After watching a movie how many of us care to remember the name of the director of the film? Such is the fate of all those who toil behind the scenes to bring the big, 70 mm screen to life. Not that successful entrepreneur, Jaspal Singh Sawhney would mind this time tested, prioritization of public memory and taste. There are those who sing and dance around trees and bring the big screen to life. And there are those who plan and strategise to set up these big screens, create comfortable seating for the public, provide top quality projection and sound systems, even take care of the popcorn and Pepsi to make your and my visit to a theatre, near us, memorable. Men like Jaspal Singh Sawhney. The man behind the iconic Plaza cinema in Connaught Place, Delhi of today.
The tryst between Jaspal and Plaza cinema has its roots in the Peshawar of pre – independent India. To find out more and get a sense of the evolution of the Plaza story, we met Jaspal at his well known, popular Italian restaurant, Tonino at MG road, mid – way between Delhi and Gurugram. We all settled for a delicious Italian meal with hearty Punjabi appetites. Over succulent mouthfuls of grilled fish and Italian spaghetti, cooked in red sauce, Jaspal took us on a journey from Peshawar to the iconic shopping centre of Connaught Place where Plaza cinema is situated.
The Sawhneys were an entrepreneurial family who hailed from Peshawar. Jaspal’s father had already made his name in the trucking business having contracts with the British army in Iran and in Assam.The inevitability of partition ushered in suffering and pain of an unimaginable scale. The Sawhneys moved to Delhi and the city, in those post partition days, was stricken with de – humanizing suffering. Jaspal recalls that they had to force their way into a three-room apartment at Roshnara road. The city was only just recovering from the ravages of communities turned against each other. After getting the possession of the house, the families could move in only after the men had cleared out the rotting bodies of members of one community and the women swept the blood off the floor.
The Sawhneys, settled in the new city and soon found their rhythm in a business sense and the family thrived. By the age of thirty-five, Jaspal’s elder brother Joginder, along with his Uncle Antar Singh, was ready to invest in a new sunrise business. The opportunity for an unconventional but promising business came their way when the Sawhneys came to know that Keiki Modi was looking to sell Minerva theatre in Bombay and Plaza cinema in Delhi.
Keiki Modi was brother of cinema pioneer and film thespian, Sohrab Modi. The Modis owned many theatres all over the country, but the business was not being managed well. Keiki Modi was in debt.While, Jaspal and his brothers’ families were in Delhi, their uncle Antar Singh was in Bombay. He was a film financier and, in a sense, knew the industry well. Antar Singh was known as ‘Chachaji’ in the film trade and thespians like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Sunil Dutt were his friends.Antar Singh lived in a spacious flat on Marine drive in Bombay. The flat opposite his belonged to the doyen of the film industry, FC Mehra. Mehra under his banner of Eagle Films was a name to reckon with in those days. He was acknowledged as a shrewd film maker who contained costs and delivered hit after hit. Some of films that became all-time hits included ‘Professor’, ‘SohniMahiwal, Ram Jane, and ‘Mujrim.’ Mehra in the film trade was popularly known as ‘Mamaji’. As luck would have it, Chachaji and Mamaji became great buddies. When Keiki Modi’s cinemas were in financial trouble, Mehra, Antar and Joginder decided to look deeper. The fourth person who joined this partnership was a man called Gurdial Singh who Jaspal fondly describes as being the ‘Mechanical Man.’
The term ‘Mechanical’ in a large hearted, Punjabi way adequately describes Gurdial Singh. He was theirneighbourin Roshanara Road and was a self-made man. Gurdial was a man who knew all about motors, trucks, spare parts and all manner of Mechanical things. This was also a man who was determined to make a profit where he saw one. Gurdial had already made a tiny fortune for himself servicing the British army’s trucking needs for their war effort in Iran. Gurdial provided all kinds of services for trucking runs that traversed the vast distance between Peshawar and Iran.
All these four men in their mid – thirties were flush with funds and confidence andwere willing to invest in the next big thing. They immediately bonded because they all hailed from NWFP and they all believed in living life to the full, in a large hearted, Punjabi way. Jaspal was much younger than them but he remembers the many evenings of the four elders, bonding over drinks and playing cards.
Perhaps, over a game of cards and after a few rounds of the Punjabi favourite – Scotch, the four partners decided to buy off Minerva and Plaza from Keiki Modi. It was at this time that the Group of Four acquired their fifth partner. F C Mehra and Shammi Kapoor were colleagues as well as friends. Mehra wanted to bring in Shammi Kapoor as the fifth partner. Though it meant that all the four partners had to reduce their share of holdings, the lure of the actor-star proved enough for them to do so. Each reduced his share of holding and Shammi Kapoor became a partner in the venture.
There is a very interesting story behind their purchase of these two properties. The four partners were not happy with just one cinema which was on the block. After agreeing to the price set for Minerva in Bombay, they asked Modi if he wanted to sell another of his cinema properties. Reeling under debt, Modi offered Plaza Cinema in Delhi. However, the price for Plaza was much more than Minerva.
