At a time when the ‘talkies’ were just about beginning to gain popularity around the world, New Delhi’s theatres cashed in on this craze in the 1930s and the 40s. The famed quartet — Plaza, Regal, Rivoli and Odeon — started out screening offerings from tinseltown but graduated to occupying a permanent spot on the national Capital’s mind space.
A Hall of Fame: Then and Now
Plaza became popular for its classy ambience and lively décor.
In 1940, one Mangal Das built the block designed by Sir Rober Tor Russell — the architect of Connaught Place (CP). Its cafeteria would serve delectable sandwiches and people would swing to some live jamming.
The Walter Pidgeon-Maureen O’Hara blockbuster, How Green Was My Valley, enthralled audiences at Plaza when it was released here in the mid-1940s. Renowned producer, director and actor Sohrab Modi owned Plaza until in the early 1950s, when he had to sell it to the Sawhneys after his film Jhansi Ki Rani flopped.
Gone with the wind? No, my dear..
Sir Sobha Singh opened the Regal theatre in 1932, mainly for stage performances. Designed by renowned architect Walter Skyke George, it hosted Russian ballets, foreign magicians and calisthenics in the evenings.
Soon, the mornings and afternoons were kept aside for screening movies. New Delhiites and the elite from the Walled City became its regular patrons. Their buggies would halt right at the porch and the guard would rush to greet them.
Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh-starrer iconic Gone with the Wind had its India premiere at the Regal in 1940. The newspapers in Delhi described it as the biggest event in town, with many repeating Clarke Gable’s immortal line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”
Small theatre, mammoth appeal
Rivoli, on the other hand, was the smallest theatre of CP. It was known for such eclectic shows as Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which came to New Delhi in 1948, three years after its US release.
The movie held many viewers mesmerised with lines such as “The Fault is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves...”. Over the years, Plaza and Rivoli joined hands with multiplex giant PVR Cinemas, while Odeon recently re-opened in a new avatar in a joint venture with Reliance Big Pictures. Only Regal hasn’t gone the corporate way.
In its rundown avatar, it reminds us of an era, which is gone, for good.
New Delhi’s second 70mm screen
In 1945, Odeon joined the club and completed the famous quartet. It was the city’s second 70mm screen, after Sheela in Paharganj.
Built in the old opera style, the huge hall had special seating for VIPs. That, along with the café, restaurant and bar, made it a fitting competitor of the other three theatres, which were doing roaring business.
Along with Regal, New Delhi’s three other movie halls — Plaza, Rivoli and slightly later, Odeon — did wonders towards raising the entertainment quotient of the new Capital.
Anecdotes about or around these theatres are still passed down from one generation to the next.