Meet Hemant Chaturvedi, who quit Bollywood to document old cinema halls across India

Watch | Meet Hemant Chaturvedi, who quit Bollywood to document old cinema halls across India

Meet former Bollywood cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi, now documenting single-screens across the country, at last count he had completed 1,077 theatres.

Updated - May 01, 2024 02:29 pm IST

Published - May 01, 2024 02:05 pm IST

Sometime in 2015, after working for 30 years as a cinematographer and helming big Hindi films such as Company, Maqbool and Kurbaan, Hemant Chaturvedi quit Bollywood.

“I stopped enjoying working for other people. It became tedious and pointless,” says Hemant, 56, “At the end of the day, the movie does not belong to the cinematographer; it belongs to the actor, director and the producer.”

It was a decision made to take up meaningful and signature work, but the path was not easy; it took more than two years to come to terms with it. “I battled depression, for various reasons, circumstantial mostly.”

In 2017, however, the tide changed, and Hemant found his niche. Despite quitting Bollywood and getting into full-time still photography, his fascination for cinema remained. Which is probably why he set out to embark on a mammoth project, one that would see him drive – all alone – a staggering 45,000 kilometres, covering more than 18 states and 900 towns.

During this journey, he photographed 1,077 single screen cinemas.

Hemant Chaturvedi

Hemant Chaturvedi | Photo Credit: Johan Sathyadas

All this effort, he says, is to document the life and times of single-screen cinema theatres, which are, in the face of multiplex invasion and OTT platform proliferation, slowly giving way for expansion. “Of the 1,077 I photographed in the last few years, I think 400 do not exist anymore. Sometimes, I go looking on the map for places I have already been to, and I find a maidaan...”

This passion project not only dishes out nostalgia to a generation that witnessed cinema in such theatres that operated on print projectors, but also captures life during simpler times. He says, “I wanted to document this era of entertainment that was dear to every Indian. People had a relationship with these structures. In fact, someone once told me, ‘In a small town, all you need to know are three people: the Police Commissioner, District Magistrate and... a cinema owner.’”

The facade of a single-screen

The facade of a single-screen | Photo Credit: Hemant Chaturvedi

Not only did this project yield rich cinematic heritage, it also fetched Hemant some interesting film memorabilia that he treasures. Over the course of this journey, he collected 900 film tickets, has been gifted 35-mm cinema projectors and projection lenses and old glass advertising slides. “Fifty years from now, if someone says there was a beautiful theatre in, say, Venkatagiri, there should be an image and a story behind it. That’s what I am trying to do,” says Hemant, who also helmed a documentary film titled Chhayaankan - The Management of Shadows, a tribute to the creative journeys of 14 senior cinematographers who worked primarily in the Mumbai film industry from 1960-2010.

In Chennai, where he was a few weeks ago, Hemant met his old set of cinematographer friends, which includes Nirav Shah, and displayed his photographs on the walls of the popular city cafe, Bask by Coffee?. He also devoted time during this visit to a couple of his other projects – on Parsi cemeteries and tombstone art on British cemeteries.

Hemant will also head to Karaikudi to document theatres such as Sivam Cinemas and Rajavilasam, after which he will head to Tirunelveli, Arani and then to Karnataka for more cinema theatres and cemeteries. Hemant promises to drive on and discover as many places as he can. “Being curious keeps me going. I also believe in whimsicality as a working ideology. I could just be driving down, and if I see something interesting I like, I will stop and spend some time there.”

The interior of a cinema hall

The interior of a cinema hall | Photo Credit: Hemant Chaturvedi

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