Mission Delhi – Mukti Ram Parajuli, Delite Cinema
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Tuesday afternoon. The balcony lobby is quiet. An attentive ear may hear the muffled sounds of film dialogues coming from inside the theatre’s thick doors. The day’s first show of Thalaivi is in progress, here in Delite cinema. And Mukti Ram Parajuli, manning the snack counter, is gearing up for the 10-minute interval that will begin shortly.
Mr Parajuli, 49, joined this landmark theatre as an attendant in 1992. Since then many film halls in the city have become history, or given way to teeny-weeny multiplexes. But the sprawling world of his Delite with its wood-panelled walls, stately staircases, and heavy chandeliers appears unaltered. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, explains the current attendance of only about two dozen people in the 358-seater balcony. It also explains the white ribbons tied to alternate chairs in the cinema’s canteen (to ensure physical distancing). It also explains Mr Parajuli’s masked face, and the pink plastic badge clipped to his shirt button that says, “Fully vaccinated.”
In the pre-pandemic era, the snack counter teemed with people—it serves Delhi’s biggest samosa (called Maha Samosa). Last year, when the theatres were obliged to suspend screenings just before the first coronavirus-triggered lockdown in March, Mr Parajuli immediately left for his village in Nepal “because it’s better to be with your own family in a crisis like this.” That was the first time in many decades that he got the opportunity to stay for six continuous months with wife, two daughters, one son, two buffaloes and three goats. “I spent the period farming my small agricultural land,” even as his conscientious employers in Delhi wired him his salary every month without fail. Mr Parajuli returned to the city in October, but rushed back again following the lockdown during the second wave in April this year. These trips to home have never been simple. “I first have to board the express train, which takes 13 hours to reach Gorakhpur. Then I have to board the roadways bus to Sonauli, which takes three hours. Then I have to cross the international border by foot into Nepal, where I have to board the bus to the hills, which takes six hours to reach Bagnaskali Darpuk, my village.” Mr Parajuli returned in July; the cinema reopened a month later.
Meanwhile, the “interval” clocks in. No customary rush of footsteps into the lobby follows. “Things should become better with newer releases,” he mutters optimistically. “In fact, the attendance was good last Sunday.”
Mr Parajuli’s shift will end at midnight, he says, explaining the layout of his typical day. He will be back at the counter the next morning at 11. With the times continuing to be abnormal, the snack counter attendant expresses relief that “at least my routine is returning to normalcy.”
[This is the 430th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
The show is going on