Tour India’s forgotten single-screen cinemas in a stunning photo series
Hemant Chaturvedi is racing across India on a mission, and he’s worried he’s not moving fast enough. He’s photographing single-screen cinema halls and has made it across 32,000 km in 11 states. But he’s acutely aware of the fact that many are crumbling as he makes his way to them, and that his photographs may soon be all that’s left of the ones he captures.
“If, about 200 years ago, the Europeans hadn’t taken the time to paint scenes from India, we wouldn’t know what it looked like then,” says Chaturvedi, 53, a photographer and former cinematographer. “In the next 25 years, most single-screen theatres will have ceased to exist. Somebody needs to document them.”
And so he’s been on the road for two years, bumping along bad roads, braving storms and living out of a suitcase and a series of small hotels. India had about 20,000 operational single-screen cinemas in 2000. By 2019, that number had dwindled to just over 6,000.
“We have seen the relentless erosion of the visual identity of our country, as beautiful old structures get pulled down and replaced with hideous, tasteless, emotionless buildings,” Chaturvedi says. “Cinemas were once landmarks in our towns and cities and had a tremendous emotional connection. With the demolition of those structures, an entire emotion will be irreplaceably erased. And now with the pandemic, I’m not sure how many will actually be standing two years from now.”
Chaturvedi remembers the excitement of entering these large, often opulent spaces as a child, in a time when people still dressed up for an evening out, at the plays, the opera, the ballet and then, by extension, the cinema. Even then, the velvet drapes were already sagging, the golden ropeways frayed and the air full of whistling and the fragrance of greasy samosas. But the grand architecture remained. And to Chaturvedi, the most crumbling of these places can be the most evocative, both for the grandeur they once represented and the unforgiving manner in which the world has moved on.
Chaturvedi has photographed over 650 single-screen cinemas across 500 towns so far, including in Gujarat and Rajasthan, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. He’s planning a coffee-table book on his Single Screen Cinemas Project. In addition to photographs, it will contain stories and anecdotes from the reams of those he’s gathered from owners, ushers, security guards.
One of his favourite single-screens so far, he says, isn’t a structure. It’s a stone wall, a large wooden gate and a small ticket window leading onto a large ground. This space in the small town of Wadhwan in Gujarat is believed to have been India’s first open-air theatre. It was commissioned by the Maharaja of Wadhwan, soon after he watched the Lumière brothers work their magical cinématographe in Mumbai in 1896. He was so entranced by that show that he booked a projector immediately. It took 10 years for one to be sent to him in Wadhwan, but in 1906 it was at this open-air theatre that it put on its first show.
His people fell in love just as he had done. And by the mid-1900s, so great was the craze for cinema in Wadhwan that a man was sent all the way to Ahmedabad to watch major Indian releases, so that he could come back and narrate the story (the films themselves only reached the small towns six months later). On his return, the man would be welcomed with an aarti and, at night, the town would gather to hear him tell the story of the film, sometimes embellished by figments of his own imagination.
It breaks his heart, Chaturvedi says, that so little of those times was preserved. The projectors, old tickets and signboards are almost all gone. With Covid-19 adding to the stress caused by first the multiplexes and then streaming, many of those that had hung on until 2019 will now never reopen. “I just hope that I get to shoot more of these cinemas before they are gone,” Chaturvedi says. That way at least the stories will live on.
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