House not full: As old cinema halls crumble, wage-earners lose their haunts

Unhonoured and unsung, single-screen halls of Delhi are passing into history. Khanna in Paharganj, which collapsed the other day, was only one of them

House not full: As old cinema halls crumble, wage-earners lose their haunts

Shutters down: A closed cinema on a busy road. (All photos: Ali Fraz Rezvi)

On 16 June, around 8:30 pm, part of a century-old structure collapsed in Delhi’s Paharganj. Closed for more than 15 years, this building once housed the most crowded cinema hall of central Delhi, which went by the proud name of ‘Khanna Talkies’.

Mourning its passing is a humble film fan popularly known as Haleem Miyaan, though his real name is Aleem. This 61-year-old vendor makes a living by selling haleem (a winter snack) for the past 42 years. “When I was young, it was just me and Khanna on Saturdays,” he recalls. 

Going down memory lane, he says as new cinema halls opened in different nooks and corners of Delhi, the old ones struggled to survive. The management of Khanna, which was one of the strugglers in the 1990s, lowered ticket prices, turning it into a regular haunt for the likes of Aleem. 

Like him, other rehri-patri wallas who sold their wares around New Delhi Railway Station spent the last hours of their evenings watching movies at Khanna Talkies. “And, here I am, spending the last days of my life looking at the crumbling pieces of the same structure”, he concludes with a melodramatic sigh. 

A shopkeeper told Patriot that the only inhabitants of the old building were a family of rag-pickers, who probably had the owner’s permission to live there. “They were inside the building when it collapsed, and lost their youngest child as a result of the injuries. I don’t understand why they were living in it when the situation was Ab giri, tab giri…”  he concludes in an interrogative tone.

“Khanna Talkies, and similar cinema halls in their last days, were actually a hangout place for the working class”, says Vikram Raj, a film analyst and cinema archivist, when told about the shopkeeper’s question. “I am not surprised by  Khanna Talkies being inhabited by a family of rag-pickers. It is in fact a very factual representation of Delhi’s old cinema culture”, he says.

Forgotten talkies: A permanently closed Golcha cinema

The initial years of the 21st century witnessed the opening of new multiplexes, which were able to schedule more shows with smaller audiences and still be viable. These newly opened multiplexes, particularly PVRs, catered to those who were well-heeled, which posed a huge threat to the existing cinema culture. The older single-screen halls decreased their ticket prices and sold them at a very nominal rate as compared to the newly opened multiplexes and ultimately became a leisure hub for wage earners of the city.

Siddharth Roy, a PhD student of Cinema Studies tells Patriot that cinemas play a huge role in defining a city’s culture. ‘If we compare Delhi during the 1950s-60s, the culture was highly influenced as well as represented by the films made in that era. Movies such as Awara, Taxi Driver, Shree 420, Mr & Mrs 55 and Boot Polish had a huge influence over the youth – from haircuts and accents to their dressing sense, while other films like Baradari, Shirin Farhad, Pyasa, Mughal-e-Azam and Shaheed kept intact the cultural fibre for older generations.”

In the initial days, films were made in accordance with the taste and needs of the people but as time passed, cinema dictated the people’s taste. Actors became ‘heroes’ and ultimately role models and icons. 

“By the 80s, the films were divided into two types: one specifically made to attract the working-class people with relatable stories and plots while others were filled with luxury, glamour and wealth,” analyzes Roy. “Just before this era, the movies made in the 70s such as Roti Kapda aur Makaan, Pakeezah, Mera Naam Joker and others were mostly about class issues, and were aimed at creating an understanding of socio-political realities.” 

Aligned memories: Numbered chairs at an old cinema hall

The changing nature of films and cinema have always had a great impact on the common people, which is visible till date. The introduction of OTT platforms has played a huge role in the emasculation of cinema halls in modern times. This has also deprived the working class of cinema produced in these times, just because of its unaffordability.

Srajit, a heritage walk leader of the cinemas of Old Delhi, and a student of urban history, is of the opinion that a person’s perspective of an unknown city’s culture is wholly based upon its representation in a film. “If we talk about Delhi to a random person who has never visited the city, they would describe it as a land of huge monuments along with other small details from the movies which were based in Delhi.”  

‘If we compare cinemas with any other art form, they were the most accessible for the masses. While the other literary art forms required a basic understanding of the subject, films presented the material in the most basic contour’.

In Srajit’s opinion, cinemas that once used to document the city’s heritage are not even considered to be a part of it. In today’s world, history has been bound to the places which have the stamp of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India); they are considered monuments, legacy and in fact a treasure from the past, while no one bothers about these multiple old buildings in the city which are being obliterated on a regular basis. Many old cinemas like Golcha at Daryaganj were permanently closed and this  continues  with the closing of Sheela Cinema at Paharganj in 2017 and Regal at Connaught Place in 2018 with its last movie being Phillauri.

“No one cares about these Jagats and Khannas, they are basically the orphans of heritage,” Srajit  concludes.

Old functioning cinema halls in Delhi:

Cinema Halls Location
Ritz Cinema, 1932 Lothian Road, Kashmere Gate
Delite Cinema, 1954 Asaf Ali Road, Delhi Gate
Moti Talkies, 1938 Bhagirath Palace, Chandni Chowk
Amba, 1962 Ghanta Ghar, Shakti Nagar

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Ali Fraz Rezvi
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Ali Fraz Rezvi covers heritage, history, literature and current social issues for the Patriot.