The Single Screen Cinemas Project

A few questions for photographer and ex-cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi

10 min read

We found Hemant Chaturvedi on Instagram, where he shares snippets of his travels all over India. He has been documenting single screen theatres in all their glory and decay, capturing what they mean to the people who frequent them. He took some time out from his road trip and answered our many questions.

We are eager to understand your love for single screen cinemas. How did it begin? What makes you go back to them?

I guess people of my age belong to the generation that saw the best of the single screen cinema era and the arrival of the multiplex era. And like many, we gradually drifted towards the multiplexes. For no apparent reason, except the mistaken belief that the projection and sound were better. This was true when the multiplexes first arrived, but little did we know that some of the single screens had not only caught up with the multiplexes, many had surpassed them… Maybe the seats were still wood and metal, the cushioning not as plush, but the sheer cinematic experience in those gigantic theatres, on those colossal screens, was unparalleled. Even the elation of watching a film with an audience of 800-1000 people, as opposed to the 100-200 in modern theatres cannot be compared. Yet, we drifted away… As a cinematographer, I found the early PVR experience more rewarding, as a space to invite people to shows of my own movies. For some, the multiplexes were aspirational, a better place for a date, with the promise of better prospects afterwards. For some, the swanky snacks might have been an attraction. The general sense of a seemingly better clientele, the people like us syndrome… None of the hooting and cheering and dancing by the audience in the lower stalls, which, in retrospect, made the experience vastly satisfying… We forgot, in our little cocoons.

“Incredible old cinema theatres. From an era when each one had a distinct and brilliant individual personality.” – Hemant

Few years ago, when you were exploring Allahabad on foot, you stumbled upon a dilapidated single screen cinema. You have mentioned that that was what made you want to travel all over India and document single screen cinemas. Tell us more about this moment. What were your thoughts then? Were you worried about the logistics of carrying out such a task?

Last year, the accidental rediscovery of Lakshmi Talkies in Allahabad and learning that it was on the verge of being demolished—it all caused a flutter in my mind. Like hundreds of others, I have watched the systematic and logic-free erasure of our architectural history, our visual stimuli, our landmarks, the erosion of the unique identities of our towns and cities. Beautifully designed, hand-crafted, emotionally overwhelming structures get replaced overnight by grotesque glass and aluminium-clad concrete buildings, which have absolutely no soul, nor any element of design, no place in history—they won’t even make a beautiful ruin! The urge to photograph Lakshmi Talkies was a spur of the moment decision. I had it opened the next day. It had a beautiful, but broken, statue of Lakshmi in the foyer, and hand-painted murals of scenes from the Ramayana on the auditorium walls. It had spectacular hand carved Art Deco bannisters and a projection window belonging to a different time and space. I managed to photograph another deco masterpiece in Allahabad, along with two other barely functioning theatres. I had them opened for me.

When I returned home to Bombay, I looked at the photographs, and recollected the pessimistic, and real, conversations with the owners and staff of those four theatres. I realised that it was only a matter of time before this glorious era of cinema exhibition became a myth to the subsequent generation. There would be roads named after cinemas, chowks named after cinemas, shops named after cinemas, but the cinemas in question would have vanished without a trace, without a memory. So I began my journey, and after I had photographed 20-25 theatres, I just got sucked into the jet engine. I haven’t stopped since! By the time this is being read, I would have photographed 655 theatres across 11 states, in over 500 towns. I would have driven about 32,000 km. It was an innocent beginning and I saw it become more and more complex, as the discoveries became more and more exciting. And the unexpectedness of the gems that presented themselves spurred me on even more.

Entrance to Imperial Cinema, circa 1917 | Bombay, Maharashtra | 2020

You mentioned once that the one golden rule for your travel adventures is to go by yourself and have only your camera for company. How much of your journey to document single screen cinemas was planned and how much was based on spontaneous decisions?

