Thousands of single-screen cinemas once dotted India’s landscape. The emergence of multiplexes led to their slow demise and now, there are just a few hundred of them left. Cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi has been chronicling the last vestiges of a dying tradition.
India’s single-screen cinemas were grand structures, built to accommodate large audiences and boasted diverse architectural styles.
Chaturvedi began his project in 2019, and has photographed 950 theatres across 15 states so far.
“In the past 25 years, the number of single-screen cinemas has dwindled from 24,000 to 9,000,” he says. Some have been demolished to make space for malls and buildings, others are in ruins as they’ve lost their clients.
“These theatres were the building blocks of India’s cinema-viewing culture. They helped people enjoy films even in the smallest towns across India,” Chaturvedi says.
The idea of the project struck him when he took a trip to his grandparents’ home in Uttar Pradesh state’s Allahabad city.
There, he revisited Lakshmi Talkies, a theatre he had frequented as a child, but was now shut. In the crumbling structure was a statue of a goddess after whom the theatre was named, but she was covered in dust and was missing an arm.
Chaturvedi says it made him realise how the city was losing so much of its history to urbanisation. From there began his quest to document India’s single-screen cinemas.
Niranjan Talkies in Uttar Pradesh was built in the 1940s but shuttered its doors around 1989 due to a dispute over the property.
In its heydays, it was an impressive structure with its spacious interiors, art deco design and sunburst mosaic floors. The theatre is in ruins now but traces of its grandeur peek out in places that have survived the ravages of time.
“It is believed to be the first air-conditioned cinema in Allahabad city,” says Chaturvedi.
“Locals told me how their grandparents would gather outside the exit towards the end of a film so that they could enjoy the air-conditioned air as people left the theatre.”
Ganga Talkies in Rajasthan state is said to have been built by the ruling king of the time.
The theatre has been shut for the past 20 years, but in dusty corners and on crumbling walls, one finds a wealth of memorabilia, including the original posters of Shammi Kapoor’s 1961 hit Junglee and Nargis’ last film, Raat Aur Din (1967).
Vijayanand Talkies in the western state of Maharashtra was built in 1914.
Local legend has it that Dadasaheb Phalke – who made Raja Harishchandra, India’s first full-length feature film – used to screen black and white films on a white cloth tied between two trees on a plot of land near this theatre.
“Apparently, people were terrified seeing the moving images, and thought it was a result of black magic. So they trashed Dadasaheb, broke his projector and burnt his films,” Chaturvedi says.
“The local police had to conduct drives informing people that he was showing a new technology called cinema and that it was not jaadu tona (black magic).”
Royal Talkies in Mumbai is located in an area that was called ‘Play House’ in the 1800s, because the stretch had many theatres for plays and musicals. They were converted into movie halls after cinema came to India in the 1900s.
“The theatres that are still standing have green room areas and stages behind the screen,” says Chaturvedi. “At Royal Talkies I chanced upon two old letterheads from 1950 and 1962. They had the first and only physical evidence I’ve found of the term ‘Play House’ being used for the area,” he adds.
In the erstwhile princely state of Wadhwan in Gujarat, there stands a dilapidated structure with a solitary ticket window that has a fascinating backstory.
Legend has it that the king of Wadhwan booked a cinématographe – an early film projector invented by the Lumiere Brothers – for 10,000 rupees ($121; £99) on a trip to Mumbai (then called Bombay) in 1896.
Ten years later the projector arrived. It was installed in the open air theatre, which became one of the first ones in India to screen silent movies, according to Chaturvedi. Today only the ticket window of the theatre exists.
Bhagwat Chitra Mandir in Sholapur city in Maharashtra is a grand theatre built in 1935.
The owners claim that singer Lata Mangeshkar performed in public for first time here at the age of five.
They built three more theatres within the same compound. “The owner likes to say that they were the founders of the multiplex concept in India,” Chaturvedi says.
These three theatres, Chhaya Mandir, Kala Mandir and Uma Mandir, were built by WM Namjoshi, who designed close to three dozen single-screen theatres in India.
“The owner told me how there was a time when all four theatres would run to capacity, and he and his father would throw crackers from the roof to disperse huge crowds clamouring for tickets outside,” Chaturvedi reminisces.
Nishat Cinema in Mumbai was shut for a long time for renovation and opened its doors recently to screen Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s comeback hit Pathaan.
The theatre ran so full that the owners had to source a ‘Houseful’ board from a neighbouring theatre, as they hadn’t used theirs in decades and didn’t know where it was.
“Many people messaged me after the movie released, saying that it had revived single-screen theatres in India. And all I could say to them is: what happens after Pathaan? Do the theatres go back to languishing in obscurity?”
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