Abandoned crime scenes: Revisiting Uphaar cinema hall 21 years after deadly fire
There is a hole in the wall of Uphaar Grand cinema complex that keeps growing every year.
Much like the rabbit hole into which Alice fell, taking her on a journey into an unreal world, this hole takes you into a world that once was. What greets you is an eerie silence and the dust of 21 years; broken bottles, ruined seats, burnt cars; ashes and shadows.
Uphaar cinema, in the heart of south Delhi’s Green Park, is one of the “most expensive” case properties in Delhi. The cinema had its last show on the evening of Friday, the 13th, in June 1997. That evening, a fire broke out in the transformer on the basement, spread to the cars parked nearby and trapped over a 150 movie-goers in the first and second floors. Unable to escape, 59 perished in the fire that evening. Over a hundred were injured.
Twenty-one years have passed.
The building owners have been convicted. One of them, sentenced to a year in prison, was released last year after completing his jail term.
The cinema complex is sealed, but the hole in the building’s wall is large enough for vagabonds and the city’s homeless to enter at will.
Last week, HT correspondent Prawesh Lama and lensman Sanchit Khanna, too, entered the hole.
Outside the complex, a man warns us as we try to enter. “Those drug addicts will attack you with blades. Don’t go inside. They have made it their space.”
It is dark inside. There are no lights— every electrical wire inside the building has been removed. There is not a single wire in the transformers either. The power supply was snapped that night 21 years ago. One of the dangling cables in the basement had started the fire. The cars that caught fire in the basement though, are burnt and rusted. They remain parked as they were that evening. The heavy monsoon this year ensures that water drips even from the walls.
The Pepsi soft drink bottles are strewn on the floor of the main hall. Some of them were never opened. Strewn across the hall, in the balcony, below the seats, the washrooms are shoes. Shoes covered with 21 years of soot. Over 150 movie-goers that evening had fled in panic when smoke started billowing from the basement. There are shoes even in the toilets and the balcony — signs of men, women and children fleeing to the washroom to escape death and suffocation.
There are film rolls all around — on the floor, stairs, on seats and below them. The cushions are all worn and charred.
There are burnt matchsticks on the floor — but they don’t seem like they have been lying there for 21 years. A semi-burnt bright yellow poplar stick looks as though it was taken out only days ago. There are cigarette butts too — signs that vagabonds, the homeless and the druggies have made this building their home.
As have the stray dogs that leap out from corners, the minute our camera’s flash lights up the cinema hall, even if only for a fraction of a second.
The 2,570 square yard complex is worth at least Rs 150 crore, according to the current market rates. In November 2016, the Ansal brothers approached the court seeking permission to reopen the cinema hall. The court is yet to list the matter.
On the first floor, there are offices – its doors wide open. On the table, in one of the offices are unsigned invitation cards that read: The Management Ansal Theatres and Club Hotels (P) Ltd takes pleasure in inviting you to enjoy the screening of the movie...
There is a large A4 size notebook turned into an attendance register dated January 1, 1997. It lists the names of the employees that year. There are film trade guide magazines. A February 1997 issue of the magazine has a cover story of a younger Salman Khan and his then yet-to-be-released movie Auzaar.
Lying on the ground are hundreds of visiting cards — the card of an assistant cinema manager with contact details and a 10-digit pager number. Yes, a pager. Cellphones were a rarity then. There are beer bottles too. Nobody knows how the beer bottles got there.
Until two years ago, a private security guard stood outside the complex, locals say. Now, there is no one except for the emptiness and the debris of that evening.
As we step out, a crowd has gathered outside. An onlooker asks,”Did you find anyone? Druggies come at night. What better place than a ruined building ?”