uphaar cinema new delhi
The theatre, where over 150 people were watching a Hindi blockbuster when the fire started. The floor, which now resembles a dumpyard, would have seats. Above it, stood balcony seats. All photos: Rishabh Gogoi

Eerie Photos of a Movie Theatre That Caught Fire 25 Years Ago

In 1997, the Uphaar Cinema in New Delhi burnt down and claimed 59 lives. This is what it looks like today.

The year 1997 saw India’s first multiplex in New Delhi. Priya Cinema in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, merged with the Australian company Village Roadshow, which operates cinemas and theme parks. In June that year, the first PVR (short for Priya-Village Roadshow) multiplex began its operations in South Delhi. 

Just a few miles away, on Friday the 13th of June 1997, a decades-old single-screen theatre caught fire and claimed the lives of 59 people.

On that sunny evening, people made their way into the packed theatre that went by the name Uphaar Cinema, in the heart of South Delhi, to watch Border, then the latest Hindi blockbuster starring some of Bollywood’s biggest action stars. 


Next to the cinema hall, a faulty transformer was repaired in haste that morning. By evening, it had started leaking oil that spread through the parking lot. Soon, the oil caught fire and burnt down all of the cars in the parking lot.

The fire and lethal smoke continued to spread and made its way to the cinema, where more than 150 people were watching the film. The smoke contained carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas that can kill a human being almost instantly. People started to suffocate – but this was just the beginning of an evening that turned into a nightmare. The power supply to the theatre was abruptly shut, leaving the audience members and staff in pitch darkness panicking for their lives. News reports described this scene as a “pandemonium.” What should have been fire exits near the balcony seats were blocked due to the addition of new seats. People rushed towards the single exit, and a stampede ensued that injured over a hundred people.

For 59 people, the desperate scramble took too long. A combination of exposure to carbon monoxide and injuries from the stampede and the fire itself killed them. Emergency responders arrived late. The dead included infants, children and senior citizens.


The Uphaar Cinema tragedy shook the country, raising questions around fire safety. The tragedy led to a 23-year legal battle between the families of the victims and the owners of the cinema. 

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The signboard of the cinema still stands intact. In April this year, the cinema mysteriously caught fire again.

Today, 25 years after the tragedy, the eerie building still stands as it did on that tragic evening. The dilapidated structure still bears film posters and signboards pointing toward ticket counters. Even the mosaics on the walls remain intact. In the projectionist’s room, you can see burnt reels of 90s Bollywood films. The area has now been taken over by homeless people, their drug and alcohol abuse evidenced by broken syringes and empty bottles strewn around.

uphaar cinema

The area has been taken over by homeless people, their drug and alcohol abuse evidenced with broken syringes, needles and bottles lying in the rubble of the cinema.

No one knows exactly why the building is still standing, but a local superstition says demolishing the building will ignite the wrath of the 59 people who perished in the fire. 

Very few remember what the Uphaar Cinema was like in its heyday. Filmmaker and writer Barnali Ray Shukla used to frequent the cinema until she was a teenager. “I would spend my vacation days in Delhi and go to the Uphaar Cinema with my family,” she told VICE. “I vividly remember the velvet curtain, the plush interior, the Eastman colour posters, the pushback seats, the coffee from the espresso machine with a copious sprinkling of chocolate powder on top, and the magnificent 70 mm projections that made the silver screen come alive. The feeling of going to the cinemas came alive at Uphaar. The art deco exterior was remarkable and the off-centre placement of the cinema name was uber cool, as I recall. Everything else those days relied on the comfort of symmetry, but not Uphaar.”

uphaar cinema

This wall would have posters of films that were currently showing and posters of future releases.

Shukla had just moved to Mumbai when the theatre went up in flames. “I didn’t have a TV to catch up with the news. I was homesick and that’s probably why my family chose not to call me and inform me about the tragedy,” she said. When Shukla found out about the tragedy, she thought her cousins and family friends could have easily been victims. “It was a new low. I shudder to think that I perhaps met someone who lost their lives in the fire. There’s been no closure; I haven’t even gone back to the area where the cinema stands.”

 On April 17 this year, the theatre mysteriously caught fire once again. Emergency services received the call around 4 AM and doused the flames around 7 AM. 

The fire in 1997 might have shocked the country, but Uphaar Cinema has swiftly faded from people’s memories. Like many of Delhi’s old forgotten theatres, it’s now reduced to a geographical landmark and an urban myth. If you ask someone for directions, they say something like, “Uphaar? The one that caught fire? We didn’t even know it was still standing.”

Scroll down to look at some photos of the Uphaar Cinema as it stands today.

uphaar cinema

A burnt piece of celluloid film of veteran Bollywood actor Suresh Oberoi. Several heaps of celluloid films lie scattered around the projectionist's room.

uphaar cinema

A mosaic wall in the cafeteria of the cinema hall. The fire charred sofas, tables and framed posters in the cafeteria but the mosaic wall remains intact.

uphaar cinema

A room next to the projectionist's room, possibly the VIP room. Single screen theatres used to have a small VIP section where patrons could sit on plush sofas instead of regular seats. New seats in the balcony section blocked alternate exits, leaving panicked audience members with a sole exit when the fire raged on.

uphaar cinema

In the projectionist's room, heaps of partially burnt celluloid films remain untouched.

uphaar cinema

A doll, possibly belonging to one of the victims, lies on the ground

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