Once housefull, Raj Cinema now struggles for survival

Patriot presents a photo story to depict how Gurugram’s longest-serving single screen theatre, Raj Cinema, is still battling odds to stay afloat

It’s a normal working day in Old Gurugram. The dusty Old Delhi road wears a chaotic look during the afternoon. But no one looks to pay a visit to Raj Cinema, the longest-serving single screen theatre in the city.

Once upon a time, the reputed theatre attracted thousands of visitors regularly to watch the latest Hindi movies. Now, Raj Cinema survives by showing C-Grade films, barely attracting any visitors. The story behind Raj Cinema dates back to the late 1950s. Late YD Puri of Delhi, the founder, named the cinema after his wife, Raj. Initially, it started as a touring theatre with a company by the name of Jai Hind Pictures.

The theatre used to be a temporary structure held together by bamboos and tent. Later, it got a permanent structure and emerged as one of the most visited theatres in Gurugram. After multiplexes in the city arrived in 2003, the business of single-screen cinemas slid. From earning in thousands to almost negligible, it has been a mighty fall. According to local news records, Gurugram had six single-screen theatres before 2005, of which only two are running.

The Coronavirus pandemic has made the situation worse than ever. With the film industry seeing a decline and OTT platforms taking over the big screen experience, single-screen cinemas could become a thing of the past. With the future in shambles, Gurugram’s theatre heritage fades into darkness in broad daylight.

Bhanu recalls the golden days when the theatre used to attract thousands of viewers daily. He tells us about the time when he joined in the 90s, when the ticket for reserved class would cost around 10 INR and were sold in advance a day before the show. “Most of the times, we used to wake up at four in the morning to sell tickets for the first show of the day. The work would occupy us till midnight. But see how time takes a turn. Now, we barely have five to six people for a show.”

A view of the single screen theatre from inside. The theatre has a capacity of 520 seats in total, that is, 360 on the ground floor and 160 on the mezzanine. At present, the cost of the ground floor ticket is Rs 30 and Rs 50 for the mezzanine

According to a 2018 report by Hindustan Times, the Haryana government had said it would focus on reviving single-screen cinemas in the state. It stated, “Those who wish to revive single screen theatres would be eligible for various incentives and subsidies. They would get free electricity and tax subsidies (including a reduction in entertainment tax) to begin with, ensuring a one-window clearance for all licenses.” However, Raj Cinema got no aid and is struggling hard to survive. Bhanu says that the current owner, Mrs Raj Puri, is bearing all the expenses regarding maintenance despite no revenue generation for years. He adds that Mrs Raj looks at the theatre as a memoir of her late husband. Even during the lockdown, she didn’t layoff any staff and looked after their needs in the best way possible.

A round staircase leading to the projection room at Raj Cinema. The old entry gate at the back of the hall, which was closed after other gates were built on the sides of the theatre.
An analog film projector stationed inside the projection room at Raj Cinema, Gurugram. Raj Cinema is the only single screen theatre in the city that continues to use analog projectors with old film reels. As a result, the theatre can only show old films which were manufactured in analog format.

Vinod Das, 28, has been a projectionist serving at the theatre from past 15 years. Originally from Samastipur in Bihar, Vinod came to Gurugram at fourteen in 2006. On asking about how he became a projectionist, he tells that his obsession of watching films landed him here inside the projection room at Raj Cinema. “I would have time to watch every film that was released and that too for free. I had to work in three shifts with other three colleagues of mine. It was so much fun those days,” says Das, recalling his early work days.
In late 90s, seeing the theatre attracting a large crowd regularly, the owner planned to expand in terms of space and staff. They built several rooms within the theatre premises for official and residential purposes. With multiplexes arriving in NCR in the 2000s, the number of visitors declined over the years. The slump led to shrinking the staff of twenty employees to five at present. As a result, a lot of rooms built for the expansion stay abandoned.
Bhanu Pratap has no hope of seeing better days as the condition worsens for the theatre with each passing day. According to him, people don’t have time to go to a theatre to just watch a movie. The growing sources of technology have killed the culture of visiting theatres. The pandemic has completely killed single screen theatres, which was already going through a terrible phase.

(Ashish Kumar Kataria is a freelance documentary photographer based in Gurugram. He is currently pursuing a Postgraduate Diploma in Still Photography & Visual Communication at MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia. He can be reached on Instagram @ashishkumarkataria )

(Cover Image: According to Bhanu Pratap, 48, who has been the manager-cum-caretaker of the property for over 25 years, the theatre not only showed Hindi movies but English too. The cinema would run four houseful shows every day. It was in the late 1990s, when the theatre included regional and C – Grade movies in response to a multiplex opening in Delhi, which resulted in a decline of footfalls with each passing year)

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Ashish Kumar Kataria
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