In an earlier column titled Star studded city, I wrote about Lahore’s film studios, cinemas and roving theatres in general. But visiting a modern Cineplex, a few days ago, motivated me to take my readers on an exclusive nostalgic trip to a Lahori cinema hall of yore.
Watching a film in movie theatres during the decade of the fifties was a great family treat. Those were the days when the city’s cinemas were divided into two distinct categories – ones that screened English films and the others that catered for vernacular tastes. Well known cinema houses that provided entertainment to English speaking audiences included Plaza on Queen’s Road, Regal on the junction of Temple Road and the Mall and Odeon on Abbot Road, while Nishat and Capital on Abbot Road and Sanober on Mcleod Road were known for their quality Urdu films. Malik Theatre outside Bhati Gate was another old cinema that screened Urdu and Punjabi movies for the public, consisting mostly of the walled city residents. Rex at the Borh Wala Chowk, Auriga in Gulberg and Alfalah on the Mall came up later, while there were others too that dotted the Lahori landscape, but could not be mentioned here for want of space.
The exterior of a typical movie theatre was adorned with life-size hoardings of the current attraction that were quite unlike the vulgar depictions one sees today. The foyers usually had a tea stall, a shop that sold potato chips, candy and cold drinks and a bookstall that displayed cheap novels and booklets containing texts of film songs. Some theatres in the pre-independence era also sold similar pocket-sized booklets that not only provided songs in text, but narrated the story of the film in a language so flowery that it would appear almost comical in the present day.
One could book seats in advance or buy tickets from the various windows just before the show. This latter option was at times fraught with risk in case the movie was a hit, and the small metal barred aperture was being mobbed by a crowd eager to secure a seat before the ‘house full’ board was displayed and the window closed. There were, however, a few lucky ones – friends or relatives of the owner or the distributor – who got free passes for the shows and sometimes free refreshments too.
The cinema hall was usually made up of a ground floor that sloped downwards towards the screen in easy steps. The lower class, lower dress circle and dress circle were on this floor. The lower class rows were nearest to the screen and cost 12 annas per seat. The lower dress circle ticket cost one rupee and eight annas and had slightly better chairs. The dress circle rows were in the rear of the hall and had more comfortable seats that cost two rupees and four annas. This was the class much favoured by many families, as they were far removed from the sometimes boisterous crowd sitting in the front rows.
An overhanging balcony that extended well above the ground floor was generally known as the upper class or simply ‘the balcony’. A seat cost two rupees and 10 annas and families could sit here and watch the film in relative luxury. It was the family boxes, however, that were the envy of all movie fans. These consisted of a row of small front open rooms in the rear of the balcony with sofas for six to eight persons and a lot of privacy. A seat here cost three rupees, but boxes were usually reserved as a whole unit. Uniformed bearers served drinks and packets of chips on the balcony during the interval, while sandwiches and tea were also served in boxes.
The show began with a news reel called Pakistan ka tasveeri khabarnama, followed by a few trailers and a cartoon. The main film then came on with an interval of about 15 minutes. The show then resumed till the movie was finished. The proceedings ended with playing of the national anthem with the Pakistani flag fluttering on the screen.
Cinema halls in those days showed 35 millimetre films and I still recall the excitement, when we went to watch the first cinema scope movie and much later the 80 millimetre Todd-AO projections, a technology first installed in Auriga Cinema for the Elizabeth Taylor epic Cleopatra.
As time went by, television followed by VCRs and in our time the DVD player gradually reduced movie hall audiences. The quality of films also deteriorated and the film industry all but died. With dwindling income, cinema hall owners began converting their properties into shopping plazas until mercifully, the advent of Cineplexes once again begun drawing people back to the wide silver screen thus resurrecting a good and healthy family past time.
Source: The Nation