Sunday, April 05, 2015

A story about movie-watching spaces in Delhi

[From the archives, a piece about film-watching spaces in Delhi: I did this for Outlook’s City Limits magazine in 2007, and had forgotten all about it – remembered it while reading Ziya Us Salam’s book Delhi: 4 Shows, which I reviewed here. Naturally many things in this piece are now dated - and there have been many subsequent developments, such as the lovely screening hall at the Hauz Khas Village restaurant Iron Curtain (now sadly closed). But am putting it here anyway, as a sort of "extra" for the book review]


It’s probably just my south Delhi chauvinism, I think, trying to make sense of the shock and awe I’ve been feeling after a tour of the Delite theatre. Walking into this unimpressive-looking building in (what I think of as) a less-than-happening part of the capital, near Daryaganj, I imagined it would be the regular stand-alone cinema hall: strictly functional, torn leather seats, a few wall fans shuddering valiantly inside a discoloured auditorium. Half an hour later, I left convinced I had seen the plushest movie theatre in the NCR.

Shashank Raizada, whose family has owned Delite since it was opened in 1954, says revamping the once-decrepit hall was high on his priority list. “I wanted the interiors to be five-star hotel quality,” he says, and this isn’t just talk: over Rs 8 crore went into renovating the old 980-capacity hall as well as inaugurating a new 148-seater, and when Delite reopened late last year, it had brocade-fabric seats, Eqyptian carpets, fancy woodwork and a hand-painted dome. Perfume dispensers line the auditorium walls and even the restrooms have a waiting area with lounge seating and expensive enameled glass on the doors.

“People usually want to cut costs in space utilisation,” says Raizada, perhaps cocking a snook at multiplexes that cramp their available space with as many halls as possible. “But a good theatre experience must give the impression of largeness and space.”

Delite is a fine surprise, but it’s also an anomaly: much as I’d love to report that the city is dotted with similarly revamped cinema halls just waiting to be discovered by the multiplex-sated, the real picture is much drabber. The story of the single-screen hall in Delhi continues to be one of missed opportunities, indifferent management, lack of funds and initiative. As Siddheshwar Dayal, former managing partner, Regal (one of the central Delhi halls that is still chugging along, but only just), puts it: “Many of the older theatres don’t have new machinery, Dolby sound or comfortable chairs. There is no real future for them unless they get their act together.”

In fact, it doesn’t take long for me to return to earth with a bump – or several bumps, along Old Delhi’s broken roads. A 15-minute auto ride brings me to the theatre known as “Moti Talkies”, located somewhere between the Red Fort and Town Hall, and it’s here that one gets a sense of how the movie-viewing culture in this part of Delhi has faded. Moti, one of the very few theatres still open in the old city, is now a haven for Bhojpuri-film lovers – the manager, V K Garg, denies this, claiming half-heartedly that “we still sometimes show the new Hindi releases”, but the posters on the wall outside tell a different story. The cheaply made movies shown here have titles borrowed from old Hindi films -- Ram Balram, Chacha Bhatija -- and such evocative taglines as “Tu hui daal-bhaat chokha, hum hai aam ke aachar” (the flavour of this line is lost in translation, so don’t ask for one) printed on pictures of buxom heroines, street-Romeo heroes trying to look cool in shades, and leering policemen twirling phallic batons. It’s a world very far removed from that inhabited by the spoilt urban youngsters who go to New Delhi’s air-conditioned malls.

“Most halls in Old Delhi are on rent, not under proprietorship,” explains Garg, “and the managers don’t have the motivation or the money to revamp them.” Besides, he says, with the commercialisation of Chandni Chowk, local families have stopped coming to watch films together. “Now it’s mostly people from the labour class who drop by once in a while, and they are okay with watching a film while sitting on the steps or standing near the door. There is no real demand for these halls to be revamped.”

The trajectory of movie-watching in the capital has seen many twists and turns since the VCR (that’s “video-cassette recorder”, for anyone born post-1990) era began 30 years ago. For several years after the magic box entered our homes, most respectable middle-class families stayed away from local theatres – initiating a cycle that saw movie-halls get increasingly decrepit, careless about maintenance, and oriented towards patrons of morning shows. On a personal note, in the first ten years of my stay in Saket, I had no idea what the interior of the Anupam hall – a stone’s throw from our house – looked like. We excitedly awaited Fridays back then too, but till the mid-1990s “new-release day” was, for a whole stratum of Delhiites, synonymous with running to the local video library and renting a cassette.

Then, in early 1997, news arrived of this wondrous new thing called the multiplex, a theatre with untold luxuries and three or four separate screens, and shortly afterwards the capital’s first PVR opened in Saket. We gaped at the sofa-chairs and the carpeted softness of the floors, knowing that movie-watching would never be the same again.

Ten years later, with the perpetuation of the mall culture across the NCR, the multiplex – once a symbol of privilege – has become the mainstream option for Delhi’s filmgoers. So does the single-screen theatre still have a future? Sanjeev Bijli, joint MD, PVR Cinemas, thinks it does, but adds a qualifier. “The number of seats has to be manageable, preferably not more than 400 or so,” he says. PVR Cinemas made its first forays into single-screen territory by renovating two old Connaught Place theatres, Plaza and Rivoli, but these have seating capacities of only 300 and 330 respectively.

“These days,” says Bijli, “it’s difficult to fill a single-screen theatre that has a large number of seats.” This makes sense if you cast a glance around. Despite the claim made by Delite’s management that the bulk of its audience are oasis-seekers from Old Delhi who have few other options for a classy movie-watching experience, the theatre’s occupancy rates are just a little over 60 per cent – a very good figure by industry standards, but hardly indicative of hordes of entertainment-starved customers streaming in every day.