The basic route is planned. I choose important towns and their districts and locate the theatres there. Once I’m in that town, my research brings me greater knowledge, more names and locations, mostly from conversations with rickshawallas, the owners and staff of the theatres I’m in, people at tea or cigarette shops. Depending on the time I have and the distance I need to travel, I will do my best to reach that new town and theatre. Time and schedule is the only restriction, energy is abundant.

Travelling alone is the only way I work. I have a certain rhythm and energy and impatience, coupled with the fact that I can keep working without food or water or rest. I’d rather be free to execute my day without having to worry about another person, after all, the junoon [madness] can only be fully understood by the person whose junoon it is. None of my trips are spontaneous, they are meticulously planned, with ample space for new revelations. Whimsy can be accommodated into the schedule as well!

Collapsed vintage cinema theatre, circa 1940 | Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh | 2020

Was language a barrier for you? How did you prepare yourself?

So far I’ve been mostly in states where there has been no language barrier. I speak 3-4 languages and can understand another 4-5. So far so good!

The shift to multi-screen cinemas and multiplexes seems irreversible today. Do you think single screen cinemas can stay relevant? What can they do to stay relevant? Were many of the theatres you photographed non-functional?

They’ve done everything they can to stay relevant. The fault lies with government policies and distributors who charge single screen cinemas ridiculous amounts of money to screen newly released movies. This money can never be recovered, not even a small percentage! A single screen can only run 4-5 shows in a day, while a five-screen multiplex can run 25 shows in a day. It is almost impossible to fill 1000 seats in a single screen theatre. Neither the movies nor the stars nor the music have the ability to draw huge, passionate crowds any more. A curious distinction was created between mass movies and multiplex movies. It would be like the distinction between a Manmohan Desai film and a Shyam Benegal film, but in that era, each kind of film did the business destined for it, because the theatre was the only place it would be screened at. No internet, no DVD, no OTT, just the good old cinema theatre. Planning, advance booking, dressing up, and finally the joy of the cinema experience! In contrast, a Salman Khan film these days might have up to 500 shows per day in one city! There was a time when distributors had an understanding with cinema owners over which movie would release in which theatre. So there would be one theatre showing one release at a time, which led to jubilees, smash hits, crowds and black marketing, police bandobast, riots and fights! Now it’s a meek crowd that keeps shushing each other in theatres. People don’t express pure emotion in theatres any more. No one shouts and flings coins at the screen, spouts dialogue, dances with the heroine or hero, nor has conniptions nor faints! Except in the South [of India]. They’ve managed to keep the blood coursing through their cinema veins!

You must have had numerous interesting conversations with the people you meet on travels. Can you recall one or two such conservations with people you met? Perhaps with someone who works in the projector room or manages a single screen theatre.

Two projectionists in particular. One was elderly, in his mid-70s, and had worked in that very projector room since he was 14. That’s 60 years. In 2014, they taught him how to run a digital projector and he learned how to type in the code and so on. I asked him how he felt today, operating a plastic box, after handling all those old, beautiful American Strong Mogul 35mm projectors from the late 1930s. He looked up at me and said, “Behenchod, time nahin pass hota!” [“***, the time simply doesn’t pass!”] The other projectionist was in his early 60s, he was the son of the first projectionist of that theatre, from the day it was built. He too was now a digital operator, after having grown up amongst 35mm projectors. He’d taken his father’s place. I asked him the same question. He sighed and said there was a time when the audience was aware of a human being in the projector room, who could be abused loudly each time there was a focus or framing problem, or when the carbon ran out and the screen grew dim, or if the film snapped and the movie stopped! After the installation of the digital projector, the audience seems to have forgotten he exists. Like he said, “Ab toh gaali bhi nahin padti hai, hum toh gaali khane ke liye taras rahe hain!” [“No one even swears at us anymore, we yearn to hear someone yelling at us!”]

