Delhiwale: The tomb of a single-screen

Old Delhi is all Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. No argument about that. But it has at least one link to Latin, too. Here’s a landmark named after the Latin for “higher”— Excelsior.

The single screen Cinema Excelsior stands on the main street of the congested Lal Kuan. The film theatre has been closed for many years, and now it exists like those anonymous Lodhi-era tombs littered across the city — it too stirs a fleeting curiosity for a way of life that is no more. This morning, a dog is lounging outside the locked metal grilles. A maze of power cables is hanging just above. The side panels are plastered with old movie posters, so tattered that it feels like they’ve been peeled off, put into a shredder, and pasted back again.

Peer through the grilles to see the lobby inside. A splash of colours! Walls in green and grey. Red hoardings outlined in glowing yellow. A narrow staircase snuggling up into a corridor of sea blue.

If only it was possible to squeeze through the grills and move about the lobby. It would then be like magically entering into a modernist painter’s three-dimensional art work.

There’s also another set of staircase, very broad and imposing, emanating a silence that seems extremely fragile. As if the movie were soon to be over and that hundreds of footsteps were about to thunder on the steps on their way out.

But this is only a small portion of the Excelsior, and doesn’t give a complete sense of the cinema hall’s majestic scope. To experience its true scale, you have to walk further ahead and turn left.

The narrow alley trundles through a tunnel-like gallery, covered with a pair of arches. It opens into a much wider space, with a view of the theatre spread out to a great distance. The building’s yellow paint coating has faded off at various places, revealing the bricks beneath. A thick tall column graces a small flight of chipped steps — they resemble the segments of those old buildings one finds in the mansions of north Calcutta—evoking that familiar feel of dilapidated aristocracy.

An arched window is framed towards the top, but it is blocked up with bricks as if some nihilist wanted to purposely destroy its straightforward beauty.

Cinema Excelsior opened in 1938, and shut down in early 2016, according to Ziya Us Salam, author of the book Delhi 4 Shows: Talkies of Yesteryear. The last movie to be screened here was Deewana, he informs.

There used to be another single-screen cinema nearby: the Chawri Bazaar Metro station stands in the place of ‘New Amar’.

At the moment this alley is empty, save for a very ill-looking, very untidy mud-stained cat sitting atop a lamp post — she is intently watching at a pigeon perched on a power cable. A monkey suddenly appears and the cat escapes by jumping on the theatre’s roof.

The cinema’s pediment has its name printed in Urdu script as well as in Roman, or Latin—obviously.

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