movies. These historic gems were the primary source of entertainment back then; they were a catalyst for social change; were barometers of the political and social climate; they said a lot about their patrons; and, for the actors, the many ‘jubilees’ of the films that they screened turned mere mortals into dazzling stars.
Unlike the generic nature of the multiplex that dominates cinema viewing today, single-screens exuded character and were much loved. Sadly, the advent of the multiplex sounded the death knell of these cinemas, many of which have become a part of local histories. But while much has been written about their demise in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, the disappearing cinema houses in Delhi have their own fascinating story to tell.
First, let’s rewind a little. Cinema came to India on the 7th of July 1896, when the Lumiere brothers famously screened six short films at Watson’s Hotel in Bombay. Soon, films began to be screened regularly in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. In 1899, an Indian named H S Bhatavdekar shot The Wrestlers, showing a wrestling match at the Hanging Gardens in Bombay. This is considered the first Indian documentary film.
A few years later, Dadasaheb Phalke shot the first Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra, in 1913, and three years later, the first silent film in Tamil, Keechaka Vadham (1916), was made. Then, in 1919, the first Bengali silent movie Billwamangal released. With these strides in movie-making, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta became centers of thriving film industries, and they continue to spin celluloid dreams at a mind-boggling pace even today.
But, as cinema boomed across India, Delhi remained a ‘backwater’ as far as films were concerned. At the time, Delhi consisted of two very different, almost parallel, worlds – the Old City or Walled City of Shahjahanabad, and the British-dominated ‘Civil Lines’. Despite the best efforts of film historians, it has been impossible to pinpoint when the first film was screened in Delhi.
Film historians Savita Bhakhri and Aditya Awasthi in their book Hindi Cinema And Delhi point out that Delhi was a late starter in cinema thanks to the city's unstable political climate. Across the ages, Delhi has always been a major political nerve centre, and shifting political, social and cultural equations did not allow a film industry to flourish.
For instance, after the Revolt of 1857, Delhi lost its reputation as the political, cultural and economic centre of the country. The British Crown, which then took control of India, turned it into nothing more than a military camp. Also, cities like Bombay, Madras and Calcutta received the support and patronage of the local population in the process of filmmaking. In stark contrast, in Delhi, the permanent population of the city was miniscule, with migrants comprising the majority. A major shift took place only post-Independence, with the influx of refugees.
Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly for a sarkari city like Delhi, the emergence of cinema houses was connected with local politics. The British shifted their capital from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1927, and soon the city began buzzing with political activity. The earliest cinema halls in Delhi, which opened in the 1920s, both in Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) and Connaught Place (New Delhi), were actually assembly halls used for political and social activities. Now they doubled as venues for film screenings and, in time, were converted into permanent cinema halls. When the silent-era movies were replaced by movies with sound and dialogue, they became ‘talkies’ and many added the term as a suffix to their names, such as Moti Talkies, Robin Talkies and Jagat Talkies.
The Walled City of Delhi, today known more for electrical and commercial markets, was once the hub of the ‘traditional’ Delhi elite and the old Muslim aristocracy. Famous cinema halls in the Old City were Jagat, Moti, Delite, Ritz, Majestic, Minerva, Golcha and Novelty, among others. Film scholar Ravi Vasudevan says in his article Cinema in Urban Space that while investigating the importance of cinema in its public space, the issues of class and social differentiation cannot be ignored.
Each cinema hall enjoyed patronage among a certain section of society. Thus, Jagat Talkies, which is near the Jama Masjid, was preferred by the Muslim gentry, while Moti Talkies was the preferred cinema hall for the Hindu population in the same locality. With the construction of Connaught Place in the 1930s, a number of new cinema houses were opened here, the most prominent being Regal. Plaza became extremely popular as it served its patrons cold coffee, then a great novelty.
– The Odeon was the first cinema in Delhi to be fully air-conditioned.
As the cinema ecosystem grew in the capital, film distributors and cinema owners came up with innovative ways to promote the movies. For instance, film hoardings were in English, Hindi and Urdu as a certain section of the audience could read only Urdu and others could read only Hindi, while local newspapers like Partap, Punjab Kesari and Veer Arjun published information regarding upcoming movies. As late as the 1960s, especially in Old Delhi, movies were promoted by people on cycle rickshaws.
India’s independence from the British in 1947 and the horrors of Partition had a tremendous impact on the cinema houses of Delhi. Film historian Ziya Us Salam says in his book Dehli 4 Shows: Talkies of Yesteryear (2016), in the context of the growing influence of cinema, “In a newly independent country taking its early steps as a Democracy, cinema proved a great equalizer – have-nots watched the same film as the more privileged ones, at the same time and place.”
The large-scale influx of refugees from cities like Lahore and Peshawar meant that Delhi got a new breed of cinema patrons. Delite Cinema in Daryaganj, located on the cusp of Old and New Delhi, was famous for screening patriotic movies. The cinema hall was built on the site where the ‘old wall’ of the walled city of Shahjahanabad once stood. A section of it was demolished to make way for the single-screen.
Delite Cinema was the cynosure of the local population during the 1971 Indo-Pak war as it was the only cinema hall in Delhi that not only kept running but also gave regular updates on the war during the intermission.
– To accommodate its news flashes, it even introduced a second interval!
In the 1960s, the most preferred cinema hall for English movies was Shiela in the Paharganj area of Delhi. It was the first 70mm screen in India. During the Emergency, Shiela was the only cinema hall in the city that was shut by the government because of its ‘unsuitability’. However, the real reason was that the owner, D C Kaushish, had refused to bow to the extortion demands of local kingpins. Kaushish published an announcement in the newspapers, stating that the “best cinema hall in Delhi is shutting down due to unsanitary conditions”. When this caused an uproar, the government instructed that it be reopened.
The Walled City started losing its cinema audience when its resident population started moving out in the 1960s and 70s, and even before that. It was left with a labour-dominated population that preferred C-grade movies. Shahjahanabad became a ghetto called the ‘Walled City’ and was completely neglected by the administration. Also, the coming of television in the 1970s contributed to the decline of single-screen cinema halls. There were some single-screen bravehearts that tried to upgrade but due to the lack of demand for A-grade or ‘art' films, these too gradually fell to ruin.
The advent of videos, TV and later multiplexes in the 1980s and 90s further fuelled the demise of the single-screen cinema. Now the Internet and the new-age entertainment avenues it has brought, is relegating these once vital and vibrant institutions to little more than a footnote in the cinematic history of Delhi.