Robin: A Cinema-Hall As My Neighbour
S.M. Faizan Ahmed
I would not have known about this cinema hall had one barber not told me about it. He was a middle-aged person. He was relating his experiences of going to the cinema shows and why he has not been going for the last 18 years. He said that 'now films can be seen sitting at home' and that 'now no good films are being produced and therefore one does not feel like watching them in halls.' In course of our conversation, he talked about Robin Cinema Hall (in Subzi Mandi), which got me curious enough to begin my research on it. It is a very old theatre, and people actually prefer calling it 'theatre' rather than a cinema hall. Its a very small and old hall and with few seats. The barber himself was referring to it as 'talkies', refusing to promote it as a hall.
No one seemed to know where Robin was located. I had to ask many people to finally get to it. It seemed that Robin was trying its best to keep its place - amidst small shops and by lanes. Far from what we imagine a cinema hall to be, a totally unimpressive building - is how i'll be first describe the building. Standing amidst the Subzi Mandi, Robin has somehow succeeded in entertaining people of certain type for the last seven decades. The appearance and the entrance are two of the most interesting features of Robin. It just does not look like a cinema hall. The road in front of the hall is perpetually crowded that one can't tell whether one is in a fish-bazar or near a cinema hall! Indeed, the smell of colonial experience is still there in its design and architecture. If you are new to this place, you will find it next to impossible to locate its name plate, which hangs from 'somewhere' just like the hotel names are displayed in Paharganj.
It's entrance gate is very interesting. On the left side of the passage, black-and-white pictures of the artists of the yesteryears may be seen - Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Madhubala, Manoj Kumar, Meena Kumari and others. And on the right side are the coloured photographs of artists of the 1980s and 90s like Govinda, Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor. At present 512 people can sit in the hall. There are in all 13 employees and a manager. Robin is carrying on with its 35mm screen for a long time without any serious problems. No attention has been paid to the sound system and beautification of the hall. Officially, the cinema halls are connected with many of the government departments like fire-brigade, health, electricity, construction, police, etc. So this theatre is also connected with them. Besides, the owner of the theatre has employed a booker on Rs. 4000/- a month, who looks after the purchase and sale of the films and their weekly shows. Although he operates from Bhagirath Place he is not fully independent regarding the purchase, sale etc of the films. The owner must be informed before the purchase and its show must have his permission. Robin does not show mainstream films. Films of Govinda, Mithun, Kimi Katkar and the likes, are shown more frequently. So the theatre attracts the ordinary people more than the gentry. The names of the films are often changed and the three things kept in mind while making the posters are: popular artists, sex and violence. The manager of the hall - Bhardwaj says that "the gentry does not come here at all. That is why the mainstream films or the new films are not shown here. 'Hum Apke Hain Kaun', 'Kamasutra' and 'Satya'--all these three films were a flop here." Bhardwaj has been in this work for the last 18 years. He started his life in cinema industry as a gate-keeper in the Vivek Hall. Then in moved to Alankar, Batra and Alpana, and now he is in Robin. He was with Batra since the very beginning. He is shouldering responsibilities of the senior manager in Robin for the last 4-5 years. He says that he has the experience of more than 30 years in this line. He can say with confidence that at least half of the cinema hall owners of Delhi know him personally.
With the passing of time, I established relations with the employees of the Robin theatre. We began discussing in detail about their lives. During this time I got comfortable with Omprakashji. He's a multi-tasker, from a carpenter to doing odd technical jobs. From booking tickets, looking after electricity arrangements to as supervisor, etc, he does it all. Although he was selected for the Indian Navy, he could not join because his parents did not allow. He had to let the opportunity go. He then joined Robin cinema in 1970. He was confirmed in 1974. During that time a labour union was organised in Delhi. He worked with two Cinema hall owners after 1974. About Robin and its surroundings, Omprakash says that "the biggest mandi of Asia, Azadpur, was earlier here. Later on the factory was closed down, and many Biharis went away. It was due to them that the cinema was running." About the high gentry not coming here, he says, "Yes, traders and seths used to come to see the dance; poor people could not come because they had no money. Earlier it had only one floor but now it has three floors. At that time there were only 8 or 9 cinema halls in the whole of Delhi. We were looked upon by the people as officers and the manager as Daroga." Going deeper into the history of Robin, he told that "the full name of Robin theatre was Blue Bird Theatre... Dances used to be organised earlier, of Live Kay (he was perhaps referring to a form of English dance). When the Blue Birds began to show 'talking films' it began to be called Robin Talkies." According to Omprakashji, Robin was the son of the British owner of the Blue Bird theatre. While leaving this country at the time of India's independence, he handed over the ownership of the theatre to Prof Basheshwar Dayal Mathur. Prof Mathur used to teach in Delhi University. He also used to teach Robin. Later the hall was sold to P.S. Jain. It was during his time that Omprakashji came in contact with Ronin theatre. P.S. Jain was one of the famous builders of Delhi. When he bought this hall, the owner of Chanakya cinema Sh. Rajesh Kahnna was also interested, but he could not get it. Then the ownership of Robin passed on to Sh. Nanak Singh Singhani. At present his son Sh. Prakash Singh Singhani is looking after the hall. Actually, he got it in inheritance after the property was divided.
