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Good girls go to cinema

Cinemas in Delhi wooed women viewers with a special box section where they could watch a film without the male gaze 

Cinemas in Delhi wooed women viewers with a special box section where they could watch a film without the male gaze 

In her autobiography, A Country Called Childhood, Deepti Naval ends the prologue with her grandmother’s advice for girls in Amritsar, ‘No little girls from good homes ever go out to cinemas on the street!’ That was in Amritsar. And the words were spoken by a lady from a generation when ‘good girls’ neither went to watch a movie nor act in it. In Delhi, women have been smarter, and the cinema halls more accommodating towards their female patrons.

In the years gone by, it was not easy for a single woman to go to watch a film. Not only was it considered unsafe, it also had a degree of social disapproval attached to the act. The die-hard fans of cinema that they were, women often found safety in numbers. They would gather in a group of six to watch a film at a cinema, neither too close, nor too far from their homes.

The ones in immediate proximity were shunned to avoid being recognised by any neighbour or acquaintance. The ones at a considerable distance were ruled out as not many women could drive or risk being out for long hours. Realizing they had a ready audience which needed just a little encouragement, many single screen cinemas in Delhi started building separate boxes for their women audiences.

The box would be a separate enclosure altogether with its own entry and exit points. Here the women could watch the film without the prying male gaze. Many came in with their children. Occasionally, a family with husband, wife and children could be seen too, though men, even accompanied by their wives, were not exactly welcomed. There were several instances when the usher would open the door in the middle of the movie just to check on the men! Some cinemas even priced the box tickets slighter higher than the balcony.

It all started with Regal cinema built in 1932 in Connaught Place. The cinema, known as the favourite of Raj Kapoor and Shyam Benegal, used to have a 12-seater box, just a few steps from the photo gallery. It had high wooden panels on two sides and entry and exit doors at the back. It gave women the big screen experience even as they sat in a family atmosphere with their friends. The box was much prized and often tickets were sold out in advance.

Then there was Ritz cinema near inter-state bus terminus, and not too far from the Nigambodh Ghat, better known as a cremation ground. There is an interesting tale related to it. When Ritz opened back in 1932 (it was called Capital then before being called Ritz in 1942) there were several nay-sayers who believed that a cinema could not work close to a cremation ground. The proprietors believed otherwise, and insisted that forget the Ghat, a cinema near ISBT would not only catch the floating crowd of daily passengers, it would also not be too far from the famed Chandni Chowk theatres.

A view of Ritz Cinema in Delhi.

Well, Ritz worked, and worked well. It too had a box for women audiences, so confident was the management that not only men but women too would be willing to come to this theatre. Realizing that going to Jagat or Excelsior came with the attendant danger of running into a nosy neighbour, women would gather at the ladies only park, Purdah Bagh, near Daryaganj. Once they had assembled there, they would hop onto a tonga or a cycle rickshaw to go to Ritz.

Interestingly, many Muslim women used to arrive at Purdah Bagh in a burqa, take off the hijab there and go to watch a film. On their way back, they once again, stopped at Purdah Bagh, donned their burqa, and went home. All was considered fair and fine. Thanks in part to women audiences, films like Noorie (1979) and Pyar Jhukta Nahin (1985) had a jubilee run here.

Jagat, which was run by the same management as Ritz, used to have a small box too. Located close to Jama Masjid, Jagat specialised in playing Muslim socials till the ‘70s. It had among its patrons traditional nawab families of Old Delhi, the men would arrive in a tonga, the women in a palanquin, and were escorted directly to the box to watch films such as Shama, Dayar-e-Madina and Pakeezah. Such was the charm of movie watching!

It was not just the cinemas in Connaught Place or Old Delhi that women enjoyed the privilege of watching a film in privacy. Even in supposedly downtown halls like Samrat and Gagan, which came up only in the early 1980s, there was a similar facility. These halls usually catered to blue collar workers, played masala entertainers and consequently, not many women came to take in a movie here.

Not willing to lose out on a significant section of audiences, the cinemas built separate boxes for women where they could sit without the ubiquitous male gaze. The cinemas, though, largely showed action films and few women found the fare to their taste. The boxes were often deserted. Soon, the boxes made way for ‘noble’ category for women. In ‘noble’ category, two front rows were reserved for women in the balcony section.

While such moves helped, they were never the complete solution. On weekends, there were many more women viewers than a box could accommodate. So, single screen cinemas from the early ‘80s, started having separate queues for women at the advance booking counter, and also at the time of admission.

The decision pleased the women but did not go down well with many men as there were unique spectacles of a hundred men standing in a queue for a ticket while there would be just a dozen or so women in their row! Some men were smarter. They would walk up to the ladies’ row, and request if a lady could procure a couple of tickets for them too! Often, this surreptitious deal went unnoticed. 

That was in another era, many years before online bookings started, and beginning with Anupam in 1997, the multiplexes became a way of life. Today, only a solitary Ritz here or a Gagan there, offers the abiding nostalgia of watching a film on the big screen from relative seclusion. Regal, Jagat, Samrat and the rest all downed their shutters. The show has long since been over.

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