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‘Cinema Play House’: Exposing the film

Nandita Raman's 'Cinema Play House' brings to life the stillness of single-screen cinemas in photographs

‘Untitled #9’ (Regal), 2009.
‘Untitled #9’ (Regal), 2009.

There’s a lasting pleasure in watching a movie in a single-screen cinema that a multiplex just can’t offer. In the last decade or so, many single-screen cinemas have succumbed to modern consumerism and the final blow was perhaps the demonetization move last year. A fascination for the old-world charm of the single-screen cinema led visual artist Nandita Raman to look back at her childhood in Varanasi, where she spent a lot of time at Chitra Talkies, a cinema owned and run by her mother’s family. It was the first single-screen cinema in Varanasi, established in 1933. It is only fitting that the historic George Eastman Museum in New York, the world’s oldest museum of photography, with one of the oldest holdings of film archives, is hosting an exhibition, Cinema Play House, of Raman’s photographic work, until 13 May.

In a time before video-cassette players made their way into living rooms, Chitra Talkies in Varanasi was Raman’s playground. “It was a most fascinating place for a child," she recalls. Growing up in Varanasi also fed her visual references as an artist—the city’s colourful lanes, aesthetic and night-outs to attend classical music concerts lent her a childhood unlike most others. When she moved away from the city to study and work, the distance made her forget about Chitra Talkies, which eventually shut around 1992. In 2006, on an impulse, Raman picked up a camera to work solo. She hadn’t been to Varanasi in nearly a decade and when she went back to the cinema, she was shocked by the emptiness of the familiar space. The uniqueness of the cinema revealed itself to her then. “That was my moment of commitment—to the curiosity," says Raman, explaining why she decided to explore the idea of single-screen cinemas in India seriously.

‘Untitled #1’ (Prabhat), 2009

Raman travelled to Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai besides Varanasi to discover interesting single-screen cinemas. The focus was on what set them apart from each other, and from the multiplexes. It was during this time that she also met three international photographers—Fazal Sheikh, Robert Polidori and Kenro Izu—whose different styles and technical approaches helped her locate a photographic medium for her execution. The slowness of large-format photography lent itself well to the old cinemas and let her observe more about the spaces and their individual quirks. The bigger negative on a large format would record more detail and this was remarkable for Raman. She recalls how photo artist and bookmaker Dayanita Singh lent her a tripod and some film rolls to begin shooting. “She was very supportive of my ideas and really helped me streamline things," says Raman.

Raman’s photographs are intricately detailed, almost like an anthropological study of life inside desolate cinemas. Each element weaves its own story within the larger frame, revealing something personal about the space and its dwellings. The odd, round window in the projector room of Regal Cinema, Kolkata, is unique to perhaps its original owner’s vision. The two large film reels are located right in front of the window, in an architecture customized for a room, where no audience would ever be allowed. A photograph of the grand stairway inside Prabhat cinema (Kolkata) reminds one of the relentless documentation of Paris’ building interiors and streets by the French photographer Eugène Atget. Atget tirelessly photographed the insides and outsides of buildings in Paris in an attempt to document everything that would disappear after the war. Raman’s is not that kind of urgency, rather a self-imposed, temporal arrest when making the images.

‘Untitled #3’ (Liberty), 2009. Courtesy Nandita Raman and sepiaEYE

At the George Eastman Museum, Raman, in collaboration with Shrinkhla Agrawal, has put together a playlist of old Hindi film songs like Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara and Kajra Mohabbat Wala, which serve as background music to the show. The idea is to evoke a sense of performance that the big screen offers the cinema-goer, and to also remember the era of Bollywood that once thrived in the now decrepit buildings. Among the several photographs on show, there are only a handful of human portraits and Raman is mindful of this. She kept away from frequent people portraits even though she spent at least two-three days at each cinema meeting people before getting down to photographing the space. She felt that their portraits might perhaps reduce the expression of multifaceted personalities that each of them had. On the other hand, the considered architecture in each of these cinemas was what drew Raman to making portraits of the spaces, which then revealed the fancies of each of their owners.

Raman’s work also observes the passage of time in society, manifested through simple changes inside the cinemas. For instance, an old letter-sized switchboard in an old theatre built in the 1900s with original porcelain switches now sees itself wear a new replacement over the old fitting—signalling a change in technology, but not without an attempt at some basic repair work. Inside the Natraj theatre in Varanasi, Raman photographs the rows of seats, where one seat stands out for its odd, replaced upholstery, again marking the struggle for the old to hold its own against the new. Old paint marks and a framed portrait of Vladimir Lenin on a wall inside the projection room of National Talkies in Kolkata are relics of a time now well in the past. However, Raman’s detailed gaze is like a time machine, recreating a reference for what might have been and how the politics of that time was so relevant to the films that were made then. Her work is not just a collection of photographs of derelict cinemas and projection rooms but, rather, a projection of how the past might be thought of as a function of the various histories it carried in its passage, and how the personal and the public came together inside spaces that often screened imagined realities.

Cinema Play House opened on 11 November and is on show till 13 May at the George Eastman Museum, New York.

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