An email from Anuj, rather wistful, pushed us to make an effort to visit the Regal cinema in Connaught Place for its last show ever. Although we were aware of the ancient cinema closing down that very day, somehow it did not upset me enough. Nevertheless, we made some calls to find out if anyone could arrange tickets to the last show, but everywhere we called, people acted shocked. It was as if we were informing people of Regal’s closing down, so they would, in turn, ask us if we could also help them in getting a ticket in the same tone of voice when people expect you to express condolences when you inform them of someone’s demise; they don’t really want to be there, but they also don’t want you to feel they are insensitive.
With no easy solution working out, one had to actually make a trip and try their ‘luck’ to maybe get a ticket in ‘black’. So, Sumeet left early from office to see if tickets could be bought, while I planned to reach later and catch the last show at 10 pm. In about half an hour Sumeet called to tell me that she did get a ticket, but would be unable to watch the 6:30 pm show of Mera Naam Joker, so I packed up and left for Regal.
Around 6:35 pm, when I reached Regal, I noticed that there was a considerably large crowd, much larger than what Regal had seen in the last decade or so. I stood below the banner that read “REGAL — New Delhi’s Premier Theatre” and lit up a cigarette before I went inside; there were many who were clicking selfies next to the posters.
To my surprise, the ticket counter opened up and they did have rear stall tickets for the later show at ten in the night, and they were available aplenty. So I booked two tickets, just in case someone called asking for one. The film had started playing when I went into the theatre, but more than the film and the audience, what welcomed me were the stenches of damp walls and an unpleasant smell from the men’s restroom. I settled down and watched the film for a bit. The projection was tilted, the sound was very difficult to hear. No one could hear much, but people hummed along with whatever they could hear.
When the film got over and the lights came up, one could see the paint peeling off the walls, cobwebs and smudges, seats that were probably cleaned years ago; the front stall with seats without cushions was mostly empty. The floor was uneven and almost cracking up. I walked along the corridors, discovering more decay and a room that looked as though it had caved in. Space looked terrible; the memory of a building that was once beautiful. There were a few old, black and white photographs of old Bollywood actors.
The cafeteria was abuzz, and the manager was happy because all the sandwiches were getting sold and the popcorn, too, was almost finished; people ate like there was no tomorrow. I stepped out since there was an hour to kill before the show. Outside there was a frenzy of people clicking selfies, news crews hunting for that one sound bite to place on national television, and people enacting grief so it could be them. I, too, clicked some photos, smoked a few cigarettes, and hoped that someone would turn up to use the other ticket I had. A journalist, who was also on a cigarette break, was on phone trying to convince his boss that he should stay for longer because he was sure to get a lot of material for television coverage.
Soon there was a massive group of people who all glued to one cell phone on a selfie stick. They were live on Facebook. Every person in the corridor had a story to narrate, an anecdote to share about Regal. I, too, recalled my father telling me about the time when he would sleep in front of the cinema on the footpath when he had come to Delhi for the first time looking for work sometime in the early eighties.
I glanced at the ticket counter, and people were still buying tickets, contrary to reports of the show being sold out. It was difficult to decipher exactly what the staff was feeling — it seemed that the recent troubled past was coming to an end, almost like an old, sick person was going to die and the caretakers would no longer have to clean the mess every day. In the projection room, too, the projectionists were getting many visitors with their cameras and recorders, asking them questions about the theatre and the time they had spent there. Several journalists had queued up to interview the two men, their cameras steadfastly pointed at them.
The last show started on time, and while people could already hear the title track of the film, they were still outside clicking selfies. I made my way inside again to see Sangam. It finished well past midnight, and by the time I got outside the hall, there was another group exiting from the theatre singing songs from the film while a television camera followed them. The song ended and another one started and the chorus grew louder. A television journalist told his colleague that he had asked a few of them to come out singing these songs. Everyone then chanted in unison, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai.’
Outside the frenzy of selfies still continued, and soon people were also collecting memorabilia, tearing off the posters; some even got them autographed from the manager. Gradually, the crowd died out, the frenzy was over, a group of photographers jumped to take shots of the gatekeeper drawing the grilles and locking up the place. They all took several attempts to get the perfect shot of him putting the lock-in and turning the key. He seemed distressed.
I smoked another cigarette, strolled in the corridor for a while, bumped into Kunal Dutt, the guy who ran a campaign to save a historical site in Patna, and we had a nifty chat about conservation of historical, heritage sites which have such cultural importance while strolling across to the centre of Connaught Place. We called for a cab and decided to continue the conversation on the way.