The cinema hall is for sale at present. But it is unable to elicit adequate price. A few months ago, somebody was ready to pay Rs. 5 crores but Singhaniji did not want to sell. According to Omprakashji, Singhani saheb perhaps wanted Rs. 6 crores. Singhaniji's own story is as complicated as that of Robin cinema. In brief, he once used to be the owner of Priya cinema, which is at present owned by Ajay Bijli. Long ago, Singhniji also used to be in the business of film distribution. He also had his own company known as Arti Traders. Everything was going well until a tragedy occurred. He bought the film Razia Sultan, which was the costliest film of its time. Unfortunately, the film proved to be a flop within a week. Singhaniji had to close down his distribution company, and since then he has not entered this field of business. Now he takes every step very carefully. According to the manager, he had 'rights' to some 20-30 films including the film 'Pakeeza'.
When we began discussing the present times and the technologies, the projector operator of the hall said, "In those days, a family owning a radio was considered a well of family. In early days, films used to be shown with gramophone. If somebody threw a coin in the middle of a film, the block of the film would get burnt." Due to lack of my technical knowledge, I could not fully understand these things. But I do remember incidents whereby film reels have got burnt while the film was being screened.
While roaming around Robin cinema hall, I often was drawn back to the olden days, particularly those connected with the most important days of India's independence. This area is made up of two types of migrants - refugees from Pakistan, and those coming from various parts of the country in search of jobs. Most of them are 'Biharis'. 'Bihari' not necessarily means the one coming from Bihar or with relations from Bihar. If one is ready to sell one's labour, he/she is a Bihari! The lanes around Robin's neighbourhood are narrow and seem never-ending. They resemble the 'settlement patterns' of Shahjehanabad. It seems that the houses are literally falling on to one another. One of the gates in these lanes has an engraving which says:'Ganesh Giridharilal Acharwale'. This raised some questions in my mind but so far I have been unable to get any clear answers. Perhaps because the gate belongs to the pre-independence period, and those living at present have mostly come as refugees from Pakistan. The original residents are not so old as to satisfy my curiosity. My question was that though most of the people living here were Muslims (as the respondents agreed), why and how do they have Hindu names? And if the area was Hindu, how did the migrants got a place here? But another interesting thing about the lanes could be seen. Many entry points of the lanes have urinals. They appeared to have been constructed only recently, and only for men. I do not know why. Perhaps because they serve two types of places, residential and market. Then there are some other lanes, at whose entry-points are, not the urinals, but some wall-writings and sign-boards. Most of them relate to cleanliness or traffic directions. But some of them are like this: 'Look, the ass is pissing!' Some others too are not so official e.g., 'It is strictly prohibited to park cycle or scooter in the lane; otherwise they will be picked up or their tyres will be deflated'. These writings and slogans play an important role in the daily life of the lanes. Perhaps that is the way the social organisation asserts itself here.
There is one more bazaar adjacent to the Sabji Mandi, known as Kamla Nagar. Within its area is situated Amba cinema. Founded in 1963, it is still in operation. But there is world of difference between Robin and Amba, and between Kamla Nagar and Subzi Mandi. They are only one km apart, but both the areas and both the cinema halls are distintctly different from each other. One is cheap, the other quite costly; one is old, the other new; one is high-living, the other lower level, and so on. The lives in the two are different from each other. Subzi Mandi surroundings reflect more stable kind of 'haat' or bazaar. Everything of use can be found here. Vegetables, motor parts, some other place pins and threads, exchange of old coins, and in some places valuable gold and silver, grocery, eatables, in some places you will find 'pakoras' being sold and in others 'chuski' (a kind of ice-cream) on the hand-driven carts. In this confusion of the market, all sorts of cheatings and dealings go on. Most of the old shops sell duplicate articles. You will get Lux, Rexona, Dove, Lifebuoy, Vim and other soaps, not the real ones but their duplicates. Packings are just like the original. Beauty cosmetics like Boroline, Fair & Lovely, lipsticks, Ponds cream and all sorts of perfumes can also be found here. Real and duplicates are sold in large numbers together.
