I walk into Regal for the very last time, and I’m assailed by the memories that come wafting out of once-familiar spaces: A balcony chair that was my favourite, a box seat I would snaffle when it was free. Of a film press contingent that was so tiny everyone knew everyone. Theatre managers who spoke of art with as much passion as cinema. Viewers who would buy tickets just to watch a song. And of grand single-screens which would beat the tinny multiplexes hands down, in scale and size, if they were around to tell the tale.
I’m here, like so many others, to mark the day. My colleague tells me that the last two shows (Raj Kapoor’s ‘Mera Naam Joker’ and ‘Sangam’) are sold out on bookmyshow. So I decide to do this the old way, the way I would, back in the day: Reach someone who knows someone who knows the manager. And have him fish out the almost-forgotten wispy thin ticket with smudged ink and say: “Badey din se aap dikhai nahin di, sab theek?”
Yes, I haven’t been here for years. My watching cinema on a weekly basis hasn’t stopped: What’s changed is the location. As Regal dwindled from being shabby genteel but respectable to a run-down crummy establishment, where you did not know if the creature running over your feet was a rat or a roach, I started turning my back on it.
When I began writing on cinema in the early ’90s, there were only a few theatres that would host press screenings, and they were all in Central Delhi — Shiela in Paharganj, Golcha in Daryaganj, and Delite at Asaf Ali Road bookended Connaught Place’s Fab Four — Odeon, Plaza, Rivoli, and, of course, Regal.
And fab they were. Because as befits landmarks, these were not just used to watch movies at a time when movies were the only source of entertainment. They were stops for buses and spots for trembly assignations (DTC bus number 101 took Delhi University students straight to CP to “spare”, a word which meant to roam, to float, to watch).
A visit to Golcha would sometimes end up at ‘Aap Ki Pasand’ when we had the money to sample its collection of lovely teas (this was years before “artisanal” was a word). Plaza lent a wall to a second-hand book-stall whose famously grumpy owner met the most arcane of your demands, when the posh Bookworm couldn’t. You could then hare off to Keventers for a giant bottle of sickly sweet milk, and Wengers for a cream roll, grinning widely at the sugar-rush.
But Regal, ah, Regal was truly a kingly place, the whole building studded with treasures: You could be truly “aantel” (intellectual for those unaware of the code of cool) at People Tree with its “baatik” T-shirts, and books full of attitude. The Shop was a must-visit to drool over tasteful pottery and bedspreads. The Cellar with its famous “disc” (discotheque) where the smart set swung their heels, had started losing some of its sheen but could still be fun. On the other side was the much more plebian Khadi Bhandaar whose kurtas paired with blue-jeans was a varsity staple. And you had to gobble a crumbly cone, generically dubbed softy, and wipe your sticky hands on the ink-smudged ticket, to complete the Regal experience.
It was a time when TV hadn’t taken over our lives the way it has now. Phones were attached to fixed landlines, not surgically attached to our paws. Viewers who came to Regal were there because they were not just catching a flick. They were there to watch a picture. To see it again. And again. To laugh and to cry. To be enveloped in the darkness, and lose themselves, whether it was in the front stalls which cost a few annas in the late 40s, or in the fabled boxes, at a princely sum of four rupees and some per ticket. And which cost Rs 20 and some 50 years later.
As I stand in the lobby, once the pit-stop of British overlords, local royalty and famous actors who did “havans” before showing their films, swamped today by selfie-wielding patrons all vamping for the scores of TV cameras, I buy a “veg patty”. For twenty-five rupees.
It is exactly as I remember it. Greasy and flaky and just the right thing for an elegy. Raj Kapoor’s iconic Joker sings: “Jeena yahan marna yahan, iske siwaa…” And we all, a mix of enthusiastic first-timers and old-timers reliving the good old days, join in: “Jaana kahan”. Where indeed.