NEW DELHI: A surge in losses faced by single screen cinemas in this multiplex era, forced many of the oldest theatres in the capital to down their shutters. Two years back, the once esteemed Regal in Connaught Place closed down for want of revenue and repair. Golcha, Jagat, Novelty and several other cinema halls faced a similar fate, succumbing to the multiplex chains of course, but also from factors like declining viewership after demonetisation, and the rise of newer media for watching movies.

The Citizen went looking for the few that remain. Many have converted themselves into dual-plexes or multiplexes. Others retain the timeworn appeal of a single screen, but have renovated their facilities and upgraded their technology. Here’s the current state of some of the oldest single screens in the city.

RITZ in Kashmere Gate is 89 years old. Once bustling with cinemagoers, nowadays the blue and red structure standing on Lothian Road mostly goes unnoticed. Its owner Vijay Narain Seth tells The Citizen: ‘Ritz is here since 1932. Before my father purchased it in 1940 it was called Capital. I have been running it since my father’s death in 1965.’

How has it kept up with the competition? ‘We renovated the structure, we had to remove many employees and make do with a smaller workforce. In the past few years we have installed new technology like UFO digital projection, and updated other amenities like installing air conditioners and a snack counter inside the premises to keep up with the changing times. We basically had to refurbish the hall,’ says Seth.

As for times to come, ‘We can’t convert it to a multiplex because it’s an old structure. We can only upgrade the existing one. I used to own two more cinema halls, Jagat and Novelty, but they got closed down. There’s no profit in the business as of now. We don’t have many options – by law we can’t change the structure because there is a protected monument within 100 metres of the building.’

But Seth is keen to keep Ritz running. ‘It’s my father’s enterprise and my sentiments are attached to it. So I’m trying to run this for as long as I can.’

Wall with trophies marking miles

Ritz Cinema Hall, Kashmere Gate

The manager Gopal Verma reminisces about his early days at Ritz. ‘I started working here in 1972 and still remember the date: it was 4th February, the day Pakeezah was released.’

How have things changed since? ‘Families no longer visit even the once renowned single screens. We have substantially lost the gentry and permanent customers in the last few decades. Multiplexes are able to attract the audience that can afford tickets at those prices. Our ticket prices are set much cheaper, but people’s disposable income has increased over time.’

Verma also points out that ‘most single screens are running losses. The crowd is dispersed and no longer concentrated to a particular area, because of which so many multiplexes have sprung up in various parts of Delhi, all simultaneously showing the same films… We do not get a houseful any more.’

Pointing to a wall in his office studded with trophies, ‘We have seen better days,’ Verma tells The Citizen.

SHIELA THEATRE was established in Paharganj in 1961. It was the first theatre in the country with a 70mm screen. Two years back it closed for a few weeks because of recurring financial losses – the situation was further aggrieved because it didn’t get the rights to screen Baahubali 2.

But the theatre’s been renovated since and is managing to keep its head above the water. ‘We gave its exterior and interior a new paint job, installed Dolby digital sound and upgraded other facilities,’ says G.S.Rathore, the manager.

Rathore delves into the business. ‘Multiplexes provide a choice of movies to the consumer; we have restricted choices in that sense and can only show one movie at a time. The rates too are approved by the licensing branch; we don’t have a free hand in this.’

The owner Uday Kaushik is trying to convert it into a multiplex. ‘But, it will take some time. It’s a parental business since 1961, so this place obviously holds sentimental value for him,’ Rathore tells The Citizen.

Yashpal Singh, who sits at the box office and has been working at Shiela for the past 32 years, tells The Citizen that ‘Business also depends on the kind of film. If it’s good then sales spike in the initial days of its release. Otherwise, we only get a floating population which includes passengers from the nearby New Delhi Railway Station whose trains are delayed, and people staying in the guesthouses and hotels right by the cinema hall.

‘This area has lost many permanent residents as people have migrated to different parts of the city.’

Shiela Theatre, Paharganj

Shiela’s renovated interior

LIBERTY CINEMA by contrast, situated in the heart of Karol Bagh, is doing fairly well these days. It was established in 1956 and currently boasts ‘Dolby digital and DTS surround sound, American projectors, high-intensity xenon lamps and a 60 x 24 foot mammoth screen’ as the website declares.

This 959 seater’s footfall was declining like any other single-screen’s in the face of intense competition from the multiplexes. Its owner Rajan Gupta told the press in 2016 that demonetisation had added to Liberty’s miseries.

‘But it is getting houseful these days,’ Subhadra, an aging street vendor who has been selling eatables for more than 20 years right outside Liberty’s gates, tells The Citizen. ‘Localites flock to this single screen quite often. It was closed down for some 15-20 days after the bomb blasts in 2005. Otherwise it has managed to survive the storm.’

Liberty Cinema, Karol Bagh

Subhadra, the street vendor outside Liberty

AMBA CINEMA in Shakti Nagar has a similar story to discover. Established in 1963 by Bhawani Shanker, grandson of the late 19th century businessman Amba Prasad, the cinema is located near the buzzing Kamala Nagar market and serves local vendors, university students and people from the residential areas nearby.

Gopal, an auto driver in these parts since 1992, says ‘I think Amba was closed down for a week or two, but it started again with new services. A lot of single screens are getting sealed for various reasons. Decades back there were so many single screens like Minerva and Naz – all of them have closed down one by one. Only a handful of single screens like Amba, Liberty, Ritz, and Shiela have managed to survive.’

Amba Cinema, Shakti Nagar

Entrance to the theatre