I got to know a police constable Anand Kumar during my 'Robin campaign'. He was on duty in Subzi Mandi police station. He was on duty those days in the cinema hall. For the first two months we just looked at each other. He did not understand my repeated visits to the cinema, nor did I want to provoke him as a policeman. At last he could not resist, and one day, as soon as I entered, he said, "Oh, come, come; how are you?" I said I was okay, and our conversation began. I asked the purpose of his visiting the cinema hall. "To check the goondaism", came the reply. I said, "but there is no goondaism now-a-days in the cinema halls." He replied, "Of course, there is; who says there isn't? We control pick-pocketeers and drunkards; we keep a watch." There was a time, when this area was famous for its crimes. Every type of crime was committed in this area. Extortion, killings, and abductions were the order of the day. Even now pick-pocketing and snatchings take place."
The posters of the Robin cinema target the ordinary people, no the gentry. Therefore they emphasise three aspects: sex, violence, and the experiences of rural and urban lives. The films in Robin indicate that the cinema hall is passing through a transition period. It is shifting from the films depicting the rural and urban lives to sex and violence. Usually, the different government departments inspect the hall every year. Just before the inspectionwas due last year, Robin was repaired and renovated. New posters took the place of the old ones. These posters included those of Dharmendra's film Chunauti, Mira Nair's Kamasutra, and another film titled Bhootraj. In the poster of Bhootraj, along with some scenes aimed at frightening the onlooker, a sexy woman is also shown. Some posters of foreign films displaying provocative and sexy scenes are still respectfully hung there, like American Pyar, Hot Chilli, Alexandra: the beauty queen, etc. On one of the posters it was written: "First, love with a beautiful girl, then gang-rape, come and see..." Another poster sought to use the fame of Sholay; it writes: "Basanti's wedding amd Gabbar's honeymoon!" These posters with various slogans are nothing new for Robin. Hundreds of such posters pass through Robin, and it does not matter.
Generally, rickshaw-pullers, cart-pullers and daily wage workers come to Robin to watch films. But sometimes some mad men and drunkards can also be seen in the front stalls clapping and shouting. Though attempts are made to prevent their entry but that is a rather difficult job. If troubled too much, they go to the manager straight-away, and succeed in getting permission. So it appears that the hall is a good entertainment place. According to the manager, "There are at least 10 to 12 viewers who are not bothered as to what film is screened here. They all live nearby. Somebody is a wrestler in the akhada (local gymnasium) or someone else sells coconut pieces. They just drop in whenever they feel like."
Young people can be seen roaming around the hall. Even if they do not see the films, they certainly find time to come and have a look at the posters with their friends. One young man said clearly, "This sooths our eyes." As we have already mentioned, the posters display sex, violence and rural and urban lives. These reflections somehow indicate a trend towards modernity. That is why perhaps they try to identify themselves with these trends in this manner. But the important thing is that these glimpses of the posters is like an interval in their long daily routine. They feel somewhat relaxed during this interval. One rickshaw-puller made things clear by saying that "when we come here for a few moments we feel fresh and tension-free."
The events during the intervals of the films in Robin are no less interesting. One of the most interesting things is arrival of the mass of pheriwalas who shout the names and prices and qualities of their items rhythmically: 'three rupees, three rupees, three rupees...puri-sabji three rupees, laddu-samosa one rupee... and so on. You will find unique brands of tobacco and cigarettes not available elsewhere. You will also find brands of cool drinks similar to those of coke, pepsi, limca, etc, and that too in three rupees only! Their prices rise and fall according to the response of the customers. So no rules and everything arbitrary. Most of these items are produced nearby and consumed here itself.
In conclusion, one may say that this is the age of multiplex and 'complete amusement centres', for the gentry. It is being said that the audiences of the multiplexes have no objection to covering long distances to reach them. In the midst of all these, there is one cinema hall, Robin, which stands in the middle of the crowd catering to the local populace. Whether it is the special audience of Robin or the population around, they uncover the cultural contradictions of the city and are quite successful in that. When Bhardwaj ji of Robin says that subzi mandi has gone to Azadpur or factories have closed down or the Biharis have left, he reflects the changing residential, market, cultural, social, economic and structural processes and the extent of their changes. In the coming years the changing aspects will certainly present new dimensions of the urban life.