For the last 17 years, Hemant Chaturvedi always began the new year with a travel ritual. A Mumbai-based photographer and cinematographer, he travels all the way to Prayagraj (earlier known as Allahabad), Uttar Pradesh, to witness the Kumbh Mela, a prominent Hindu festival and pilgrimage. The juxtaposition of scores of people immersed in celebration of their faith with the unexpected sense of tranquility is what always drew him to witness the festivities.
However, 2019 turned out to be different.
“It had moved away from the beautiful simplicity of the celebration by becoming a huge spectacle. That bored me and so I decided to leave and explore Allahabad University instead,” says Hemant.
On his way to this 19th century architectural landmark, Hemant recalled the existence of another marvel — an old single-screen cinema theatre called Lakshmi Talkies. Having closed since 1999, the erstwhile popular theatre was now languishing in neglect and was about to be demolished to be replaced by a mall.
Even in the midst of ruins, the Art Deco heritage structure had not yet lost its charm, all it needed was its due appreciation through the eyes of an artist, and Hemant decided to be that person by making it his life’s mission to immortalise these neglected heritage structures through his camera.
“I remember walking inside, brimming with fascination. I’d spotted a pile of small film posters called lobby cards dating back to the 1960s and there was a dust-covered idol of Goddess Lakshmi in the lobby with a few broken arms. Upon entering the theatre auditorium I was taken aback by the large murals depicting Ramayana painted on the walls adjacent to the screen. It was breathtaking and something that modern multiplexes can never replicate. It was at that moment that I decided to make this into a project. I decided to photograph a few more single-screen cinemas across the city in the remaining days,” says the 53-year-old.
With the advent of multiplexes with high-tech facilities and financial challenges, these family-run single-screens are quickly becoming a thing of the past. “When I began to research this topic. I found a jarring reality that between 2000 to 2019, almost 12,000 single-screen cinemas were shut or demolished,” he shares.
Each demolition not only crumbled the physical structure of the theatres but threatened to wipe out the illustrious history of Indian cinema.
“I realised that if I let this continue and just be a bystander, I would let valuable heritage get lost. Each single-screen cinema is unique and an example of individuality, unlike multiplexes that look almost identical. So through my project I decided to make memorabilia of sorts that would chronicle the existence of these marvels and serve as a platform of visual conversation for generations to come,” explains the esteemed photographer who started the Single Screen Cinemas Project in 2019.
Since then, Hemant has spent over 20 lakhs traveling more than 32,000 kilometers in his jeep across 500 towns in 11 states, to document the beauty and history of more than 650 endangered cinema theatres.
“It began with my fascination and appreciation for the intricate architecture and design but slowly became about the people behind it as well. Over time, I began to understand how multiplexes, despite being technologically advanced, lacked the character and romance of single-screen cinema,” says Hemant, who has worked on several prominent films like Makdee (2002) and Maqbool (2004), among others.
Although the COVID-19 restrictions had halted his plans, he adds that with the pandemic the fate of such cinema theatres is precariously hanging by a thread. Working towards publishing the photographs in the first volume of his book, his project is nowhere close to an end and will not be until he has documented the last remaining single-screen marvel through his lens.
Edited by Yoshita Rao