It was early March when Ramesh Kumar who was sitting in the projector cabin heard the news. The iconic 84-year-old Regal Cinema, where he was working as an operator since 1994, was closing down. At 61, Kumar is Regal’s oldest (employed) projector operator. “It’s not like people weren’t aware at the time – there had been conversations about it in our circle, but it became a reality at that point,” he says, tracing the edge of an old (functional), hand-operated projector that stood next to him. The manual projector of course, is no longer in use, but Kumar was interested in showing how it worked to me.
Kumar is soft-spoken. When he talks about his work, he pauses every now and then to collect his thoughts, before continuing. We are in projection cabin from where countless films, including classics like Bobby (1973) and Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) were once projected for the public. This would have been a place of prestige. Today, the room today carries a forlorn sense of identity – its pale beige coloured walls, covered by a few calendars, are cracked and discoloured. Film spools, without the reels, hang on the walls. Perched on an wooden table, an old table fan makes a whirring sound. Everything within the cabin is cluttered with old-school elements, except for a shiny glass cubicle that encases the modern, more compact digital projector. Within the cubicle, an air conditioner functions to keep it cool.
When Kumar speaks about the old projector, his eyes sparkle as he momentarily assumed the role of a mentor, slowly pointing out the nitty-gritties of how it used to work at one point. His love for his profession is apparent, a relationship that has survived 45 years.
Kumar’s tryst with cinema however, began by accident. He acquired his first job as an operator at Ajanta Cinema in Subhash Nagar, New Delhi back in 1972. When his father passed away in 1971, he was still in school, but the trauma of his father’s demise and the knowledge of a sudden financial burden, was overwhelming. “It was as though my focus had suddenly shifted. I loved studying, but I could no longer concentrate on that. I needed to work.” He was 16 years old at that time.
Kumar approached his neighbour for help, who directed him to Ajanta Cinema’s owner. “My neighbour who was friends with Shri Gopal ji, introduced me to him who kept me instantly. I began learning the art of projecting in 1972 and received my license in 1974. The first time I projected was Pakeezah starring Meena Kumari,” he reminisces fondly. “That’s how I became an operator. I’ve never been anything else since.”
In February 1994, he began working at Regal when someone recommended him for the position of an operator, since he was good at what he did. “In those days, everything was hand-operated. One auditorium had two projectors, and you needed one operator to handle one projector. In fact, it was extremely tough – a full time job. One had to pay attention all the time, whether it was to change the reel or be alert when it was time for the interval; whether it was to ensure that the projector didn’t get heated up, or turn on the lights when the film ended – you had to be on your toes,” Kumar says. “Today, it’s very simple. The film gets digitally loaded in Bombay and it automatically gets loaded here in Delhi as well. Then, I just need to push a button and the picture starts. I hardly have any work after that.” Kumar stands as a repository of Indian cinema and the technology that was used at one point in time. Even the word he used – ‘picture’ – a term used back in the day for film, is reminiscent of another era.
“Now days, because of technology, very few people are required. Everything is automatic,” he continues. “You only need someone to look after the digital projector for maintenance. Throughout the day, all I have to do is see whether the air conditioner is working properly so that the digital projector doesn’t get heated up, or to switch the server on or off. I’m not required for anything else. When I start the picture, the interval happens automatically. When the picture ends, the hall lights turn on by themselves – so why would you need skilled operators like me anymore?” A hint of insecurity glints in his eyes. “I’m 61 now, and I have no hope of getting a job after this one, because no one needs me,” he says, his voice almost a whisper.
Regal and Kumar are symbolic of a time when single-screened theater halls and skilled operators had a standing in society. “Earlier, an operator like me had tremendous respect in the eyes of the people,” he says, his sombre voice, wavers. “But all that has finished now. However many skilled operators are left in this country, all of them will be pushed onto the streets. No one cares about us anymore.” Even Regal’s old projector, the one Kumar is fond of, will be sold off – its parts dismantled and given away to the kabadi walla.
Kumar’s trajectory of fate is similar to Regal’s. As the cinema hall drew its curtains day before yesterday, it marked an end of an era. Today, Regal’s structure and stature is a faint memory of what it once was. What was once emblematic of the Golden Age in Indian cinema, shepherding cinematic demigods like Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, now stands as a decrepit, dilapidated building, shunned by cinema-goers. Like the hall, Kumar too, is no longer required; he is no longer the sought-after operator he once was.
On March 30, the cinema theater held a film screening for the last time, before it pulled its grilled shutters close. But Regal would go out with a bang, not a whimper. It screened two of Raj Kapoor’s iconic films – Mera Naam Joker and Sangam. That day, Kumar was stationed in the projector room, right on schedule, ready to screen the films for one last time. People gathered in hordes, in solidarity, across the marble checkerboard floor.
The mood at Regal was a different kind, suffused with chatter – old loyalists who frequented Regal Cinema since their childhood narrated anecdotal experiences; young viewers were there to see what the hype was about. “The experience was similar to the excitement one feels when a new cinema hall opens,” Kumar says. When the last film, Sangam, ended at 1:30 am, people refused to leave. “The public was around till 2-2:30 am. Some were crying, some were singing Raj Kapoor’s songs whole-hardheartedly – it felt like they were going to sleep over here! It was wonderful,” he laughs. To him, it felt as though he was transported 50 years back in time. “I was reminded of the time when numerous cars used to be parked outside Regal; when there were endless queues of people jumping over each other, waiting to get inside the hall which was already packed. Even though I was feeling sad because it was the last show, it was delightful to watch how much people loved this theater.”
Now that it all has ended, many of the staff members have no job or an inkling of what they will do in the near future. Kumar himself appears uncertain. “I’ll have to start my own small karobaar,” he replies, taking off his spectacles and pinching the space between his brows. “I’ll open a small electronics shop and perhaps focus on repair work. Maybe I’ll drive an e-rickshaw or open a mobile re-charging shop. Or, I’ll take up some computer-related work, so that I get to learn on the job. Everything is computerised now days. All my life I’ve worked with projectors, I’ve never had the need to work on a computer, but now it seems as though I will have to face a computer after all,” he smiles in a matter-of-fact way.
Having watched and projected countless films for three-fourths of his life, Kumar has an impeccable understanding of cinema. “Whenever a film comes out, I instantly know whether it will work or not. I have 24 years of experience to know exactly what the public will enjoy watching,” he says. “Whenever Regal was house full, it had a different kind of energy. I used to feel ecstatic, since that energy would seep into me. I loved it, and now I’ll miss it.”
As Kumar wrapped his last day at work by settling his accounts along with the other members of staff yesterday, Regal’s interiors will now be a ghost-town, an empty building with nothing left within, but memories.