Presence of a thriving cinema culture is a sign of happy people in an open democracy. Perhaps it is because of this that India’s first prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru personally got involved in initiating the cinema ecosystem of newly independent India.
Before the Delhi Development Authority became an all-powerful holder of land in Delhi, there was an organisation called Delhi Improvement Trust was that established in 1913. Steered by British officer Arthur Parke Hume – this body operated out of a tiny Nazul Office in the Collectorate of Delhi with just 10 to 12 officials. Even subsequent to India’s Independence, the Delhi Improvement Trust remained a powerful body. In 1950’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru deputed this department to get private players to invest in creation of world class cinema halls in Delhi.
The body got busy in identifying land, shaping policy of engagement with private entities for this mission and to create model document of rules. But in the India of 1950s, there wasn’t any financial appetite among the seths and sahukars jump into a largely unknown territory of leisure film viewing business or to dish out money to build large auditoriums with state of art technology.
Enter Brij Mohanlal Raizada or BML as he was known. He was a ‘rasik’—a man of many splendored interests and curiosity for life. BML was a dealer for luxurious imported British cars such as Morris Minor, the Wolseley and American luxury Dodge cars. BML lived in Sitaram Bazaar, close to where many Kashmiri families lived and he had a lot of friends in the Kashmiri Pandit community. One thing led to another and Brij Mohanlal Raizada had a chance meeting with Prime Minister Nehru who sold him the idea of investing his time and money in the creation of a world class cinema hall in Delhi. BML had just come back from Kolkata, where he had seen a film in a high-end cinema hall. That experience combined with Nehru’s urging, BML was sold on the idea.
Noose of an investment contract
Meanwhile, the Delhi Improvement Trust under the tutelage of a socialist civil servant Pandit Rameshwar Prasad had released a virtual death-trap investment proposal. Investors were supposed to first buy a government plot in an open auction, promise to create a fully airconditioned auditorium fitted with high-end projection and audio system, complete the construction and operationalise the theatre within two years or face stiff penalties in case they failed in any of these conditions. No such cinema hall existed in Delhi at the time and by all accounts, the investment proposal was a financial noose. But by now BML was so besotted with the idea of a cinema hall that he told his friends that he was ready to participate in the auction.
Either due to professional competitiveness or simply as a prank, many of BML’s neighbours who were scions of rich business families also participated in this auction. They so jacked up the auction price that a plot, which was estimated worth Rs 32,000, was finally bought by BML for Rs 6 lakh. In those days, it was a serious sum for a solo investor.
Despite this early reversal, BML hired the most exclusive architectural firm of N.K. Kothari Associates to design the cinema hall. Spread over 58,000 sq feet, the building drawings had an imposing columned façade and plush interiors with wide balconies and sweeping staircases. BML was soon bleeding from all sides and had to think out of the box ideas to save money. He purchased his own small truck to collect sand and loose concrete from wherever possible to make sure that construction work went on nonstop at neck break speed as per the conditions imposed in the original contract. He would sit all day hanging on the ‘balli’ or the bamboo support structure and lunch on frugal ‘gur channa gram’ that laborers had.
When he was finished with all the liquidity, he reached out to a well-off relative to borrow some more money. The relative briskly told him, “tete paav pasario jeti lambi saur”-don’t extend yourself beyond your means. The relative also offered to buy off the land to nudge BML away from the obsession of a ‘dream cinema hall.’ Instead of getting discouraged, the rebuke keyed up BML even more and he borrowed more money from institutional lenders like the Bombay Insurance Company. It seemed like a doomed mission.
Doomed mission turned film industry’s favourite
But the theatre building eventually got ready within the contract deadline. It had centralised air conditioning by Worthington of England, motorised velvet curtains by Wacha and Company, professional projection and sound systems by RCA Projectors along with a luxurious restaurant and recreation area for audiences. A hundred-rupee competition was held for selecting the name of this new cinema hall and a French name D’lite won. After some time, the French pronunciation was abandoned and a more chatty Delite became popular.
Soon the stars from the Hindi Film industry descended on the place. The Kapoor family, led by Prithviraj Kapoor, began to hold plays in the small theatre at the back. The first play ‘Yahudi ki Ladki’ was a runaway success. After a revitting performace, the audience would just not stop clapping. Prithviraj kapoor came out to bow to the audience and they threw hundreds of coins towards the actor as a sign of appreciation. After this memorable performance – it became a ritual for Prithviraj Kapoor to stand on a green ‘ chadar’ and bow to the audience.
The Kapoor family and their theatre artists so liked Delite Cinema that they would reside at the top floor of the building during rehearsals and while the live shows were on. The auditorium was also used for special events such as magic shows by renouned magician Gogia Pasha and also music concerts by eminent artists like Mukesh, which enthralled the Indian audiences who had never tasted such a fine selection of cultural buffet.
Actors Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor began to hold film premieres of their hits in Delite Cinema’s large auditorium.
The first film to premier was Angarey (1954) and then there was no stopping — Junglee (1961) Leader 1964), Wakt (1965), Arzoo (1965), Ankhen (1968) all were screened. The star cast of these mega hits would join in for cocktails and premiers. Photographers of Delhi would make a beeline for leading ladies like Nargis, Madhu Bala, Saira Banu, Vaijanti Mala, Asha Parekh and Sharmila Tagore. Huge crowds of fans smitten by stars would rush to the hall for months after release of a new film. Dashing heroes like Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor would keep things simmering by frequent visits to Delite Cinema. Audiences would go into a frenzy during their favourite scenes and even throw money at the cinema screen.
“The stars seemed larger than life but, at that time, they were really rooted and simple. I remember once Dharmendra visited the hall for a premier. After the show, he requested my father to drop him back at the Claridges hotel. As soon as Dharmendra sat in the car, a mob of fans surrounded the car and it seemed the vehicle would overturn. Dharmendra stepped out of the car and requested people to step back. When they didn’t listen and continued to jostle the car Dharmendra, being a strong athlete, picked sets of three people and bounced them off the car. It’s a funny memory I remember so clearly,” says Sashank Raizada, son of Brij Mohanlal Raizada.
While many other single screen theatres have packed up due to new market pressures, Delite Cinema continues to draw crowds from old Delhi who are still smitten by screen icons. When Salman Khan released his film London Dreams (2009), he actually stepped into the ticket counter at the entrance and sold the first few tickets as a humble gesture. And when the film My name is Khan (2013) was released, Shah Rukh Khan made a special visit to experience the euphoria of the audience. Akshay Kumar, Aishwarya Rai, and now new actors like Kiara Advani remain regular visitors to this iconic sticky brand cinema hall.
“Every time the hall sees a hit – I look at the surging crowds and remember my father’s junoon– his quest for excellence. Every success is one man making his dream come true.”
This article is a part of a series called BusinessHistories exploring iconic businesses in India that have endured tough times and changing markets. Read all articles here.