Dream therapy: Inside Regal’s foyer
It's quite natural to be besotted with the future. It turns out there's only one way to go (sorry, Shahnaz Husain), and I'm not just talking about 2014. But sometimes, the desire to swivel on one's heels to face the past can be narcotic. This is not 'what India wants' and it certainly doesn't set Twitter on fire. In fact, such an about-turn does exactly the opposite: it buries you somewhere seemingly unreachable from the collective, away from the future which has limited jurisdiction over the past.
On Thursday, I retreated to such a spot on one's back that the hand cannot reach. Prompted by a news report about the shutting down of Moti in Chandni Chowk, one of the remaining single-screen old-style cinemas in Delhi, I decided to spend an afternoon at Regal in Connaught Circus.
Now, I'm not a tireless critic of multiplexes. I like my Dolby Surround Sound, sink-in seats and nachos with dip on the side. I also have had the opportunity to be intimately connected with a single-screen cinema during my formative years, being a regular visitor to the movie hall owned by my mother's side of the family in 80s Calcutta. Along with magical memories of watching first day-first shows of movies such as Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Sargam, Jaani Dushman and a tsunami of Jeetendra films, Chhaya cinema would also fix the old movie theatre experience in my brain with torn seats, mid-movie blackouts and the acidic smell of piss.
So, armed with nostalgia and a prayer to the god of hygiene on my lips, I lined up in front of the impressive booth inside the courtyard area to buy a ticket for the matinee 3.30 show. I wasn't interested in what they were playing. But as coincidences go, it was the David Dhawan remake of the 1981 Ravi Baswani-Rakesh Bedi (and Farooq Sheikh-Deepti Naval)-starring Chashme Buddoor that I had seen in a single-screen cinema in the hoary 80s. Tickets start from Rs. 50 front stall seats. I bought the most expensive ticket in the house: a box seat for Rs. 120.
For those who've passed the white facade of the Regal building - built by Sobha Singh (Khushwant's father), designed by Robert Tor Russell and billed as a 'New Delhi Premier Theatre' when it opened its doors in 1932 - time-travel awaits you inside. Once I'm inside the doors and standing on the chessboard marble floor of the foyer, I realise that the opposite of modern is not ramshackle.
Two flights of wide marble stairs under arches lead up to the box seat area above which framed photos of Ashok Kumar, Madhubala, Raj Kapoor and Nargis, Dev Anand, Meena Kumari and Dilip Kumar hang like a more glorious version of portraits in Parliament. The management ("This is owned by Mahajan-saab who lives in Jammu," the man at the ticket booth had told me) has decided that the mood and ambience of Regal will stick to the pre-Rajesh Khanna years.
I'm at Box No. 3 which an usher points out to me with an unlit torch. The first bell rings to signify the start of ads and trailers as I sit in a balcony-like space under arches that could have been carted straight from the 14th century Moorish town of Alhambra in Spain. There are four couples in my box area and I sit next to a young chap who seems to have decided to skip post-lunch office. Once in a while, I take a peek to see the couple on my right rob a cuddle and steal a kiss.
The first thing that hits you is how cool - not cold - the place is. It is not air-conditioned and fans whirl like propellers. But the high ceiling makes the semi-dark space so airy and pleasant that I needed to check whether I wasn't sitting under a night sky in a breezy terrace in late February.
But the fundamental difference between a multiplex and a hall like Regal is the experience. The audience responds throughout the film with loud laughs, whistles, spontaneous applause to scenes played out before them. Sitting there behind everyone in front of the (half-empty) hall, the audience was as much, if not more, part of the show as the movie I was vaguely following. It was like watching a theatre production on cinema-watching. A visit to the Regal isn't just a safari for nostalgia-hunters. It is a genuine full-bodied experience that provides a delightful alternative to the multiplex-viewing experience.
I leave the hall with a rotund Maradona-like Rishi Kapoor saying something that makes everyone crack up. As I trundle down the stairs, taking note that next time I must try a cup from the Cosmos espresso coffee machine (Rs 40) and a cream roll (Rs 15), I realise that there is a future in this old interactive form of cinema-watching where the audience enters a vaudeville club and remains tied to their seats as one travelling group. Even if the movie's rubbish, there's a foolproof form of entertainment inside that, for a few hours, will allow you to be blissfully unaware of what the hell the world's up to outside.