Before Jai Nepal Chitraghar became Nepal's first cinema 52 years ago, it was a crocodile hatchery. Yup, it was the residence for the pet crocs of the Rana prime ministers.
But the reptiles were relocated in time for the cinema's formal opening in 1945 with the screening of the religious Bollywood epic, Ganesh Mahima. Movies used to be such a novelty in those days that Kathmandu audiences used to stand in the aisles in the packed hall for three hours watching black-and-white films.
Some would say that the entertainment starvation in the valley, even today, hasn't eased despite the fact that there are now 35 cinemas here. Most show Bollywood potboilers and their Nepali imitations in steamy interiors where the audience is wont to whistle each time the heroine makes her appearance, or slap wildly when the hero throws the villain off the edge of the cliff.
That is why the arrival in Kathmandu of its brandest new luxury cinema is to its entertainment-starved denizens what the invention of in-flight entertainment was perhaps to civil aviation. After a six-month Rs 20 million revamp, a completely re-equipped and refurbished Jai Nepal has opened its box office to customers this week with the Hollywood potboiler, Spiderman.
Not that Jai Nepal has not been an innovator. Owners took a risk by showing the Oscar-nominated France-Nepal production Caravan two years ago, and the film ran for an unprecedented four months. Bhaskar Dhungana remembers going to see Caravan, and says he couldn't stand the stuffy interiors with its broken benches and dirty floor for more than 15 minutes. That is when Dhungana realised that Kathmandu was ready for a modern cinema. He told us: "The time had come for Kathmandu to have its own world-class cinema, and we have brought it." Dhungana is partner in a consortium called Vision Quest (with Rajesh Siddhi, Nirmal Pradhan and Nimak Uddin) which leased the cinema and invested in the revamp.
At a invitations-only screening of Spiderman this week, the audience marvelled at the reclining velvet covered seats with neat cup-holders, carpeted floors, and a modern interior. There is no garish and gaudy chandeliers and drapes, the interior is elegant and functional.
The cinema's 500 seats are cleverly inclined for unobstructed screen views. The projection and sound equipment is state-of-the-art with Dolby Digital and the latest THX-approved three-way sound system which is so effective that when Spiderman and his nemesis have their duel-to-death sequence, the reverberations feel like they are slugging it out right in the cinema.
Dhungana is not hung up on just English movies, as long as the sound quality matches the equipment he will also show Hindi films. But at Rs 125-175, aren't the tickets too steep for ordinary Nepalis? "I don't think it is too expensive, film buffs in Kathmandu pay as much when they buy black tickets from scalpers for famous Hindi movies elsewhere," he says. It is possible to make phone and online bookings for Jai Nepal, and it is a good place for a family outing in the heart of the city. In a while, crocodile!