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Looking back, it was fortunate that Hemant Chaturvedi cut his visit short to the Kumbh Mela, a major Hindu festival and pilgrimage, in the north Indian city of Prayagraj (earlier known as Allahabad) in January 2019.
Bored by the ostentatious spectacle, a marked difference from simpler celebrations he had attended in the past, he left to explore Allahabad University, an architectural landmark from the 1800s. On the way, he remembered Lakshmi Talkies, an old, single-screen cinema in the area. He took a detour to the site, which had been closed since 1999, piles of rubbish around it adding to the air of neglect. The 1940s’ Art Deco structure was soon to be demolished and replaced by a mall. Saddened by the destruction of physical heritage, he decided to photograph it.
Inside the stripped shell of the building, traces of its past still lingered: a dust-laden statue of the Goddess Lakshmi in the lobby, one of her four arms missing; beautiful Art Deco bannisters; and sweeping murals from the Ramayana inside the auditorium. Chaturvedi realised this was just one of many single-screen cinemas that were rapidly fading due to changing technology, the arrival of multiplexes, and financial difficulties – a realisation that spurred a journey across India.
Two years later, he has driven 32,000km, across 11 states, more than 500 towns and 655 cinemas to document the endangered theatres before they are replaced and forgotten for good.
“Unlike multiplexes, which all look the same, single-screen cinemas are masterpieces of individuality, reflecting the thought and ambition of the owners,” Chaturvedi says. The seasoned cinematographer and photographer, who left the Hindi film industry in 2015 to explore his own projects, is drawn to spaces that are neglected or forgotten. His fierce devotion is palpable as he describes his journey and the excitement of discovering something new in each place he explores.
His photos capture this diversity in remarkable detail. From a literal hole-in-the-wall ticket window at a cinema in Jaipur to an ornate sculpted window at Roxy Talkies in Agra, designed to match seamlessly with the window of the adjoining mazaar (shrine). A ceiling with bold circles, lines and scalloped edges rimmed in light at Patiala’s Phul Theatre contrasts with the weathered exterior of an abandoned cinema in Sawai Madhopur, its past as a railway yard evident in the arched gates through which broad- and narrow-gauge tracks would pass. And a sweeping staircase is flanked by a bannister carved with music notes in a Delhi cinema, while an apsara (celestial dancer) looks out over the dust-laden grand lobby of a theatre in Pune.
The first cinemas
India’s first purpose-built cinema hall, Elphinstone Picture Palace in Kolkata, was established in 1907 by Jamshedji Framji Madan, a pioneer of Indian film production. The compact hall, which over time changed its name from Minerva to Chaplin, screened Hollywood movies and attracted young audiences. But declining finances and neglect led to the historical building’s eventual demolition in 2003.
Recognisable by the colourful movie posters splashed across their walls, single-screen cinemas were social hubs, accessible to all because of the affordable tickets – initial prices were as low as one anna (a 16th of a rupee). With larger-than-life screens, and with some cinemas able to accommodate more than 1,000 people, the experience was inclusive, collective and immersive.
People would wait in serpentine lines to buy tickets, thrilled when they managed to get seats for the “first-day-first-show”. At showtime, inside an overflowing hall, audiences watched the epic productions, surrounded by hundreds of others singing along or mouthing the popular songs and dialogues projected on the screen. Many would return, again and again, to rewatch their favourite movies.
But by the 1980s and 90s, with the shift from cinema to television, and then the arrival of multiplexes, many gravitated to the comfort of modern amenities and technology, and single-screen cinemas began to see a decrease in audiences.
From roughly 9,700 single-screen cinemas in 2009, these numbers shrank further, to 6,300 in 2019, some converting to multiplexes, many closing due to financial problems and audience or owner disinterest. A few have preserved old equipment or memorabilia by showcasing it within a section of their cinemas, but beyond that, there has been little interest in preserving the heritage of these spaces.
As theatres shut, life also changed for the people working there: the theatre owners and former employees whose stories capture the collective spirit that defined the single-screen cinema experience in India. They have been a part of Chaturvedi’s journey too. Many he happened upon by chance, while wandering around these derelict theatres, attracting the attention of people in the neighbourhood.
