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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Delhi rewind: How Delite, among Delhi’s first cinemas in Independent India, came up following Nehru’s call

A plot was purchased in an auction by the Delhi Improvement Trust, for an exorbitant Rs 6 lakh, to make way for the hall with about 1,100 seats

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |
Updated: May 22, 2022 3:38:16 am
Delite Cinema on its first day. (Picture courtesy: Rajkumar Mehrotra, Manager Delite cinemas)

Piyush Raizada (61) faintly recollected his father, Brij Mohan Lal Raizada, narrating a fond experience of a cinema in Calcutta, that convinced him of entering a similar business. Raizada was involved in an automobile business at that time and lived in Sitaram Bazar inside the Walled City.

In the days soon after Independence, when prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru made known his desire to have more landmarks in the capital built by Indians, Raizada knew it was the opportunity he had been waiting for. A plot of land, on the periphery of Old Delhi, was purchased in an auction by the Delhi Improvement Trust, for an exorbitant amount of Rs 6 lakh. Here, in Daryaganj, the wall of the walled city was demolished to make way for the Delite Cinema with about 1,100 seats. Along with Mohini, Liberty, Naaz and Payal, Delite was one of the first cinema theatres to be born in Delhi after Independence.

Delite turned into one of the biggest names among the cinema goers of Delhi. (Express Photo)

Delite opened in 1954 with Raj Kapoor’s ‘Angarey’. Piyush Raizada was yet to be born then, but had heard from his father about the grand opening on the first day of the first show in Delhi. “Thousands of people were waiting outside the hall,” he said. The film was promoted with much fanfare through loudspeaker announcements on cycle-rickshaws.

Soon after, Delite turned into one of the biggest names among the cinema goers of Delhi. Its architecture, marked by its tall columns and majestic pillars, made it stand out amidst the surroundings of Daryaganj.

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Like most other cinema halls of the time, Delite too initially hosted both cinema and live performances. “Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre would perform his plays here and he and his family would live on the fourth floor of the building,” recollected Piyush Raizada.

“Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre would perform his plays here and he and his family would live on the fourth floor of the building,” recollected Piyush Raizada. (Express Photo)

In the years soon after being established though, Delite was far from being considered a favourite among the elite cinema watchers of Delhi. “Delite at that time was considered a downtown cinema,” said Ziya Us Salam, literary critic and social commentator who has authored the book, ‘Delhi: 4 Shows – Talkies of Yesteryear’. He explained that in Delhi at that time, there were eight big halls, four in New Delhi’s Connaught Place — Regal, Plaza, Odeon and Rivoli — and four in Old Delhi — Golcha, Ritz, Moti, Majestic. “Delite did not fit in the A-grade halls of the time. This was partly due to the fact that it was neither fully in Old Delhi nor in New Delhi,” said Salam. It was the place for the release of what he calls ‘masala’ movies.

Some of its most popular releases in the first few decades of its functioning included Waqt (1965), Humraaz (1967), Vandna (1975), Khalnayak (1993), Haadsa (1983) and Qayamat (1983). Salam explained that over the years, the theatre had created a niche for itself in playing regional films, with Bengali films being particularly popular. “Suchitra Sen’s ‘Megh Kalo’ (1970) for instance, was initially booked for a single week, but given the rush it created, it ran for eight weeks,” he said.

In the years soon after being established though, Delite was far from being considered a favourite among the elite cinema watchers of Delhi. (Express Photo)

The hall found popularity among the high and mighty of Indian politics. It was visited on several occasions by Dr Rajendra Prasad, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, among others. “LK Advani must have watched atleast 10 films here,” said Rajkumar Mehrotra, who has been serving as manager of Delite for the last 42 years.

An important moment in Delite’s history was during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. At the time, cinema houses in the city had canceled their evening and night shows on instruction to switch off their lights. Delite, however, in a streak of patriotism played the latest news from the warfront during its regular shows. “At the height of the war when Upasana was released in 1971, news broadcasts were aired in the beginning and end of the film,” said Salam. He noted that the hall had made provisions for two intervals so that three news updates could be given out during each movie. “Unlike the war with China in 1962, people were very emotional about the Bangladesh Liberation War and were interested in getting constant updates even while watching a movie.”

What accounted for Delite’s thriving longevity was the Raizadas’ investment in technology and expansion of the hall. (Express Photo)

In the decades following the Independence, cinema had a different appeal in Delhi in comparison to that in Bombay or Calcutta. “Bombay had style and fanfare, Calcutta was too cerebral or low key, but Delhi celebrated cinema,” Salam said. “The best of Hindi film makers would withhold the release of their film if a theatre of their choice was not available in Delhi.”

In the years since the 1990s, a majority of Delite’s contemporary single screened theatres such as Golcha, Jubilee, Novelty have either shut down or are on the verge of shutting down. What accounted for Delite’s thriving longevity was the Raizadas’ investment in technology and expansion of the hall.

In 1994, when Hum Aapke Hain Kaun released, it brought back families to the cinema halls. In Delhi, the movie released in just two halls, Delite being one of them, where the film completed a jubilee run. It was during this time that the hall went through a complete change with fresh seating, better air-conditioning and a new cafeteria.

Yet another challenge in the hall’s long journey was the opening of multiplexes. Mehrotra said that with the emergence of multiplexes, the single screened theatre realised that it would have to provide the same quality experience to customers in order to retain them. “We started providing facilities on a par with the multiplexes and at much lower prices,” he said.

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