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Reliving old world charm at Delhi's vintage theatres

By Shruti Rajan, IANS

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Fading red carpets, opulent wooden arches and walls lined with black and white photos of yesteryear cine stars speak tales of a bygone era.

Once upon a time, men in top hats and women in long gowns would step down from their carriages to watch Shakespearean plays from Britain at these very charming theatres in the Indian capital.

"People used to come from far and wide to watch theatrical and dance performances here," sighs Siddheshwar Dayal, proprietor of the famed Regal Cinema in the heart of Delhi.

Most of Delhi's vintage theatres like Regal, Rivoli, Odeon, Filmistan and Vishal lie in such cruel abandon. Glitzy multiplexes have now stolen a march over them.

Ironically, it is these very multiplexes that are now discovering some old world charm. Many of them are buying the vintage theatres with the promise of turning them around while retaining their majestic splendour.

Plaza Cinema in Connaught Place, for instance, has been spruced up to become PVR Plaza. It will be followed by Rivoli, Naaz and Savitri.

"It has cost us more than Rs.30 million to revamp Plaza, more than it would have taken us to construct a new cineplex," Tushar Dhingra, vice president of PVR cinemas, told IANS.

"But we believe in making cinema viewing the ultimate experience. So we have taken special care to preserve the old-time feel in the theatre, to keep alive the nostalgia of the place.

"Apart from doing the interiors accordingly, we have retained all the old black and white posters. We even play old time music at the counter!"

In the 1980s, with the opening of the Chanakya theatre, which boasted of air-conditioning and high quality screening, the revolution in the capital's cinema theatres began.

In 1997 came multiplexes. The old movie halls simply could not match up to the competition, never mind their historical links.

"Jawaharlal Nehru was one of our most frequent customers," says Dayal, pointing to a photo of India's first prime minister with his father. "He was very passionate about movies."

Regal, built in 1935, also boasted of visitors like the last viceroy Lord Mountbatten and the first president Rajendra Prasad.

Today the best movies and the richest clientele can be found at the multiplexes, a phenomenon that began in New Delhi with the PVR Anupam complex that had the latest Dolby sound system and four screens.

As many as 12 multiplexes flourished in the city under banners like Digital Talkies, 3Cs and Wave. Of course, several PVRs have sprung up since then.

But old timers are not satisfied.

"The best thing about Plaza was that all classes of people could go for movies there," says Subhash Bhutani, who was once a supervisor at Plaza and now runs a cassette shop right outside.

"I like the new decoration and ambience. But I can't seem to get over the sadness deep within," he says fondly.

Set up in 1964, Plaza cinema was the most famous venue for popular Hollywood films. It was also known as the hall for big banner Hindi movie premieres, especially films by Yash Chopra.

"There are a lot of memories I associate with this theatre," says B.S. Kohli, a retired army colonel who came to PVR Plaza with his wife and granddaughter.

"I've had the best of times at this theatre. Here, I used to hang out with college friends. Here, I first fell in love, and here, I brought my wife first thing after our marriage."

For some such vintage theatres, perhaps, time has come full circle. But for many others, history ticks away.


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