In Gujarat, a cinema owner took Chaturvedi to an old stone wall with an arched gate. Covered in the foliage was a ticket window, a field visible through the opening. The owner narrated the story of the king of Wadhwan, a neighbouring princely estate, who attended the screening of the Lumiere Brothers’ movies at Watsons Hotel in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1896 – an occasion widely regarded as the start of Indian cinema. The king paid the French Cinématographe creators to buy a projector for him, receiving it 10 years later to start this first open-air theatre for silent movies in Wadhwan in 1906, the audience gathering in the field after sunset to watch the projected reels.
In other cities, projectionists, caretakers, canteen managers, neighbouring shopkeepers and autorickshaw drivers have helped him scout old cinemas.
“I met the old canteen owner, Mehboob Bhai, at Anand Talkies in Jabalpur,” Chaturvedi says. “When the cinema was open, he used to order 1,000 litres of milk every day to make tea for customers. With six shows daily in a 1,000-seater hall, even half the customers buying tea would be 3,000 people. He made a lot of money selling chai [tea] and samosas.”
A projectionist Chaturvedi met reminisced about the time before digital projectors, when 35mm machines would occasionally break down and he would scramble to fix the glitch while the audience yelled impatiently at him. He missed that connection, even in reproach, as audiences now forget that a digital projector is still operated by a person.
At a theatre in Maharashtra, the clay flooring and wooden seats untouched since 1942, the owner told Chaturvedi about his grandfather who went over budget when building the cinema, leaving funds for only one projector.
“They had three six-minute intervals to change reels, several audience members leaving in impatience,” Chaturvedi narrates. “The owner brought in a troupe of local dancers for entertainment in these gaps. He would spin a coloured wheel with a halogen lamp, the shimmering effect cueing the dancers to begin.”
A hundred year history
Today, India is the largest producer of films globally with pre-pandemic figures at approximately 2,000 films and one billion tickets sold annually. But when film exhibitions first came to India in the early 1900s, many were afraid of the moving pictures.
Vinaykumar Chumble is the owner of Nashik’s Vijayanand Talkies, India’s longest-running cinema which opened in 1906. But his family’s first experience with film came a few years before that.
Dadasaheb Phalke, a friend of the Chumble family, and pioneer of Indian cinema who made the first full-length movie, Raja Harishchandra, screened a film on the site of Vijayanand Talkies in 1903. Cloth was strung over trees to create a makeshift theatre, but the townspeople, interpreting the moving pictures as sorcery, smashed the projector and tore away the fabric.
Travelling “tent cinema”, or “bungalow cinema” – the wealthy converting a space in their houses to show movies – were some of the earliest forms of film exhibition in the country.
“Our family were originally tailors by profession,” says Chumble, recounting his family’s first entry into real entertainment in 1906. “They used to stitch tambus – circus tents – and my great-great-grandfather stitched one with leftover cloth, which he rented out for puppet shows and theatre performances.
“He would stage puppet shows in his tent, with a ‘British’ puppet and ‘Indian’ puppet, and the audience could hit the British puppet with sticks,” says Chumble, laughing as he narrates the story. “That was entertainment at the time. That’s how we came into the business!”
One of the most dramatic incidents that occurred at Vijayanand Talkies was in 1909 when the British collector of Nashik, AMT Jackson, was assassinated by Indian freedom fighter, Anant Kanhere. But even that incident did not deter audiences from continuing to visit.
“The building is the same, I have restored it completely,” Chumble says of Vijayanand Talkies today. “The only other additions are furniture, like modern pushback seats with cup holders and upgraded sound systems, but other than that the look and feel of the theatre is as it was when it first started.”
Though he credits the generations before him for doing most of the hard work, there is great pride as he describes his family’s legacy. “Former president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, awarded us a gold medal in 2013 as the Oldest Exhibitor in India. Even when I met superstar Amitabh Bachchan, he knew of our theatre’s history as the oldest exhibitor. It was really a proud moment.”
Chumble has deliberately kept prices low for a fiercely loyal audience who continue to frequent his cinema. “I can afford to keep things the way they were as I have another business as well. My investment here is only my time. Our ticket prices are still 50 and 60 rupees and the same popcorn from a multiplex is available at our cinema for 20 rupees,” he says.
Until the 1990s, when multiplexes opened in India, movie tickets could be bought for as little as 10 rupees in some cinemas. Like Vijayanand Talkies, some older single-screen cinemas running today still provide tickets between 50 rupees and 100 rupees. By contrast, multiplex ticket prices start at approximately 250 rupees (about $3.5).
