Cinemas play an integral role in our cities, showcasing films that serve as a ‘barometer of the times’, reflecting and challenging social, cultural and political shifts, while also transporting people out of their daily realities into a world of fantasy. Jaipur’s Raj Mandir single screen cinema, with its neon tagline “Showplace of the Nation – Experience the Excellence”, is as dreamlike as the Bollywood movies it screens daily. Despite its regal appearance it provides a place where the gap between India’s rich and poor subsides, where the disparities of social status and circumstance are subdued, even if only fleetingly. Following 10 years of meticulous construction, Raj Mandir finally opened in 1976. The vision of Shri Mehtab Chandra Golcha, a jeweller and a dreamer, his intent was to create an experience that would “transcend the boundaries of traditional cinema, treating all its visitors as royal guests at a palace”.
To truly understand the splendour of the Raj Mandir, one needs to appreciate the city it inhabits. Jaipur, the capital of India’s Rajasthan district, is known as the “Pink City”. A city literally splashed with pink (the colour of hospitality), it was originally painted in 1876 to welcome British royalty. This welcoming spirit can still be felt today and contributes greatly to the Jaipur’s appeal for both locals and visitors.
“The joyously indulgent experience of going to the movies in India is only amplified when you realise you are sharing the screen with a full house of 1,300 people”
The Raj Mandir has become the “Pink City’s” gracious host. Designed by architects V.M. Namjoshi and celebrated as the “Pride of Asia”, the Raj Mandir’s salmon-coloured postmodern facade is reminiscent of the stylistic strokes within a Wes Anderson film, unveiling an interior built like an opera house. Upon entry, one is greeted with beautiful chaos, as streams of people weave their way through the cinema’s grand foyer; at the centre, a domed ceiling is elaborately decorated with star-dappled skylights and mesmerising chandeliers echoing Hollywood’s golden age. The excitement is palpable, entering the main auditorium, frequently described as a ‘giant meringue’, we are welcomed with swirls of sculpted plaster motifs wrapped in neon lights, and a screen (23 m x 16 m) decadently draped with ruched red velvet.
The joyously indulgent experience of going to the movies in India is only amplified when you realise you are sharing the screen with a full house of 1,300 people, and, as is to be expected of any royal setting, everyone must rise for the national anthem. There are five sections of seating, each denoted by a gemstone, ranging in price from AU$1.50–$4, with the diamond representing the dress circle seats. But, the best seats in the house are really the closest to the screen, where families eat from their aromatic ‘tiffin picnics’ and give audience participation a new dimension – cheering, crying and dancing, as the film oscillates between classic Bollywood themes of love, despair, cruelty and redemption.
By the time intermission breaks, it is easy to understand the power and pull of film in a country defined by extremes, where 21% of its population live below the poverty line. The films at the Raj Mandir might not be sophisticated works of art, but they represent an industry which has been likened to the influence and power of religion, which according to film critic Deepa Basti “manufactures and nourishes the escapist aspirations of its people and country”. With over 2,336 feature films made in 2016, and 16,000 cinemas visited by over 14 million people daily, cinema-going represents a moment in time which brings the people and their many cultures together.
Bhuramal Rajmal Surana
Shenaz Engineer is a Researcher & Strategist at Right Angle Studio. A Brisbane local, her innate curiosity and fascination for cities has seen her live across Amsterdam, Shanghai, New York, Paris and now Sydney. With a background in both business and design, she continues to collaborate with visionaries from different industries across the world, and has received both national and international awards for her work. Fascinated by the intersection of culture, architecture, health and technology, she is passionate about creating inclusive cities and crafting places for people.
All photography by Nitiraj Singh