It was an unplanned detour that started the whole thing. On a lazy winter afternoon in January 2019, photographer Hemant Chaturvedi walked over to Allahabad University, an architectural landmark from the 1800s in the northern Indian city, to take a few images. En route, he remembered that there was an old, single-screen movie theater in the area. That’s how he ended up at Lakshmi Talkies, an Art Deco–styled cinema from the 1930s. Dilapidated after closing in 1999, the forlorn building was strewn with garbage and set to be demolished to make way for a new mall. “I have watched the thoughtless destruction of Allahabad’s, and the country’s, physical visual history, and I had the sudden urge to photo-document this space, before another niras [soulless] building replaced it,” Chaturvedi says. He found several surprises within. There was a dusty statue of the goddess Lakshmi in the foyer, her quartet of hands reduced to a trio. The auditorium walls had hand-painted murals of scenes from the Hindu epic, The Ramayana. A pile of old lobby cards, valuable collector’s items, spilled out of a cupboard. He went on to photograph a few more old theaters in Allahabad, and had conversations with their owners. It became clear that these single-screen cinemas—once social hubs nationwide—were fast disappearing because of financial constraints, apathy, and the arrival of modern multiplexes. This sparked Chaturvedi’s journey to conserve, visually, this cinematic heritage. Since then, the accomplished photographer and cinematographer has driven almost 20,000 miles, visited more than 500 towns in 11 states, documenting a total of 645 cinemas.
Chaturvedi’s photographs capture an astonishing amount of detail. There are wooden benches in the lower seating areas, dusty coils of film on the floor, magnificent Art Deco ceilings, stained spittoons, fragmented posters, and hand-stitched screens. The photographs showcase the distinctiveness of each cinema, and recall the frenzy and collective experience that has long marked filmgoing in the land of Bollywood: anticipation and excitement, snaking ticket lines, the thrill of black-market tickets for the “first-day-first-show,” coins flung at the screen by emotional viewers, the dark hall spilling over capacity, the hum of the projector.
India today is the largest producer of films globally, with around 2,000 a year, selling (under normal circumstances) two billion tickets annually. In 1896, the French Lumière brothers, pioneers of early motion pictures, came to India to show their films at Watson’s Hotel in Bombay, selling tickets for Rs. 1 (about a penny). The first purpose-built cinema hall was Kolkata’s Elphinstone Picture Palace, built in 1907 to show films from overseas studios. But film exhibition existed even earlier, in spaces such as ”bungalow cinemas,” where the wealthy converted space in their sprawling homes for screenings, and “tent cinemas” that traveled from town to town. In 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke, considered the pioneer of Indian filmmaking, produced the first full-length Indian motion picture, Raja Harishchandra, a silent Marathi film.