Dhruva N Chaudhuri was 15 when his father, the famed author Nirad C Chaudhuri, took him out to watch his first movie in a theatre. His father was very particular about which movie he watched — and more importantly, where he watched it. The theatre he chose was Regal in Connaught Place and the movie was Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier, which had been released in London only a month ago.
“He felt Regal had a class that no other theatre in the city had. It was a night show and house was packed. I could see anglicized bureaucrats, businessmen all around me. The atmosphere was so European,” says Chaudhuri, recalling that summer of 1948. “Regal was not just another theatre, it introduced a whole new cinema culture to the city,” says Chaudhuri, 84, a well-known photojournalist.
For the past 85 years, Regal Theatre (yes, that’s its full name), which will screen its last film on Thursday, has been a monument to the city’s cinematic history, its social and culture life. Opened in 1932, it was New Delhi’s biggest and grandest theatre, a venue for ballets, plays and talkies. In fact, it was the most sought-after theatre for red carpet premiers of both Hollywood and Bollywood movies. The Clarke Gable-starrer ‘Gone with the Wind’, which swept the Oscars, had its India premiere at Regal in 1940.
No wonder Regal proudly called itself ‘New Delhi’s premier theatre’— and it was not just a marketing stratagem. “It had a very classy European ambience. My family used to come to Regal in tongas from Kashmere Gate to watch movies and plays,” says Sydney Rebeiro, former dean (culture) of Delhi University.
Satish Sundra, 80, who runs the country’s oldest toy shop in CP, says that watching movies in Regal was an aspirational thing for his generation. “The cheapest ticket at Regal used to cost ₹1.25, but just 10 annas in other CP theatres. The dress circle at Regal cost ₹2.5 and the exclusive private box ticket ₹3.75, which was a lot of money those days. Many of us at St Stephen’s in the 1950s wanted to watch movies at the private box with our girlfriends, but ended up at Rivoli because we could not afford Regal,” says Sundra.
Regal, in fact, was way ahead of its rivals in adopting change — it was the first cinema in CP to start showing Hindi movies; it held its own as the city grew and new cinema halls such as Chankaya came up in the 1970s. But the arrival of PVR Anupam, a four-screen multiplex in Saket in 1997, changed everything.
“It brought a new kind of cinematic experience with its chic and contemporary interiors. PVR Saket complex became the new favourite hangout zone of my generation,” says Aditya Sharma, 42, a Delhi lawyer.
The multiplex trend caught up fast. The 2000s saw the arrival of many malls and multiplexes in various parts of Delhi and NCR, pulling the cine-goers away from single screen cinema halls. Ironically, with dwindling audiences, Regal, where Hollywood classics were screened, began to rely on B-grade Bollywood movies to stay afloat -- a monumental downfall for a theatre that had Viceroy Lord Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru among its patrons.
While other cinemas in CP— Plaza, Odeon and Rivoli— jumped on the multiplex bandwagon, Regal continued to be a single cinema hall. “It could have been its USP. The crowds are back in CP. But it never invested in upgrading the technology. Perhaps the owners could not decide what to do with it,” says an old shopkeeper in Connaught Place.
Regal may or may not be reborn as a multiplex — but it will certainly be The End for the city’s iconic theatre as thousands of Delhiites knew it.