Okay, the title is stolen from Tornatore’s illustrious repertoire (Cinema Paradiso being my favourite), but here I’m not going to talk on Italian Cinema, but our very own ‘shady’ cinema halls. The now ‘shady’ cinema halls which once were grand in their salad days. Interestingly, people on both sides of poverty lines used to frequent the cinema halls of Delhi, with class distinction very apparent. Balcony for the ‘haves’, Upper and Centre Stall for ‘trying to have’ and Front Stall for ‘will have one day’!

The movies projected there had a certain charm and grandeur. And yes, the significant Front Stall made the movie grand, with their whistles and hoots on the start when credits rolled, on best scenes or songs. It seemed like it’s only them who are enjoying the movie the right way, and expressing their happiness whole-heartedly. The autorickhaw wallahs, Dhobis, factory workers, etc. filled the seats that were available at 1/10th of the Balcony’s price, and went home totally content, movie making not much difference to their satisfaction level! It were only the Priyas and Chanakyas of the world where one would find same class in every stall, per se. On being asked why chose front stall, one would answer “Everything looks so big and grand from up close” rather than accepting that pocket money dried up on beers and chowmein (momos then hadn’t seeped into every cranny)!

But the hall in itself was a charming place. What worked against it became its USP. The dingy walls, foul smelling alleys, red stains all over, rexine seats, darkness, all became a habit for the eyes to get accustomed to. And our olfactory senses got used to the smell of gutka and paan, smell of AC, smell of stale popcorn and sandwiches, smell of cheap perfumes mixing with the smell of sweat, musty corridors, and much more. What wafted in the air was anything but fresh air!

Those days, as in pre-PVR era, the cinema halls were the means to get entertainment, not the entertainment destination like today. But then, they were the only means of entertainment those days. With not much cafes, bowling alleys, malls or other entertainment solutions, families and couples alike went to Halls, not bothering much on the film that played. Reasons were many – respite from heat (for front stall-wallahs), privacy (for couples), break (for office-goers), time pass (for students) and outing (for families), and yes, entertainment (for everyone).

Of course the film did make a valid reason to spend those dreamy 3 hours, and in what way! Dreamy-eyed would escape into the land of grandness, puppy love would usher in the darkness, families would re-bond while sharing a laugh and doing high-fives, couples would ‘explore’ love’s many manifestations in stealth settings, college kids would memorize scenes and dialogues to replicate later, fans would drool over the object of their desire in a bigger-than-life format and children would rejoice over not having to study for a good 4-5 hours.

Movie going was a serious affair in the pre-PVR era. Every woman would take an equal amount of time to get dressed as it would to watch a show. Every man wore his best outfit, as if going for a party. One wouldn’t see many causally-dressed people loitering around, at least in the night show. A sanctum sanctorum of sorts. And talking about fixed timing, it was never about convenience, but desperate catching up. If the show timing is 9-12, then you will have to have early dinner. If it’s noon show, then it’s going to be a late lunch. But still, the cinemas ensured packed houses, as ever.

One more good thing, if one may agree, was the black ticketing. Yes, I am in favour of it. At least in those days it made sense. When people went to halls, they had obviously compromised on many things because of rigid timings as discussed earlier. Then again, it was a big affair to be at a hall on time. Imagine getting dressed up properly, skipping dinner for stale popcorns, finding space through large swathes of cars and people, then queuing up in a serpentine one, only to find it’s a houseful. Then what? Unfair, isn’t it? So at least those tickets in black provided hope. One could still be optimistic of enjoying the show even on seeing a houseful board. So what if it were a little expensive? At least the balcony wallahs could afford it and settle at Upper Stall!

But like all good things, those ‘grand’ cinema halls’ fate came to an end with the opening up of ‘luxury’ multiplexes. Hooting and whistles paved way for hush tones and ‘cold’ settings. Movie watching experience was never the same again. Yes, it did bring along many luxuries – comfort seating, better sound and screen, butter and better popcorn, snacking counters, clean washrooms, polite service, yet, I can’t anymore smell that rattling acs, nor can I smell the gutkas! I can’t relate to a comic scene until there’s hooting. Item songs don’t excite now without filthy comments and applauses and impromptu dance jigs and pelting of coins.

How I wish there could be a special section for the underprivileged class, front 2 rows maybe. This would ensure two things. One, the grandeur of cinema would return, with their hoots, whistles, gutkas et al. Two, it’s a painful experience to watch the movie from first two rows, and that too at the same price! We can surely do away with that, what say Mr. PVR and DT?

Few funny incidents at those cinema halls:

Those cinema halls were most famous for their sleazy morning shows, a super duper hit with rickshaw-wallahs. The posters put outside the halls were also alluring, and once in my gullible school days, I did pay a visit with my friends to see what the hullabaloo was all about. And to my dismay, I found that it was a cheap dubbed version of any third grade Tamil flick or Hollywood flick. No, that wasn’t the grudge. The major grievance was that the movie, if at all it carried any steamy scene, had the scene deleted! Wow, people are coming to watch that very thing, for their 5-10mins of Nirvana, and they had been denied of the pleasure. But anyway, what I also got to know that day was that the most of the audience wanked there in the morning show! Now you know why the alleys always were sticky in the 12-3pm show, ha ha.

Of all the cinema halls, the most roguish I found had been Sapna Cinema. Not only do they sell the tickets in black, but they do it officially. First, they’ll put the houseful board long before the show starts, and then sell the tickets inside the hall premises! And if that wasn’t enough, they’d even oversell. I once was asked to sit on stairs, can you believe that? And when I repented, the guy took me to counter, where they have a typical Haryanvi policeman stationed, who abused me when I asked for refund. Anyway, got the refund.

Sapna had its share of cynical activities. They had many rats in the hall, and when people objected, they left a cat inside, while the show was on. Something brushed past my feet while I was watching a horror flick. That spooked me and I went to the authority, who boldly proclaimed that there is a cat, dontcha worry. And not to mention smelling the feline’s poop the next time!