At a recently concluded documentary film festival, I watched an Alexandru Belc film, Cinema Mon Amour, about its manager’s struggle to keep one of the very last cinemas in Romania alive and functional. The camera follows the manager as he ambles through the theatre and recalls the days when the place was bustling with activity. ‘How do things look now?’, his voiceover contemplates, ‘...like the place is waiting.’ It seemed perfectly timed, for my mind made a journey backwards, two weeks prior to this when I was in the middle of a rather rambunctious event that, for all its well-intended evocation of nostalgia, was slowly unfolding with bacchanal glee. Every newspaper and channel wanted to partake of it. What struck me as odd was that for many others in the room, it was a funeral. Roop Ghai, the manager, was swamped by media persons, so I made an appointment to speak with him at ease after returning from the documentary festival. Ghai’s career as a theatre manager spans over four decades, the last of which he has spent as the custodian of Delhi’s oldest and most famous cinema, Regal. As the vanguard of single-screen cinemas prepares to pave the way for a multiplex, we sit in the nearly deserted lobby, save for the security guard and two former employees of the movie theatre, to understand the cultural and economic implications of this move.
Can you tell us about the changes in Regal since you took over?
Regal was Raj Kapoor’s favourite cinema. His films always had a premiere here, and he would do havan-puja before the film screening and break the coconut at the foot of the film projector. In its heydays, Regal was starlit; the biggest names in the show business would grace the red carpet. People would stand in queues for hours to get a ticket. In the last few years, many changes took place. The manner of projection is no longer the same as it has given way to digital technology. Now the films that run here are downloaded via a satellite link.
In terms of the infrastructure, we refurbished the theatre, replaced the seats, repaired the restrooms, but the public prefers multiplexes. Various other technological devices such as computers and mobile phones have become a source of entertainment for the masses, which keep them away from cinemas.
Rumours about Regal shutting down gained strength over the last one year or so. What has been your experience through this uncertain phase?
We were trying to acquire permission from several authorities to convert this into a multiplex. We have closed the theatre now, but we are still waiting for a few civic bodies to green-light the plan.
As for the uncertainty, there was none. It is the public that demands multiplexes. Single-screen cinemas have fixed show timings: four shows a day with a gap of three hours each. Multiplexes offer a huge advantage here — many films play simultaneously, and each film has multiple shows. Also, most of the films these days are of a shorter duration. A moviegoer, therefore, does not have to wait for three hours for the next show to begin if s/he misses or gets late for the current show. It is not only the young generation, but even the old do not prefer going to single-screen cinemas.
But isn’t the idea of ‘the public’ that you speak of rather elitist?
There are only three releases every year that pull in the crowd and make money, those starring the three big Khans: Shah Rukh, Aamir, and Salman. No other film is as profitable as these are. A large share of the revenue gets taxed — there is service tax, entertainment tax, house tax. The daily minimum wages have increased. In such a situation, for the rest of the year, how is a cinema owner meant to survive in this city? The government should waive off taxes for single-screen cinemas, electricity and water should be provided at subsidised rates. The owner cannot keep burning a hole in his pocket.
What about the working classes for whom this step spells, in a way, the death of entertainment?
The popular notion of ‘the common man’ does not extend to the working class. Forty years in this business have taught me that the producers-distributors do not take them into account. As far as the concerns of the middle class go, I would like to give an example. Bobby (1973) was first released in Punjab, not Delhi. I was a college student then, and people used to travel for over an hour to watch the film in Rohtak. My point is that if a film is great, the price of the ticket — be it Rs 50 or Rs 100 — becomes immaterial to those who are sincerely interested in watching it. However, there is a dearth of great films; most of them are not profitable. Cinema owners have to, therefore, rely on the Khan-starrers.
The cinema owner may or may not take public interest into account, but for how long do you expect him to survive when he is shelling out money from his own pocket? The tag of a heritage building cannot cover costs. We had to pay approximately Rs 4 lakhs for electricity.
Can you elaborate on the choice of screening Mera Naam Joker and Sangam as Regal’s swan song?
Our aim in screening Raj Kapoor’s films was nostalgic. Regal was his favourite cinema, and it is here that his films had their premiere. The elderly turned up in large numbers on the last day because they wanted to relive their experience of watching Raj Kapoor’s films here. It was extremely heartening to see so many people gathered here after a very long time; it took me back to the 70s and 80s.
What do you think of the public’s hypocrisy in turning up for the last film, when they hadn’t watched a film here in perhaps a decade?
Both the shows — Mera Naam Joker and Sangam — were sold out because of Raj Kapoor. Otherwise, we never quite had the same multitude in the last few years. The old came to take a walk down the memory lane, and they brought their children along to show them the place they frequented in their youth.
Why the older generation stopped watching films at Regal is a question that I have no answer for. All I know is that they came in hordes on the last day to show their support; that act in itself shows that Regal has, after all these years, always held a special place their hearts.
Since pre-Independence, CP was famous for its quartet of single-screen cinemas. What made Regal stand out from the rest?
Regal is famous all over the world. Many single-screen cinemas have closed down over the years — Vishal, Samrat, Golcha — but none made headlines the way Regal did. This place served as a landmark, as a meeting point. No one ever asked their friends to meet them near Rivoli, which is a stone’s throw away, or near Plaza or Odeon. Many among those who came here on the last day did not actually watch the film. They toured the place and clicked pictures to refresh their memories, but did not leave until late at night. Instead, they stayed behind and sang songs from Mera Naam Joker, and the media persons were more than eager to document their activities. I had to plead with them with folded hands to leave the venue, for the next film, Sangam, was about to start.
What are the plans for the future?
We have sought permission to convert the place. We are waiting for the approval. The workers and former employees of Regal have been paid their dues. The second floor is owned by Mr Bakshi, who will convert the building into a wax museum.