Since January 2019, Hemant Chaturvedi has spent Rs 16 lakh from his own savings to visit over 400 towns spread across 11 states in India, to shoot structures that are fast disappearing: single-screen cinemas. And the less swanky they are, the more he likes them. After covering 28,000 km in his jeep with an Olympus camera slung at his side, Chaturvedi has captured 526 cinemas. “My friend was saying I am completely mad and that he would have stopped at 25,” says Chaturvedi. And with “at least three usable photos from each cinema”, the erstwhile cinematographer of acclaimed films such as Company and Maqbool could very well stop now. But he isn’t done yet.
The projectionist at Chandrakant Talkies in Jasdan, Gujarat
Instead, Chaturvedi has trips lined up to Madhya Pradesh and Alwar and Bharatpur in Rajasthan. There are also a few cinemas he wants to photograph back home in Mumbai, which he hasn’t been able to visit since December 2019. On a phone call from Delhi, where he has been by his parents’ side during the pandemic, he speaks of other states he is yet to document.
Chaturvedi is aware that his passion project has acquired renewed significance and urgency since India went into lockdown in March and with cinemas remaining shut until October 14. “Single-screen theatres were in the doldrums anyway and the pandemic might have killed them off permanently. I feel I am racing against a demolition machine which will have them razed overnight,” says Chaturvedi. It is why he was hell-bent on travelling to Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, once the lockdown rules began to be relaxed post June.
Using Google Maps, a defunct film website, and with the help of rickshaw pullers aged 60 and above, Chaturvedi has been able to locate many cinemas. “It is nice to enter with bewilderment and surprise rather than be clever and over-prepared,” says Chaturvedi of his process. By talking to the theatre owners and its devoted employees, he has not only been able to get more leads but also amassed a treasure trove of information on the history of the exhibition sector and the architecture of cinemas, and even chanced upon rare projectors. But it’s the incredible stories of human endeavour he prizes the most. “With every structure that is demolished, there’s an entire ecosystem that is affected, that of the people who built, lived and worked there,” he says.
Chaturvedi describes his documentation as “visual conservation”, one which is entirely “self-motivated, financed and initiated”. So far, he has decided on taking the self-publishing route. “I know I can sell 250 books among my producer, director and cinematographer friends,” he says. But before it gets to that stage, there are more single-screen theatres waiting to be discovered by Chaturvedi. The jeep is fuelled up, so is Chaturvedi’s passion.