Portraits of Projector Operators | 1 of 100 | The Single Screen Cinemas Project

One cinema owner took me through an elaborate procedure to print fake tickets, fudge the ticket numbers, and insert them in actual ticket bundles. He told me the excise representative was very much part of the ruse, he demanded a cut to look away. The entertainment tax was so exorbitant that either the cinema could survive or the taxes could be paid. Not both. One theatre owner introduced me to six black market professionals who had worked with that theatre for years! They were always in cahoots, and they told me fun stories about the stars that made them the most money! Another theatre owner told me how he would allocate a certain percentage of tickets per show to the booking clerk, and the black market proceeds were shared equally by the entire theatre staff, no one was allowed to blow it all off on alcohol.

Which is the most unlikely place where you found a single screen cinema?

The cinema theatres I found have been in fairly typical places, barring the odd one here or there. But what is incredible is when you find a theatre of such scale and magnificence in the least likely of places! The theatre in the royal fort of Wankaner (Gujarat), the ticket window from 1906 in Wadhwan (also Gujarat), Narsingh Talkies in Pali (Rajasthan), Kamal Talkies in Burhanpur (Madhya Pradesh), Mamaji Talkies in Bhusawal (Maharashtra), Narendra Talkies in Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh)—simply fascinating, and the list is endless!

Vintage Art Deco cinema exhaust fan vents, circa 1940

What were your observations about the people who watch movies in single screen theatres? Was the audience mostly male? Were you able to see women coming to the theatres by themselves or with their female friends? Was the theatre looked upon as a place that offered privacy?

Yes, in a very large percentage of single screen theatres, the audience is predominantly male. Older theatres would have separate booking windows and often, separate demarcated seating areas for women. Some older and smaller theatres may reserve their limited balcony area for women. It was often a safety issue, to protect them from rowdy male crowds.

You decided to move on from cinematography and quit the film industry in 2015. We’re curious to know why.

Yes, I moved away from cinematography in 2015. It was a conscious decision, the seed for which had been sown in 2013, while I was on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. More and more, I wished to do work that was entirely mine, over which I had complete control, where the content was in line with my passions and interests. I think I was exhausted by the content I had to shoot, I got upset when the movies would fail at the box office. The process of filmmaking was also deteriorating, ever since digital technology came to mainstream cinema. And then the shrinking budgets, the indefinite working hours, the bad food, having to chase payments… Above all, watching people being exploited because they were desperate for the work. I spent a considerable amount of energy standing up for my crew. One day, I woke up in the morning, and felt I never wanted to go on set again. And I haven’t. It’s been over five years now, and I’ve managed nearly 15 different projects, some ongoing, some finished. All mine! Self-initiated, self-motivated, self-financed. I would not trade this in for anything, not for all the tea in China!

Vintage Ticket Window, circa 1945 | Bhusawal, Maharashtra | 2020

Have you held exhibitions in which your photos of single screen cinemas were on display? We would love for you to share with us any memorable feedback you received!

There have been no exhibitions or displays of any kind so far. There is a colossal number of my cinema theatre photographs on Instagram and Facebook, but barring 15-20, everything you see are phone camera photographs. No one has seen the actual photos yet. I’m saving them up for the grand finale. Yes, there is a book being planned and I would like to have it ready as soon as I can. It is an enormous task, but I’m ready for it. I am also planning a series of exhibitions, but waiting for the right curator/gallery to come along. And I must finish this project as planned, because I have other projects to continue and more to start!

Travel and photography have become much more accessible and easier these days. What are your thoughts on the art and craft of photographers today?

There is some brilliant work happening around the world. I’m just a small cog in the huge machine. When I had the first exhibition of my work in Delhi in 2018, I also managed to attend three India Art Fairs with my gallery. This experience made me realise that the most fulfilling way to be a photographer is to create series of photographs on different subjects. To think of themes and subjects and create separate bodies of work around each. This also allows for distinct approaches and different styles in terms of lensing, composition, the use of light, the ability to think differently for each context, as one does for movies. Each movie I filmed had a distinct approach, and my goal was to never repeat myself or be instantly identifiable.

View (some of) Hemant Chaturvedi’s work here.

All images belong to Hemant Chaturvedi. They may not be reproduced.

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