Once upon time, before Bollywood came along, Connaught Place’s theaters used to showcase things like Russian ballets, Urdu plays and silent movies. Bollywood stars like Prithviraj Kapoor performed several plays across theaters in Connaught Place. It was only after the release of Mr. Kapoor’s 1931 blockbuster “Alam Ara,” the first Indian “talkie,” as early films with soundtracks were called, that these theatres also came to be known as “talkies.” Built mostly in the 1930s, many of these theaters survive today as some of New Delhi’s most popular commercial cinemas: the Regal, the Rivoli, the Odeon, and the Plaza.
As Indian cinema began to spread its wings, talkies gradually evolved into single screen cinema halls in the 1940s. While halls like the Regal screened popular Hindi films, others like the Plaza and the Rivoli mainly showed Hollywood blockbusters. The Odeon stood out as an exception, catering to both Indian and western audiences. Until the 1970s, the film turnaround was a lot slower: rather than changing on a weekly basis, as they do today, films used to run in the same hall for months at a time. There were four screenings a day: a noon show (12.30 p.m.) a matinee show (3.30 p.m.), an evening show (6.30 p.m.) and a night show (9.30 p.m.), says Ziya Us Salam, an expert on the capital’s heritage cinemas. Tickets prices typically ranged from 0.012 rupees to 1.25 rupees, depending on the seats, he added. Until Independence, in 1947, Connaught Place cinemas were an elite affair, frequented by British bureaucrats and influential Indian families. Halls like the Khanna, the Robin and the Excelsior in Old Delhi is where Hindi films were screened for the masses. Unlike Connaught Place theatres, not many old Delhi cinemas have survived to this day, Mr. Salam noted. Until the early 1960s, cinemas were one of the few sources of entertainment in New Delhi. It was only later that decade, when bazaars and small scale eateries started opening up in Connaught Place, that the capital’s entertainment options expanded. From the 1940s to 1960s, an era often been described as the “golden age” of Indian cinema, saw film premier across Connaught Place theaters, and cinemas soon emerged as social hubs. These were the days of movies like “Kismet” (1943), “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje” (1955) and “Mughal-e-Azam” (1960), all box office hits.
The four cinemas were all designed by British architects, who were inspired by Victorian architecture. The Plaza, designed by Robert Tor Russell, had a two-story foyer, velvet curtains and a heavy chandelier hanging over the hall. The walls were embellished with plaster of Paris decorations and floral art, while large paintings and cylindrical pillars adorned the cinema’s lobby. Aman Singh Varma, who has worked at the Regal as an accountant since 1977, recalled the red-carpet premieres of Raj Kapoor’s movies at the cinema with nostalgia. They were “an extraordinary affair,” he says. “Film premiers were highlighted by a red carpet welcome and an extravagant procession,” he says. Apart from Bollywood celebrities in the 1970s, earlier VIP guests included Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, as well as his daughter and future Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.