Manoj Desai remembers a distant October afternoon, 19 Diwalis ago, when one of his staff members came running to his office on the second floor of Maratha Mandir, alarmed at the audience reaction in the hall. They were on stage, dancing to Mehndi laga ke rakhna, from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ), which had released barely a week ago. Desai’s order was to let them be. Since that day, Desai, the theatre’s executive director, has kept the movie running. On December 12, DDLJ will complete 1,000 weeks, surpassing records of The Sound of Music and The Guns of Navarone. “Those who came here to watch the film for the first time as teenagers might be parents now,” says Desai. “We have run the film for an entire generation.”
Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir, now synonymous with DDLJ, is many things to many people. It is a place where young couples profess their love to each other, and return when they get married. A habit for a 60-year-old Parsi woman, who attended the show every day for three years and then stopped coming towards the end of 2013. Maratha Mandir does its bit to give it back to the fans. The sex workers of the neighbouring red-light area at Kamathipura and eunuchs are allowed to get tickets without waiting in queues. “They would be teased and there would be fights. We decided to make it a rule 15 years ago,” Desai says.
The magic formula, however, is the pricing. After the initial run when it ran all four shows through the day, DDLJ has been playing here at the 11.30 am show everyday. For a well-maintained cinema house, the tickets are available at Rs 15 for the rear stall and Rs 17 for balcony. “Where else in Mumbai would you get to watch a movie at this rate in an air-conditioned theatre?” says Arun Kumar, who works for a catering service and has watched the film here 70 times over 10 years. “If the same film was playing in multiplexes, tickets would cost at least Rs 150,” says Desai. If the turnout is poor on weekdays, weekends and holidays are usually houseful.
Walking into the theatre — with its old-fashioned decor of winding marble staircase, burma teak cabinets with golden trophies and posters — to catch DDLJ in the darkened hall is like taking a wondrous trip to another India. A large section of its audience comes for this experience.
“They don’t make films like this anymore. It has a certain kind of purity that today’s movies don’t have,” says Mohammed Syed, a car dealer who makes trips to Maratha Mandir thrice a year. The movie’s theme — generation gap — still resonates with many.
Maratha Mandir, located opposite Mumbai Central railway station and a stone’s throw from State Transport Depot, attracts many tourists. “About 40 per cent of the audience is from other states, like Gujarat or Delhi,” says Desai. “For many, who have a few hours to spare before they board a bus or train, spending Rs 15 in an AC hall and watching the film is a better deal than going to a hotel.”
In its 19 years, there have been times of crisis — the lull during the Ramzan as a substantial section of the audience is from the Muslim community — when they have thought of pulling the movie off the theatre. Every good thing must come to an end, and Desai knows it. He says they will arrive at a decision around December 12. “We’ll wait till YRF approaches us. But we want to do something grand and memorable,” he says. Till then, the show must go on.