They were the talk of the town when they came up, here and there, years ago. Like newly wed brides, they were thronged by visitors who admired their beauty. Today, they lie in total disregard with some even in ruins. These old cinema halls of the city that once gave the denizens some of their most-cherished moments are on the verge of death. While some of these dating back to pre-independence era have been demolished and given way to swanky buildings, others are a shadow of their former selves.
If video piracy had not done them enough bad, the rise of the multi-screen multiplexes have ensured they have few takers.
The city has over 20 single-screen theatres. Of these, only three – Preet Palace, Aarti and the relatively new Orient – screen new releases. Priced lower than the multiplexes with tickets ranging from as low as Rs 50 to Rs 100, they attract college-goers and a section of the society that is unwilling to spend over a thousand bucks to watch a movie with family. The comforts these theatres offer are modest compared to those in the plush multiplexes but suffice the needs of many.
The other old cinemas, however, are running to seeds. While Shingar alternates between screening new Bollywood and Bhojpuri film releases, many like Basant, Arora, Surjeet, Surya, Deepak, Nirmal and Sitara are dedicated patrons of Bhojpuri movies. Others like Laxmi, Society, Manju and Raikhey thrive on either old action or sleazy flicks. The prices are dirt cheap starting from as low as Rs 8 and going not above Rs 30. These screens attract huge numbers of migrant labourers from states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, for whom these theatres are perhaps the only source of entertainment.
The single-screen theatre owners rue that their revenues have fallen to just 20-25% compared to the past. And, despite the crumbling structures, plaster scraping off the walls and poor hygienic conditions, they feel reluctant for repair.
Considering that the state once boasted of the largest number of cinema houses in Northern India (176 at one time) with Ludhiana home to a big chunk, these aged structures have evidently fallen to bad times due to indifferent audience, “faulty tax policies of the government” and the general tendency to disrespect anything aged. “While the new multiplexes enjoy total tax holiday in entertainment tax to multiplexes, we struggled to pay the tax levied on us in the recent past,” says Dr Ashish Hora of Chand Cinema.
Meanwhile, multiplexes are mushrooming in various parts of the city with the current five totalling 22 screens. The ticket prices for most begin at Rs 150 for a weekend show.
The first cinema hall to come up in the city was Minerva build in pre-independent days and shut down years ago. The second to come up was Raikhey in 1933, which showed Alamara as their first film, and is the oldest surviving cinema hall in Ludhiana. Muslim-owned Naulakha, that was demolished last year, came next in 1938 but remained dormant until 1950. By 1957, the city had six running cinemas including Society, Kailash and Deepak. As the population grew, cinemas mushroomed in the city and soon people had more options in Society, Lakshmi, Kailash Pictures, Aarti and so on. Sangeet, which is now closed, was opened in 1975 by Namdhari Sadhu Singh as a symbol of love for music; Ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh is said to have performed here twice. Chand, the biggest theatre in the state then, opened in 1976; Shingaar too opened at the same time. These, along with Arora, had introduced the concept of multi-screens in city. Dr Ashish Hora, the grandson of Kundan Lal Hora who built the Chand cinema, says, “We had Chand and Mini-Chand with a seating space for 1300 and 400 respectively. We brought the multiplex concept years ago,” he says. The hall, situated in three acres and boasting of fine architecture from a well-known architect in Delhi, has been closed for a year now and Dr Ashish says it is under renovation. Will it go the Malhar way that was demolished to have the existing PVR in place? “No,” says Ashish. “We would not kill our theatre by turning it into a multiplex. Only the sound system, furniture and screen will be modernized and structure repaired,” he says.
The huge popularity of these meant that streets and intersections in the city came to be unofficially named after them. In the fifties, Cinema Road was so called due to the presence of Raikhy and Naulakha. Directions like Malhar Road, Kailash Chowk and Aarti Chowk are still popular. Legendary Raj Kapoor had visited Society cinema during the premiere of ‘Bobby’. This theatre also boasts of screening the maximum number of silver jubilee films in city. After the bomb blast at Shingar Cinema in 2007 had left the city shocked, Bhojpuri star Manoj Tiwari had visited the theatre to attend his movie’s screening. The cinema owners recall how famous dignitaries would come to watch films with their family. “I remember the time when Zail Singh came to watch a film accompanied by family. We seated him in the box provided with an attendant for service,” recalls Dr Hora.
Nostalgic Movie Buffs
It was a different movie experience altogether, recall old-timers. The movie timings were fixed and did not involve the tedious task of looking up the websites and newspapers every time, say a retired professor who stays in Agar Nagar. “We would dress up to the nines to watch a movie. While there are burgers, popcorns and colas available, hawkers selling everything from tea to break pakodas to groundnuts thronged the place during the interval when the silent hall would burst into frenzied activity. Those were the times!” he says, adding how he finds difficult to find his way around the workings of a multiplex.
The owners too attached sentimental value to their enterprise. “Idols of various Gods and a statue of Venus especially brought from Rajasthan then greets the visitors in our hall. We also had a diya burning in the hall at all hours of the day at all times of the year and I know most of the other owners too did that,” says Hora.