Delhi’s nostalgia-ridden fans gave a rousing send-off to one of their favourite cinema houses.
Three gentlemen in their 60s stand on the pavement outside Regal, arm in arm, eyes closed, wearing that slightest of frowns that usually accompanies concentration, singing Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan — and beautifully. They are being videographed by almost anyone who has a cell phone but their immersion in the song is complete.
A few minutes back Raj Kapoor had sung the song on the Regal screen, 37 years after Mera Naam Joker had first been released. “Raj Kapoor to apni saari filmein Regal pe hee premiere karte thhe. Before the first show there used to be a havan… ”, an insider is telling a team from a TV channel. “Ajee sa’ab, Prithviraj Kapoor yahan theatre karte thhe”, another is telling his family.
Architect Ashwini Kapoor, who has taken on the project of the cinema hall’s restoration, is helpfully enunciating the name of original architect Walter Sykes George for another TV channel. Yet another lot of viewers is enthusiastically pumping their fists to “Ae bhai zaraa dekh ke chalo” for another reporter. The penultimate show of Mera Naam Joker has just finished at Regal and there is no way I can leave this buzzing carnival of cheerful nostalgia. Like several others, I too return to the ticket window to purchase my historic last-day last-show ticket for the rear stall of Regal cinema.
The last show is Raj Kapoor’s Sangam. The box and balcony tickets (Rs 200 and Rs 180 respectively) have been sold out. Mera Naam Joker may have made a more fitting finale, with its spirit of ‘the show must go on’, the anthemic appeal of Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan, and the last shot which, instead of “The End”, says “Definitely Not The End”. But Sangam it is – the second biggest earner of the 1960s (after Mughal-e-Azam). The undisputed ruler of Binaca Geet Mala. With a running time of three hours and 58 minutes, the first Hindi film to take two interval breaks. Perhaps it is the right choice after all.
Weaving down the steps comes a man, clearly an old timer at Regal, whose Dev Anand-like gait and sloshy liquid grin make it hard to discern what service he can possibly provide the hall. He is singing a Mumtaz song that may have no relevance to today’s occasion but is clearly holding him upright as he clutches its tune and follows it unsteadily across the lobby and out into the night. The snack servers tell me that he is a sweeper and a little, you know, today.. “thoda sa… aaj… ab kya karein…” They all say they will look for work now, some severance pay ought to be forthcoming, let us see…
For a while I stroll around, carried along by my own ghosts. I remember this chequered floor and these stairs from some 40 years back. The aloo patties bought by my father, the ladies bathroom in front of which I would queue up with my mother, the huge wall fans, the balcony parapet down which a cat once scampered, almost definitely hunting a rat. I remember having tutti-frutti ice-cream after the movie, in a restaurant which stood where Palika Bazaar thrives now. I call up my parents and try and convey some of the atmosphere to them. “Oh god, Regal”, says Ma. “They sold us tickets for two separate seats for Anubhav and I had to sit alone and I was so mortified and scared. I had just come from Dehradun and had never sat alone in a hall. But once Geeta Dutt started singing Mujhe Jaan Na Kaho Meri Jaan, it was fine”.
Up on the screen Raj Kapoor has started singing Mere Mann ki Ganga. I climb up the steep iron steps into the projection room where a couple of young enthusiasts are already chatting with the projectionists. Ramesh Kumar has worked here since 1994. He retired a few days back so its not just his last day at Regal but also the last of his career. He shows me just the right spot from which to photograph the old Cinecitta projector and describes how the engineers trained the projectionists when the switch to digital came. “In the 80s I used to work at Ajanta cinema, and when it became possible to work in Connaught Place, it was a big thing, you know? I was so happy. And now it’s the last day. Of course one feels sad”.
I watch the film from the narrow old holes made for projection, seeing the far-off images through a contingent tunnel. In the previous show, I had seen shots of Nargis and Raj Kapoor in Shri 420, which Kapoor had introduced into the song Kehta Hai Joker Saara Zamana. That had created a tunnel too, of times past and present, their stillness and their flow. When I was gazing at Nargis, I had been watching images created in 1955, within a film made in 1970, absorbing the whole in 2017 (even as I was haunted by memories of myself in 1975).
But this time round, the tunnel dissolves into pure joy. A burst of familiar introductory music seems to electrify the hall. As I step back into the balcony, what I am stepping into is an old national craze: Ye Mera Prem Patra Padh Kar. For this moment, in this cool night of an early hot summer in Delhi, the craze seems to have come visiting again. Half the hall is clapping and practically all are singing along with Mohammed Rafi. They clap all the way through the song.
Indeed the whole movie is one of those participatory community experiences of cinema watching in Asia that academics write seminar papers on. When Vyjayanthimala swims in her bathing costume, the lower stalls whistle copiously; when Raj Kapoor returns from the dead, they bursts into prodigious cheers and when his rival-in-love Rajendra Kumar finds out that the raqeeb is back, they pretty much roll in the aisles with laughter at his shell shocked face. In the box stalls right now, however, elderly gentlemen are singing along with a kind of devotional fervour. I share it. Who knows, this may be the last time I am hearing Rafi’s voice filling a cinema hall.
I have to leave a bit early. But there is a knot of people at the balcony door. Something has clearly gone wrong. I crane over shoulders and see Ramesh sitting on those steep iron steps, clearly in great pain. He has fallen and dislocated his shoulder, while coming down the steps he negotiated just fine for 23 years, on the last day of his professional life. We all sober up a bit. They are figuring out how to help him get up, how to take him to hospital. In an unnecessarily extravagant backdrop to the incident, Mukesh is singing, addressing life with immense pain, that he just does not trust it any more. Zindagi hume tera aitbaar na raha.