Single-screen theaters are being pulled down across the country. Hemant Chaturvedi’s mission is to photograph as many as possible before they disappear. His current tally is close to 1,000 cinemas, spread over 800 towns.
Hemant Chaturvedi, it would seem, revels in shining a light on people frequently left in the shadows or arriving at places that have been left behind. After turning his back on the Hindi film industry and television where he was a highly regarded cinematographer eight years ago, he photographed British-era cemeteries across India, made a documentary on veteran cinematographers (Chhayaankan, 2021), captured 55 retired faculty members for a portrait series on the 150th anniversary of his alma mater, Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College, and then, there’s this ongoing, pan-Indian single-screen theatre project that is the subject of our discussion over a video call.
“Yes, it would seem that I’m the guy, you know, racing the demolition team or the Grim Reaper, so to speak, to a particular place. But it’s not deliberate, it just happened, this gravitating towards people or places that are on the brink of erasure,” says Chaturvedi who has filmed, among others, Company (2002), Maqbool (2003), and Brothers (2015) as also, shows like Rendezvous with Simi Garewal and Kaun Banega Crorepati.
Chaturvedi’s latest project teed off in 2019, with Lakshmi Talkies, in Allahabad, a theatre built in the 1940s that was on the verge of being demolished. Since then, he has driven over 35,000 kilometres in his Force Gurkha 4X4 around the country, unearthing cinemas with streamlined Art Deco facades and forlorn, crumbling interiors, picking up echoes of the participatory process that was once part of the movie-theatre experience; and meeting a phalanx of characters with grand tales to tell of an age in which owning a cinema was a matter of prestige. “For a lot of people in the smaller towns, it meant a great deal.
Back in the day, according to a gentleman I met, you needed to know three people in any town to make your life easier: the district magistrate, the chief of police, and the owner of a cinema theatre,” he says.So far, Chaturvedi has shot nearly 1,000 single-screen theatres — and weather-beaten signages, torn posters, and projectionists and their equipment bout 800 towns, from Burhanpur and Nellore to Solapur and Bareilly. “The early theatres were mostly proscenium theatres converted into cinemas, with the stage behind the screen,” he says. “Then, when the money started coming in, you’d find lobbies, facades, and interiors becoming more elaborate, and then came a time, just before the multiplexes, when they were just cement buildings.”
Chaturvedi’s journeys have been rewarding in more ways than one, and he is especially glad to have discovered, and spotlighted, the work of a forgotten interior designer and architect called WM Namjoshi. “There is absolutely nothing on the man on the Internet. But between the 1940s and 1970s, he designed about 30 theatres, including some stellar Art Deco structures — Raj Mandir in Jaipur, Phul Cinema in Patiala, Liberty, Naaz, and Maratha Mandir in Mumbai, and Golcha Cinema in Delhi,” says Chaturvedi, who tracked down Namjoshi’s nephew and whose talk on Art Deco cinemas beyond Mumbai late last year in the city was attended by the architect’s granddaughter.
At times, the stories that surround the crumbling structures have been as evocative as the theatres themselves. Chaturvedi recounts the tale Bhawani Singh, owner of Natraj Talkies, in Vadhwan, near Surendranagar, in Gujarat, told him after he finished photographing the theatre. Singh took Chaturvedi along for a walk around his theatre and after they’d covered half a kilometre, both of them stopped in front of an old wall, beyond which was a wooden booking office window. “Bhawani Singh told me that the thakur of Vadhwan, a former princely state, was actually present at Watson’s Esplanade Hotel in Bombay on July 7, 1896, when the Lumière Brothers [Auguste and Louis] screened their short films collection on their Cinematographe [projector] as part of their historic world tour.” The thakur was so impressed with the projector, Singh told Chaturvedi, that he ordered one for himself.
“By the time the projector arrived in Vadhwan, it was 1906 and the booking office window I saw that day was part of the venue for the first silent movie projections on a Lumière Brothers Cinematographe. Or, so the story goes,” he says. According to news reports, the number of single screen theatres has shown a precipitous decline in India, from about 24,000 in 1990 to barely 6,000 today. It is highly uncommon to hear of a theatre that has made it back from the brink. Chaturvedi did come across one, though. Phul Cinema, built in 1947 and “one of Namjoshi’s masterpieces”, appeared destined to fall into ruin until Raghav Gupta, who belongs to the family that owns it, returned from the United States, and decided to turn things around.
Gupta, who is in his late 30s, sacked a majority of the old staff and restored the cinema to its former glory. “It takes a lot of balls and deep pockets. Raghav told me that with the amount of money they spent on restoring Phul, they could have built a multiplex with six screens,” says Chaturvedi. “But today, Phul has beaten all the multiplexes in Patiala. They’ve upgraded the seats, screen, sound, and they have 4K digital projection, and the viewing experience is absolutely grand.”