Cinema and India go a long way back and New Delhi has been an integral part of that journey. New Delhi was born at a time when talkies had been gathering momentum around the world. In the 1930s and 40s, beautifully designed cinema theatres came up to give New Delhi its dose of entertainment.
It was in 1932 that real estate tycoon and one of the biggest contractors of the period, Sir Sobha Singh opened Regal in 1932. The theatre was originally meant for stage performances. Many Russian ballets, foreign magicians and calisthenic performances ran to packed houses every evening. But slowly, morning and matinee shows began to belong to movies.
Designed by renowned architect Walter Skyke George, Regal became Delhi's entertainment destination. Not only were New Delhiites its patrons, but the traditional elite from Kashmere Gate-which back then was touted as the Trafalgar Square of Delhi-too flocked to the theatre.
"My family and friends would come in tongas from Kashmere Gate to Regal for gala performances. Students from the Walled City often bunked classes and came to catch the matinee shows," said Sydney Rebeiro, first Dean-Culture (Retired) of Delhi University. Rebeiro's father had moved to Delhi from Calcutta in 1909 and used to work in the Delhi Improvement Trust, the agency for the development of the new city.
The Clarke Gable-starrer Gone with the Wind, which swept the Oscars, had its India premiere at Regal in 1940. Like everywhere else, it was a smash hit here as well. "Newspapers of those times described it as the biggest event in town. Buggies carrying the royalty, the high and mighty British officials and celebrities thronged the theatre to catch this Hollywood blockbuster that had released just a year ago in the US," Regal's third generation owner, the late Sidheshwar Dayal, had told HT a few years ago. Clarke Gable's immortal one-liner "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!" became a favourite with Delhi's men those days.
From Bollywood, Kismet, starring Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti, was screened in Regal in 1943. It ran to packed houses for 50 weeks and became a "Golden Jubilee" hit. "Music composer Anil Biswas's rabble-rousing Dur hato aye duniya walon, Hindustan humara hai was an instant hit, invoking patriotic fervour," said Rebeiro.
Making of the quartet
Though not as big as Regal, Plaza rose to popularity due to its classy ambience and lively décor.
In 1940, one Mangal Das built the block which had been designed by CP's architect Sir Rober Tor Russell himself. Plaza's cafeteria used to serve scrumptious sandwiches and people would swing to some live jamming.
"Plaza was started with an imported Century Projector, which was the best-in-class cinema projection system those days. The acoustics were tuned to perfection for maximum effect," said Jaspal Sawhney, the present owner from the family that ran Plaza.
The Walter Pidgeon-Maureen O'Hara blockbuster How Green was My Valley rocked the audiences here after being released in India in the mid-1940s, a few years after its original 1941 release. Newspapers had called it "a moving, poignant story of Welsh miners".
Owned by renowned producer, director and actor Sohrab Modi in the earlier days, Plaza changed hands and came to the Sawhneys in the mid-1950s when Modi's big-budget project called Jhansi ki Rani tanked at the box office.
The third in the quartet was Rivoli, which was the smallest theatre in CP. While the next door 600-seater Regal hosted grand premiers, Rivoli was known much more for eclectic exhibitions like Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, which came to New Delhi in 1948, three years after its US release.
Odeon completed CP's quartet of theatres in 1945. It was the city's second 70 mm screen after Sheela in Paharganj. And constructing the cinema was no less dramatic.
The rocky Aravalli formed the theatre's topography. The hills had to be levelled with great difficulty and the peculiarly high water level made matters worse as the water would collect underneath. "But after it was built, it was one grand cinema hall," said Sunil Sahni, co-owner of Odeon.
Built in old opera-style, the huge hall used to have special seating for the city's important people. That, with the café, restaurant and bar, made it a fitting competitor to the three other theatres, which had been doing roaring business.
"We were less known for ourselves and more for Odeon. The cinema owners enjoyed a sort of celebrity status," said Sahni, whose family hails from Peshawar.
Tommies, GIs and Rai sahabs
The soldiers of British and US origin, also called Tommies and GIs respectively, would crowd the theatres in afternoon.
Their own small theatre near the race course, called Race Course, did feature films, but they preferred the quartet of talkies in and around Connaught Place-Regal, Plaza, Odeon and Rivoli.
"We used to hear that soldiers were the main patrons in the initial years. Then there was a brief lull during the war period," said SK Malhotra, long-time manager of Plaza cinema.
Apart from the British, Anglo-Indians from Civil Lines, the Rai Sahabs and Rai Bahadurs and their families were regulars at the theatres.
A new era
The old quartet is still there, of course, but not entirely in their former glory.
Plaza and Rivoli are in a joint venture with multiplex giant PVR Cinemas. Odeon, after a couple of makeovers, has now joined hands with Reliance Big Cinemas.
After years of struggle for survival, they are now trying to turn things around.
Only Regal hasn't gone corporate, yet. It still has the giant hall, the framed pictures of celebrity guests and some posters of its old blockbusters.
And in this run-down avatar, New Delhi's first grand theatre still reminds its citizens of the times gone by.