Delhi's Priya Cinema set for a makeover: What the iconic theatre and adjoining Basant Lok market mean for the city

Priya Cinema and Basant Lok Market were the hub for many of Delhi’s youth in the 80s and 90s. While Priya defined the movie-going experience with people giving standing ovations after films, Basant Lok Market was the place of many firsts — first dates, first drinks and first fine-dining-without-your-parents experiences

Sahil Bhalla and Rhea Srivastava May 30, 2019 09:59:49 IST
Delhi's Priya Cinema set for a makeover: What the iconic theatre and adjoining Basant Lok market mean for the city

It was a normal day in India’s capital city, Delhi. The winter sun was shining and people were out and about in full force, thronging shopping centres and parks alike. A visit to the once bustling market of Basant Lok would have left any late 80s/early 90s kid dumbfounded. Priya Cinemas, one of the first single-screen cinemas in Delhi, was being renovated.

Chanakya Cinema, the other place the youth of today fondly remembers, was razed to the ground to be transformed into a multiplex run by PVR with a food court that has garnered much media attention. It’s the turn of the iconic Priya Cinema now. Many would be oblivious to the single grand theatre where we were witness to Rose promising Jack that she’d never let go, or where kids threw popcorn from the sprawling seats in the balcony at a five-hundred-foot monster called Godzilla.

Priya Cinema was the hub for many of Delhi’s youth. Basant Lok, the market where the cinema hall was located, was a popular place to hang out in, where minutes, hours and even days were spent on things away from school and parents — a place to bond outside home. Even today, it is where a lot of urban wanderers gather to work; some of them must be the same people who visited it as children. They sit in the Blue Tokai and Greenr cafes and sip on their coffees, banging out word after word on their laptops, but the neighbourhood will never be quite the same.

Delhis Priya Cinema set for a makeover What the iconic theatre and adjoining Basant Lok market mean for the city

A suited man walks around the market, as he takes a break from his busy day at work. All photographs by Sahil Bhalla

Changing the way we watched movies

Picking Priya over other cinemas was a no-brainer. In the early years, when you went with your parents, you got treated to balcony seats. With friends, it was the rear stall, or maybe you even settled for the front few rows and ended up with a crick in the neck after the show ended. The waiting area outside the balcony housed the ‘100 Years of the Movies’ section, where there was one poster representing each decade of cinema. The 70s had Saturday Night Fever, the 80s had The Last Emperor, and for the 90s, Silence of the Lambs. It didn’t matter what the 2000s represented — that was a whole new class of cinema.

Disney movies may find a specific resonance with the 90s kids. Before Priya was taken over by the PVR brand and renamed 'Priya Village Roadshow', The Lion King had released. For many of the 90s kids, watching this film at Priya Cinemas is their first memory of the place.

Watching a Hindi blockbuster at Priya was an experience in itself. At a Thursday night preview of 3 Idiots, the entire cinema stood up in unison to give a round of applause. It was akin to watching a film at a festival, where volumes of people shared this great cinematic experience together. As Vidya Sharma scores that last winning goal in Chak De India, the entire cinema cheered as if we had actually won the World Cup.

Delhis Priya Cinema set for a makeover What the iconic theatre and adjoining Basant Lok market mean for the city

The cinema hall, as we all once knew it, is no more. PVR is giving it a modern upgrade

At some point during the 90s, Priya curated theme-based shows as well. This was the time of the single-screen, when easy access to movies on mobile devices and streaming platforms was non-existent. In what can now be seen as a great publicity idea, they were able to combine the technology of commercial cinema with the aesthetic and ethos of independent cinema. One slot every evening of the week would be devoted to this theme. So, if it was James Bond week at Priya, Monday evening would be Dr No, Tuesday would be From Russia With Love, Wednesday would be Live and Let Die, and so on.

Making movie-going a ritual

Priya is one of the few places where you’d actually see a long queue on release day or for the Thursday night preview. It was a silly habit of children to infiltrate into the crowd after the Friday morning show, to ruin the suspense of patrons who were there to watch later shows. There was a time when after My Name is Khan a bunch of strangers sprang up on some unsuspecting folks, telling them that Kajol shoots Shah Rukh Khan at the end of the film.

These days, with the huge PVR banner on display and a broken down complex, the market wears a dreary look. But back in 2002, when the first installment of the Spiderman trilogy starring Tobey Maguire was released, the scene was entirely different. Despite Priya Cinemas selling tickets for the movie in advance, the line outside was maddening; it stretched for more than a kilometre. You may ask why people wanted to rush inside the theatre and grab their already-assigned seats half an hour before the movie could start. Except that such an experience defined movie-going for that generation. It's what the youth lived for — shouting, hooting, and jostling for space near the popcorn counter, while seemingly endless ads played on the screen before the actual movie began.

A simpler time — with so much to offer

Basant Lok was the first upmarket shopping centre that had everything to offer for a range of age groups and budgets. From the first McDonald’s to open in Delhi, to Nirulas and their delectable hot chocolate fudge, the market would be filled with teenagers smoking their first cigarettes, bingeing on junk food without telling their parents, or playing video games (remember Reliance Web World?) for hours on end. Before Gurgaon lured the youth with its massive amounts of brewed beer, or Nelson Mandela Marg turned into our own version of Rodeo Drive, Basant Lok was where one would have their first date. Their first drink. Their first fine-dining-without-parents experience.

Delhis Priya Cinema set for a makeover What the iconic theatre and adjoining Basant Lok market mean for the city

The amphitheatre is built to attract new audiences, as well as bring back old visitors

The market itself was the hub for the ‘cool kids’ to hang out at, and most importantly, it was one of the most accessible spaces for South Delhi children to bunk school and escape to. Between Priya and Osaba was a small lane which still has two to three export surplus stores, a favourite for young girls trying to save money on Thursdays, on both movies and clothes. The snoot was higher than Sarojini Nagar, the clothes were on hangers and not on the floor.

A quaint little indie bookstore, Fact and Fiction, was a landmark. Stocked with intellectual fare, it ran for 30 years. For anyone who was a regular, at least one book would have been bought there. Ajay Vikram Singh, the owner, would sit there himself and recommend books to his customers, despite often being rude and scrooge-ish. The store first suffered competition from the Om Book Shop ‘discount’ chain, and then from e-retailers. Its closing down marked the end of an era, and you’d have to strain your neck to find a bookstore in the neighbourhood today.

The undisputed nucleus of South Delhi

Basant Lok was cosmopolitan — it brought together people from all walks of life. And whether you were middle class or not, sitting inside Priya Cinemas felt like luxury, despite cheaper ticket prices.

To rival Basant Lok Market took a lot. Ansal Plaza, near Siri Fort, tried, and while it succeeded, it never had the same effect on the youth. Select City Walk came in a little too late for the 80s and 90s kids to give much of a damn. Only recently have we moved on and been converted into mall rats. There was Anupam in Saket and Chanakya (which had nothing but a single screen and some epic food).

But Priya used to win, every time. This is why its transformation is significant — it represents a change in the way individuals and communities came together to interact at a specific cultural point for decades. The way the market has transitioned from the 80s mirrors the way in which the city has grown.

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