NEW DELHI -- It was 1:30 AM when we staggered out of the theatre, after a four-hour film that was far too long even by Bollywood standards. But the show wasn't over yet. The cheering and singing that had started as our movie — Raj Kapoor's first colour film Sangam — ended on Thursday night, continued as members of the audience, some 500 of them, poured out into the streets in front of Connaught Place's Regal Cinema.
Their voices rose in song together as they walked down the stairs to the lobby, where television cameras stood waiting to capture the moment. The curtains were coming down on Regal's swan song after 85 years, as multiplexes captured the imagination of the upwardly-mobile middle class, with their plush theatres and world-class services. Regal's closing, in a way, spelt the death knell for the cheap stall tickets.
"Yeh mera prem patra padh kar ke tum naraz na hona ki tum meri zindagi ho, ki tum meri bandagi ho," the crowd sang, the lyrics from the film they had just seen. Most of them had come to watch "one last show" at Regal, before it was closed for being structurally unsafe.
The mood was of a carnival. A married couple closing in on their fiftieth wedding anniversary recalled coming to the theatre together in their youth. They had travelled from Ghaziabad to catch the last show. A father hoisted his daughter on his shoulders as he walked around the lobby for one last time, helping her soak in the history before it was gone. Camera phones were whipped out to take selfies. The theatre — usually silent and empty by this time — buzzed with activity.
Citing "popular demand", the theatre owners had decided to screen Mera Naam Joker and Sangam as the last two shows at Regal on Thursday. For those who visited Regal in its best years, these Raj Kapoor films held tremendous nostalgic value — after all, the Bollywood superstar was one of the theatre's best patrons, frequently holding premieres and special screenings of his films there. So it wasn't surprising when both shows ran almost house-full on Thursday.
"I came to watch this show because they are playing Sangam and it's the last film," said Sunil Sehgal, while standing in queue for the show to begin on Thursday night. "The first movie I saw here was Mughal-e-Azam." Sehgal recalled watching many films at Regal with his wife, the last being Maachis in 1996. More than two decades later, the couple was back to catch the last show.
The last screening at Regal attracted many who had stopped watching films at theatres long ago. "I don't like movies anymore," said a 74-year-old, who gave her name as Mrs Misra. "But I was very excited for this show." This is unlike years ago, when she would go with her husband every Sunday, watching the latest releases.
"They would feel safe, even about watching late night shows, when the so-called gentry would come here," her daughter Vinita, who accompanied her for the last show on Thursday, said. "It is nostalgic for us because as kids we would also come here, drink coffee, eat ice cream cones. It's a way to hold on to history."
For Meera Makhija, the strongest memory of Regal was of watching Junglee with her mother. It was 1961 and the then-19-year-old remembered her mother jumping on the chair, copying the star Shammi Kapoor, who was up on the big screen. "The last film I saw here was 30 years back," she said. "Then six months ago, we came here to watch Dangal because we knew the theatre would be closing down soon." On Thursday, the 77-year-old was back with her daughters to watch the theatre's last show.
Even though getting a ticket for the last show had proved hard for most — the online tickets were booked in a flash, and there were queues at Regal for the rest of the tickets — the audience was not in a hurry to walk into the hall. Many of them had seen Sangam several times, and sauntered in even half an hour after the film had started. Ushers with torches pointed to seats with their lights; there were no seat numbers, only seat types — balcony, box, rear stall, front stall. Huge fans circulated stale air in the high-ceilinged hall — air conditioning never arrived at Regal, and the open exit doors were a welcome relief.
No one appeared to mind the bad audio, the discoloured film print, the creaky seats and the dank smell of sweat and urine in the air — the audience was determined to have a good time, and a good time was had. Hoots and cheers greeted Raj Kapoor's re-entry after his "death" in the film, each song was hummed appreciatively, and four hours and two intervals later, the theatre resounded with applause.
As the men and women who had decided to spend a Thursday night watching the last day, last show at Regal filtered out, Delhi at night didn't feel so unsafe, and momentarily, you felt transported to another time, another era. A Bengali family watched other fans pull out posters to take home as keepsakes. The Banerjees had visited Regal for decades, and watched two shows at the theatre this week, for memory's sake. What did the theatre have over multiplexes?
"It's a homely affair," Sidhiyan Banerjee said, before disappearing into the night with the many fans who had shared this night together.
Also On HuffPost: