Regal Cinema closure: Is there a lesson in the way Delhi's iconic theatre's last day played out?
An inescapable tinge of irony accompanies the bitter reality of curtains coming down on Regal Theatre that opened in 1932 and was once called New Delhi’s “premier theatre” by India’s first Prime Minster Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. At the end of its eight-decade journey, the last memory that might be forever attached to the legend of the cinema hall would the sight of the ‘housefull’ at the box-office for its last two shows of Raj Kapoor’s Sangam (1964) and Mere Naam Joker (1970)
In his book, Delhi 4 Shows Ziya Us Salaam mentions that “Regal, for a long time had no competition” and stood out amongst Plaza, Odeon and Rivoli — the other cinema halls in Connaught Place. The hall that was considered to be a favorite of the who’s who (ranging from Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India; Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India; the Kapoors right from Prithviraj, who performed his play Pathan here, his son and the showman Raj Kapoor, and later younger brother Shashi). Regal also hosted the Indian premiere of Gone With the Wind (1939) and in its early days staged The London Review Company as well as The Russian Ballet Troupe.
The present owners of the cinema hall have been trying to get clearances for a multiplex at the same spot. Almost 60 percent of the new proposal is cleared and the good thing about the plan is that the iconic façade would not be changed, as it’s a heritage structure. With dwindling patronage and the multiplex juggernaut, which had already devoured Plaza, Odeon and Rivoli in the vicinity, it was a matter of time before Regal gave in. The cinema halls of CP have a chequered history and Regal is truly unparalleled. It is not just the patronage it enjoyed or the stories associated with visits of the legends for the screening of their films that makes it singular but the fact that across the 1950s and 1960s watching any film here was an experience unto itself. It was one of the first halls in India that provided a box seating option where almost 40 people could be housed together. Ziya Us Salaam’s book also recalls how unlike the other theatres in the area Regal was situated in a building that always housed some iconic restaurant such as Davicos in the 1950s and later Standard Restaurant. Malini Nair in Scroll mentions that besides being associated with films, Regal is also the site of the first-ever public show of solidarity for the LGBTQ movement in India that took place during the screening of Deepa Mehta’s Fire in 1998.
It is a pity that with the shutting down of Regal Theatre in its single-screen avatar, an irreplaceable piece of not just cinema history but also the history of India, would be lost forever. When it returns as a multiplex, most of the things that defined Regal, and by extension, an entire era would be gone forever. Even today it is hard to imagine that this cinema hall designed by an English architect Walter Sykes George blended many Mughal influences along with palm trees that lined the entrance and also catered to then modern needs such as a bar that was right inside the hall. That entry to the hall today might resemble some dingy flea market where hawkers have their wares strewn across but it once witnessed chauffeur-driven cars that stopped right at the porch. The fact that Regal’s last two shows of films that once had their premiere here, Sangam and Mera Naam Joker got people such the 64-year-old Amarendra Dasari to return to the cinema hall after a gap of over 30 years just to catch one last glimpse of the iconic theatre, shows just how attractive nostalgia can be.
Is there a lesson to be learnt in the way Regal’s last day has played out? Rather than trying to catch-up with the rest in the multiplex race, spaces such as Regal should write their own narrative. Why should a Regal or for that matter Rivoli, which held the Indian premiere of Psycho with Alfred Hitchcock himself in the audience, or an Odeon, where the blue pottery work of Sardar Gurcharan Singh, one of the greatest exponents of the art form could be found in public, need to compete with the rest? The space that they occupy is peerless and their own. Had a Regal concentrated on becoming a space that showcased the great classics right from a Sangam or a Guide or Gone With the Wind or an Abhimaan on the big-screen in this day and age it would become a permanent stop on the city’s cultural map. Of course, at the end of the day, a cinema hall is a business and businesses ‘need’ be profitable but seen from a different perspective this is also the kind of a ready opportunity for the government or any institution that would like to help preserve a piece of cultural history. The legacy of something like a Regal is an apt platform to build upon a collective to come up with a space that would serve as a confluence of art, culture and cinema as well as the shared memory of millions of common men and women. Those who will remember the interiors of Regal will never forget the corridors and the staircase that are lined with black and white photographs of some of our greatest actors right from Dev Anand, Meena Kumari, Nargis and Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Sanjeev Kumar… and these might still be there when Regal returns as a multiplex — but it will not be the same.