The viability of PVR Plaza and PVR Rivoli, as Bijli points out, also has to do with extraneous factors, such as the location, the convenience of a nearby Metro station, and the popular Piccadelhi food court at Plaza. “All these things are essential to the success of a movie theatre – and even then, the number of tickets sold will ultimately vary from week to week, depending on the film being shown. On the whole, we still believe the future lies in multiplexes that are located in malls, with lots of shopping and eating options in the immediate vicinity, and where, if you miss the 12 o’clock show, you don’t have to wait for three hours for the next one.”


For some validation of the single-screen experience, I return to Chanakya, a hall that holds special memories for many people of my generation; it was one of only two theatres in New Delhi (the other being Priya in Vasant Vihar) that had an air of respectability in the years just before the multiplex explosion. Walking into the lobby, I find that almost nothing has changed since my last visit nearly a decade ago. The decent, middle-rung cafeteria looks the same – passably clean but nothing that would inspire a health board to dole out medals – and the auditorium is a throwback to a time when we knew nothing about cushioned seats; when the point of the movie-watching experience was the movie, not the ambience or the comfort level.

Theatre manager Ajay Verma is optimistic. “Chanakya has a strong nostalgia value for many old-timers,” he says, “and besides it’s a big screen – many people like sitting in a 1,070-capacity auditorium better than the small halls in multiplexes, which don’t give you the sense of a special experience.” It’s a brave claim, but you can see the cracks in the façade, especially when you peep into this 1,000-plus seater on a Saturday evening and find that it’s only about half full.

Ultimately, the success of a cinema hall depends on a combination of many factors (not least the drawing quotient of the film), but it’s safe to say that providing basic customer satisfaction still takes you a long way. “We think of ourselves as being in the hospitality business, where making customers feel special is very important,” says R K Mehrotra, general manager, Delite Theatre, recalling a time when he and his family had to wait in heavy rain outside a multiplex entrance because no one was being allowed in until 10 minutes before the show. “At our theatre, if you buy the balcony tickets (priced at Rs 85, half of what you’d pay for a weekend show at some halls), you can sit inside the cafeteria for hours before the show begins.”

If other single-screen halls in the capital would take similar initiatives, we’d probably have more options, at better prices. Even the most spoilt movie-goers aren’t such a demanding lot – most of us could comfortably do without the fancy chandeliers Raizada has imported from the Czech Republic – but clean washrooms are always welcome.


BOX 1: La Dolce Vita

If you decide to indulge yourself at PVR Cinemas’ Gold Class – and you should, even if the bank account won’t allow more than a single visit – make sure to go for a film that’s at least three-and-a-half hours long; you’ll want to spend as much time as possible in this 36-seater auditorium, the movie-hall equivalent of an airline’s Business Class. Most connoisseurs of the good life won’t look beyond the sinfully comfortable Lazy Boy chairs, which can recline to 180 degrees (and which come with blankets), but you can also indulge your fine-dining tastes by ordering a meal from your seat – the menu includes the regular popcorn-and-hot-dog fare as well as more substantial food from the adjoining restaurant. A tip: around five minutes before the film ends, start willing your legs to move around – it’ll take that much time for the brain-to-muscle signals to process.

Picture taken from Mayank Austen Soofi's
website The Delhi Walla

BOX 2: Delite delicacies

When Shashank Raizada, managing director, Delite, told me about their famous maha-samosas, “the best in town”, I treated it as PR talk. Ten minutes later, munching into one of these monsters in the cafeteria, I was converted. Its impressive size apart, the samosa is fantastic – crisp and firm on the outside, soft, warm and generously filled on the inside – and, at just Rs 20, makes for a decent lunch by itself if you’re not ravenously hungry. The tidy 120-seater cafeteria also has a chuski-maker and a French Fries machine, both of which boast products that are “untouched by hand”, and of course the regular eats and drinks – priced lower than at most multiplexes.


The idea that Delhi doesn’t have a cultural scene is still surprisingly common, and utter hogwash. There are (and have been, for a long time) many options for those interested in films outside of Hindi cinema and Hollywood. Most embassies and cultural centres, for instance, have regular screenings in their (admittedly small) auditoria, and membership is either free or available at very nominal rates. Among the most active are the French Cultural Centre and the Italian Embassy, which have shown films every week (on Fridays and Wednesdays respectively) for as long as I can remember.

Another popular club is the one at the India Habitat Centre, which has a film discussion group, an annual film appreciation course and screens a number of films every month, mostly at the spacious Stein Auditorium. (Membership and contact details: The film club at Sarai in Civil Lines doesn’t do screenings as often as they used to (every Friday), but there is still some interesting activity here on the movie front, including documentaries and mini-festivals.

The 370-seater Shakuntalam Theatre at Pragati Maidan is an example of a hall that has had to compromise slightly in order to sell tickets. My earliest memory of it is a screening of a 1931 German classic – Fritz Lang’s M – at a film festival years ago, but since then the hall has become more mainstream – a pragmatic decision, given its central location. With tickets priced at Rs 65, this is now a goodish alternative to the commercial theatres. The interiors aren’t too bad – leather seats, wall fans that look suspiciously like regular ceiling fans but which are effective nonetheless. “We are in the process of changing the seats to make them more comfortable,” says Safdar H Khan, senior general manager, India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO), which runs the hall. “We’re also bringing in the UFO system, which will allow us to screen the films by satellite from Mumbai instead of by projector.”

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