They wipe the sweat off their face and take turns in front of the camera; first with the popcorn machine in the background, and then next to an old poster of Raj Kapoor’s Sangam encased in a glass box. Friends for 45 years, Kewal Sharma and Satish Kumar Bali have turned up 30 minutes before showtime at Regal Theatre on Thursday. “For 40 years, we’ve watched countless films together, across Delhi and even outside. We love movies but we’ve never watched one together at Regal. Today, we’ve finally done that,” says Sharma, 65. On its last evening, Regal was unlike any other cinema hall in the city, replete with stories of a glorious era of ostentatious film premiers, of days when film tickets cost Rs 2 and where lovers met and friendships were forged. The 85-year-old cinema hall got the tribute it deserved, with two houseful shows on its last day.
At 6.15 pm, Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker played to an audience that sang every song from the film and laughed and cried as Raju found and lost love, thrice. “We stepped in with excitement but when we step out of Regal, it will be emotional,” says 51-year-old Ricky Bajaj, who has come to watch the film with his 26-year-old son, Jagpreet. “I wanted to come with my son, it’s important to me that he sees this hall. We’re going to preserve this ticket stub,” he says. Outside the 650-plus seater auditorium, behind the ticket counter, it’s business as usual, with a dose of disappointment, sadness and coerced smiles. “Aaj zara emotional din hai. This has happened suddenly, we found out on March 10. We were getting housefuls often, with films such as Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Dangal. This decision could have been delayed. Now, we have to look for another job,” says Amit Bhatnagar, who mans the ticket counter, and has been with Regal for 11 years. The canteen and the projector room resonate with similar emotions of a decision seemingly made in haste. That the owners plan to renovate Regal and turn it into a multiplex in a year-and-a-half is met with mixed feelings.
“We are going to retain the facade till the top of the staircase and do all the work after that. We are planning four auditoriums and state-of-the-art technology. The aim is to ensure that the historic parameters of the place are not lost,” says Smita Datta Makhija, conservation architect. Once the film ends, the audience applauds and then many stay back to record their last visit to Regal, taking photos, selfies near the screen and of the arches of the walls. Outside, the walls with black-and-white portraits of yesteryear stars also make it to their phones. Away from the incessant clicking, on a chair sits 75-year-old Billoo Seble, soaking in the atmosphere one last time. “We had a shop right next to Regal. I am talking about 1947-48 onwards and we used to visit Regal every day. It was home. It was the most prestigious building in Delhi. Today, I felt like I was back in that era,” he says.
He wipes a tear off his face, and adds, “It’s even more special today because my uncle was one of the producers of Mera Naam Joker, and I remember attending the premiere here, and then a party called ‘The Stars’ at Oberoi Hotel went on till 6 am. What a time!”
While many reminisce about the hall, some like Mohan Menon remember the Regal bar on the premises, which he visited as an eight-year-old in the 1950s, with his father. “He told me they had the best scotch in town. Later, I became a film critic and was a regular here. It was a social junction, it was the place to be,” he says. At 10 pm, a new set of audience walks in for Raj Kapoor’s Sangam. Many have walked in with children as young as four. One sits with a McDonald’s burger in her hand, her eyes trying to follow the man walking with a torch, and breaks into an irritated cry, as she complains of heat. “We used to pack parathas and pickle from home and sneak it inside Regal. My granddaughter doesn’t realise now but she has maintained tradition,” laughs SK Kalra, 62. As Raj Kapoor returns unharmed from the war in the film, the audience hoots as though surprised and when Rajendra Kumar serenades Vyjayanthimala with ‘Mera prem patr padhkar’, many chime along, as they do when she woos Kapoor with ‘Buddha mil gaya’. Once the movie ends, an applause ensues, more photos get clicked, hugs are exchanged and old posters of these films are taken off the walls by some to carry back home. The gates are locked, as are those memories.