Jaspal tells the story of how the four partners went to meet Modi at his office at Asaf Ali Road in Delhi. The two partners stayed in the car and sent the other two up to the office to negotiate. Mehra, one of the negotiators, played hard ball and refused to agree to the price offered by Modi. The negotiations went on for hours and the other two partners sweated it out, sitting in the car. They finally saw Mehra and Joginder coming down the stairs. Both did not look very happy. They told the waiting partners that the price was too high.
But the thought of acquiring Plaza cinema had struck all of them. After some hasty consultations they decided that Plaza was worth the money they would spend on it. Mehra and Joginder were sent packing right back to Modi’s office to close the deal.
But the men involved in the purchase still had to complete the last mile run before the transaction came into effect. Plaza cinema was mortgaged as Modi needed money. The title deed, therefore, was not with him. The partners did not want to pay the sale money to Modi as they were not sure if he, in turn, would pay his debtors!
It was then the four partners hit upon an idea that created ripples in the business world and legal community of that time. They took special permission from the High Court and withdrew thirty lakhs in cash (worth probably 300 crores now) from the bank. The bank, incidentally, had been given a notice of seven days to keep the cash ready. The cash was escorted by armed guards to the High Court premises and the cash deal of the purchase of Plaza took place under the aegis of the High Court!
This was a sensational development and it finally appeared that the deal was through, but, wait! There’s more to come! The deal was transacted in May 1964, but Plaza cinema was on contract with Twentieth century Fox till 31st December of that year. Question was would Fox release the cinema to the partners on due date?
Fortunately, Fox kept to their word and all decks were cleared for Plaza cinema to begin operations under the new management.
The advent of the ‘Yahoo ‘star had redoubled the fortunes of the project. Shammi had the lowest stake but due to his star charisma and sagacity he was chosen to chair the partner meetings! The image of Shammi Kapoor as a sober, strategizing businessman boggles the imagination!
In 1968, the partners renovated the cinema with the latest 70mm technology screen and sound system and seating. To showcase their refurbished cinema the partners planned a grand opening. Top corporate heads from Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers came to attend the grand opening and gala dinner. Seven brand new Hollywood movies from these studios were screened for seven days for the public. Blockbuster films like ‘How to steal a million’ and the racy, ‘Blow Hot Blow Cold’ were screened. Nothing like this and on this scale had ever been attempted before in Indian cinema. The cherry on the cake was the arrival of the famed Hollywood actress, Shirley MacLaine for the gala dinner held atJoginder’s,Friends colony, residence.
Those were the heydays of Plaza cinema and its triumphant march continued in the coming years. In 2003, the cinema hall again shut down for renovation and it resumed screenings in 2004. But as time and tide await no one, the movie business and especially the business of screening movies had gone through a massive change. The era of the multiplex theatre had dawned and Jaspal understood it was time to exit the business and make way to a more professional management that could run films in the changed environment. The trick was to outsource the business yet retain strategic control over the real estate.
Jaspal advised the partners on his line of thinking and they all accepted his advice. Plaza was leased to PVR for nine years and the ground floor was leased to Piccadilli Delhi restaurant. The lease with PVR continues to this day and the ground floor has nowbeen leased to the retail giant, Marks and Spencer.
As we sipped our coffees and talked to Jaspal about the screening business he was quick to acknowledge that Plaza was no longer the milch cow for the family or any of the partners. However, the Plaza cinema is the calling card of all the partners. All five partners, now represented by their inheritors, are still part of the venture even after fifty years. This is truly a remarkable feat as most family businesses, which have multiple partners, fail to make it in the next generation.
Jaspal has since diversified into other businesses. His group of companies are under the umbrellas of Eagle Group. “We loaned the name from F C Mehra’s production company,” he says with an impish smile. Readers may remember that F C Mehra made films under the banner of Eagle Films! Japsal, along with his sons and nephew, import for the five – star hotels and have diversified into some manufacturing in India as well. The Tonino chain of restaurants is another line of business that they run successfully.
The question we had in our mind was how did a set of five men with different backgrounds band together and put in operation a successful, eye catching venture that for a long time was the talk of town. Further, what keeps the inheritors together even now.
Jaspal, instantaneously, summed it up for us – “Heritage…Family values…the brotherhood of drinks and cards…and the Peshawar connection made it work for us!”. We have recently infused the mantra of transparency and professional management!And perhaps the Punjabi spirit of never say die”, we thought to ourselves as we wound up our meeting with Jaspal Singh Sawhney and made our way out of Tonino restaurant in the blazing, afternoon sun.
- The tryst between Jaspal and Plaza cinema has its roots in the Peshawar of pre – independent India
- Over a game of cards and after a few rounds of the Punjabi favourite – Scotch, the four partners decided to buy off Minerva and Plaza from Keiki Modi
- Plaza was no longer the milch cow for the family or any of the partners. However, Plaza cinema is the calling card of all the partners
- The cherry on the cake was the arrival of the famed Hollywood actress, Shirley MacLaine for the gala dinner held at Joginder’s,Friends colony, residence
- Heritage…Family values…the brotherhood of drinks and cards…and the Peshawar connection made it work for us!