Over the years, several single-screen cinemas have been upscaled or converted to steeper-priced multiplexes with modern furnishing, audio and visual systems, and revamped refreshment counters with a variety of global food and beverage choices that contrast with the formerly basic fare of samosas, popcorn and tea. But along with the decline of the old cinemas came the decline of their inclusive spirit, which used to unite everyone in one hall regardless of economic or social status.
Many of the old cinemas that remain are now shabby and rundown, frequented mainly by loyal patrons who enjoy the well-worn comfort of a space they have visited for years or by those who are looking for affordable B- and C- grade entertainment, or an escape in old reruns or seedier fare.
In Wai, Maharashtra, Chaturvedi photographed a 1930s’ cinema, which was built in the 1600s as a public hall in a temple complex. A neighbouring shopkeeper told him the cinema used to secretly screen erotica. To avoid the ire of those around, a different film would be advertised on the poster outside. “People in the know understood that the first reel shown would be of the movie in the poster before the second reel of soft porn would begin. When the neighbouring temple authorities found out they shut it down,” says Chaturvedi.
The end of an era
In the cinemas that have now shut for good, often, all that is left is a bare shell with fragments of the past visible in torn screens, broken seats, shredded film posters and dusty bits of reels.
In conversations with cinema owners he met on his travels, Chaturvedi heard several reasons for the decline of these spaces, many of them financial, including high taxes and the decline of black marketeers.
“Selling tickets in black was part of the sales strategy of a cinema,” Chaturvedi explains, “the owners apportioning a certain number of tickets to be sold by designated people for a higher value. Some cinema owners did it as a philanthropic activity, the profits being distributed among all the staff in the theatre.”
In Kolhapur, he met a team of former black marketeers who joked with him while being photographed. “We’re used to being photographed. Every police station had our pictures,” they said. But the picture they have in their homes is of one of the most popular actors, Amitabh Bachchan. “They literally worship him. A 2 rupee ticket to a Bachchan film would be sold at 100 rupees. He made them a lot of money,” says Chaturvedi.
Cinema owners today complain that the ability of film stars to draw in the numbers to fill 500-to-1,000-seater halls is fading. “Movies used to run for 20 to 60 weeks in these halls. Only a few actors today, like the Khans [Aamir, Shah Rukh, Salman] and Akshay Kumar have that magnetism, but even that is fading. Earlier they couldn’t control the crowd for films with superstars like Amitabh Bachchan,” Chaturvedi says. Several owners told him that the fading star power, indistinct music and dialogue, and forgettable content in today’s films kept audiences from coming back repeatedly, like they once did.
In the past, many people would rewatch films for the music alone, buying tickets just to watch a song they knew and loved. “If a song started and people took a washroom break, that song was a flop. But if they went before so that they wouldn’t miss the song, that was an indicator that the song and film would be a hit,” says Chaturvedi.
With multiplexes and digital streaming platforms, a lot of content produced today caters to an urban audience with niche themes, many of them rooted in reality, while films for small towns or mass audiences, who are looking for an escape with lighter fare of romance, comedy, action and catchy music, are fewer.
With the pandemic hastening the decline of not just single-screen cinemas but impacting multiplexes too, Chaturvedi feels many of the remaining old theatres will disappear in a few years. “There may be a sense of nostalgia, but for the owners, this is a business investment that needs to give back,” he says.
Chumble agrees. “My parents and grandparents ran this as a business, but for me, it’s a hobby. I have kept ticket pricing at 50 and 60 rupees for our loyal audience, but whether my children will continue this business is their choice,” he says.
Chaturvedi has photographed hundreds of the derelict structures, which he plans to feature as a book and exhibition about Indian cinematic history and the diverse narratives of the people who built them.
For his part, he prefers to remember the theatres as they were; imagining the spaces alive with cheering audiences, seats shaking in excitement or anticipation, the clink of coins being flung emotionally at the screen, whistles of appreciation, the hum of the projector and the film’s soundtrack filling the hall.
It is the magnitude and thrill of the cinematic experience still embodied within these old structures that stays with him, and that he hopes his archive will reflect.
“I am not a revivalist,” he says. “If I could I would love to restore some of these cinemas. But the idea is for subsequent generations to have one reference point for these spaces and what they symbolised.”