Inside a Vanishing World

Saaya Vaidya

In 2019, photographer and retired cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi was visiting his hometown Allahabad. On a walk, he was overcome by a sense of deja vu and began to look for a cinema that he’d often visited in the Seventies and Eighties. With a little help from an autorickshaw driver, he found the old Lakshmi Talkies perched behind a tree.
He approached a paan-wala nearby. “Bhaiya, yeh Lakshmi Talkies ki kya kahani hai? (Brother, what is the story behind Lakshmi Talkies?),” he asked. It turned out that the single-screen cinema had been shut for 25 years and was going to be demolished soon to make way for a mall. And so began Hemant Chaturvedi’s odyssey of documenting the rapidly disappearing single-screen cinemas. The photographer would go on to document 60 cinemas in Gujarat before “the bug” got him.
It took only a few phone calls for Chaturvedi to unlock the doors of Lakshmi Talkies. Inside was art deco architecture, a statue of goddess Lakshmi covered in dust and missing a forearm, and teak wood bannisters. The cinema had been stripped of all equipment and furniture and was essentially a “shell” of itself, but on the walls of the auditorium were hand-painted murals of Bharat Milap (1942) and Luv, Kush and Sita from the Ramayana.
Chaturvedi has since travelled 35,000 kilometres in his jeep across 800 Indian towns, stayed in more than 200 hotels and taken photographs of nearly 1,000 cinemas. Each single-screen cinema is a reflection of the owner’s tastes and aesthetics, said the photographer. “There’s very little research you can do in advance and very often, you only find out what the cinema looks like when you reach it. The kind of things I have found are just amazing and that curiosity about what I will find next. I hate missing a theatre because I'm never sure what I might have missed.”
Among Chaturvedi’s priceless discoveries are strips of film from Don (1978), another strip of film hanging on a bannister with Amrish Puri on it, and the faces of Sanjeev Kumar and Tabu painted on washroom doors instead of the stick figures we see in multiplexes.
The photographer — whose cinematography credits include Maqbool (2003) — has shot in 15 Indian states so far and intends to cover the rest soon. “I would like to represent each state,” he said.