The Road Less Travelled

Hemant Chaturvedi, once a Bollywood cinematographer, left the industry and now concentrates full-time on his passion for documentary photography. Till now, he has documented a formidable 1045 single screen theatres across India, and continues to do so. A guy who doesn’t really ‘get bored’ of working on a project for a long time, he has also made ‘Chhayankan’, a documentary on the yesteryear cinematographers of Indian cinema. Sourajit Saha, on behalf of ind.igenous, sat with him over a video meet and listened to his incredible stories, from his formative years to his Bollywood heydays, and his travels across the country in search of abandoned theatres or forgotten ruins.

Let’s begin from the beginning. How did you get into arts and films in general?

I think the closest and earliest association I had with any artistic form was comics, I was probably three or four when my first Tintin comic was gifted to me. I always credit my ability to break down scenes into shots, to comics. I think they do shot breakdowns absolutely immaculately – using lensing and angles which I would not have learned otherwise. I would credit my cinematography career largely to my fascination for comics. As you can see, I’m surrounded by books. (He points to the bookshelf behind him). Most of these are my collection of graphic novels, I think I have more than two thousand. Food history books are another one of my fascinations. 

We were never a film family; we were never film buffs as such. I have this old story. I think it was 1974, I was six years old. My dad was in the Indian Air Force, and he had transferred to Assam, around forty-five kilometers away from Guwahati. There was this hangar kind of space, and they had a projector where they used to show a film every weekend. I still remember the first film that I went to see with my dad, an I S Johar film called 5 Rifles. And at some point, maybe forty-five minutes into the film, suddenly the screen just went Shhhh… because of the old nitride film, you know, it just got burnt. And the show ended. So my first experience of watching a movie was quite dramatic. And somehow, I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch Five Rifles again. I know it’s on YouTube, or I can buy a VCD, but I always expect my screen to explode! The first proper film that I saw was again with my father – Star Wars in 1980 at the Natraj cinema in Ahmedabad. It had this beautiful mural of Natraj. But it’s gone years ago. I’ve already put it on my list to shoot it.

Bharat Talkies, Najibabad, UP

How did you get into cinematography?

I had no intention of being in films at all. I was studying English literature in college and editing several magazines in those three years. I was all set to become a journalist. In my very first year in college, I was introduced, accidentally,  to the world of filmmaking. There was a strike in my college and I had some free time. At that time, I had a friend who called me up and said ‘My Mamu Jaan is making a documentary film and I thought you might find it very interesting. Go to his office near Regal Cinema and meet him’. So I went to the office and discovered that this Mamu Jaan was Ismail Merchant of the Merchant-Ivory films. They had a music director called Richard Robbins who had been coming to India and was fascinated by the range of rhythmic sounds you hear on the streets in India and wanted to make a documentary on that.  I was handed a Polaroid camera and a sound recording device. My task was to take photographs on that Polaroid and record interesting sounds on the street. For months in 1985, from 8 am to 2 pm, I used to roam around the streets of Bombay doing this and Robbins would listen to the sounds, and if he liked any, would ask me to bring back the person who played it to the studios. Around this time, I finally got to be a part of a film crew where I saw the legendary Jehangir Choudhary and was absolutely fascinated by this elegant man looking at the sky through this strange device and doing these mathematical calculations and then shutting one eye and vanishing into his little world. I thought, ‘Yaar ye toh sahi hain!..Bada accha lag raha hain jo bhi kar raha hain’. Then I worked with Merchant-Ivory on and off just as a volunteer. I also went to Filmistaan Studios with some of my friends every now and then. I remember seeing the shooting of Ajooba, where I saw Amitabh Bachchan delivering a dialogue ‘Tu Sher Hain toh main Sava Sher hoon’. I was most amused by that dialogue!

Peter Perreira was the cinematographer for Ajooba. It’s exactly a year since he passed away. I had gone up to him and said, ‘Sir I want to work with you! I want to be a cinematographer.’ He replied (Hemant mimics Perreira’s sweet, endearing manner of speaking) ‘Yes yes beta first finish your college and then come to me’. I applied to FTII but got rejected because of my literature background. I also tried to assist cinematographers in Bombay but they didn’t want me. So I then went to Delhi to apply for the Times School of Journalism which was taking its first batch in 1988. Then someone asked why I didn’t apply for the mass communication course in Jamia, so I did. I got selected for both. I chose Jamia to get a taste of documentary filmmaking. Then I came back to Bombay and roamed around for two years to find work as a cinematographer. I have stories of FTII seniors being downright rude to me and I made a mental note that later in life if any young person comes to me for advice, I have to be nice to them. Over the years, when my films started releasing, they became more respectful and became friends. They forgot how disrespectful they were at their arrogant best! They are all in my film (Chhayankan) by the way! (Laughs)

Jehangir Choudhary in Hemant’s documentary, Chhayankan

Since you mentioned your film, let me ask you the reason you chose to make this film and your experiences of making it.

Since I left cinematography in 2015, these interviews were the first thing that I did. I had too many questions that were left unanswered, I believed these existential questions could be answered by those who had actually gone through the entire gamut of experiences and emotions in their lives. It was very difficult to choose whom to include, so I chose those seventeen people whom I had approached, whose work I had followed, and who I had looked up to when I was growing up. I went through the interviews and did some transcription and realised that it reminded me too much of my own journey. I couldn’t bring myself to go through that again…shooting the documentary was fine, but reviewing the footage…I went through depression for years. I couldn’t get into the mind space required to put the film together. Then in 2020, I heard that Ishwar Bidri had passed away. It hit me that if my own cast was passing away, what was the point of making this film if I couldn’t show it to them?

We had the first screening in FTII and what is fascinating is the fact that I was showing a film about people whose careers had ended to a crowd of young people whose careers hadn’t even started! A lot of youngsters felt that the documentary was a masterclass in cinematography. Let me share one incident. An assistant was working with me on this documentary, she was trying to get into a European film school at that time and was not getting through, and hence was upset. Later, when the film was screened and the core crew went out for dinner, she came up to me with tears and told me that those twenty-five days of shooting gave her the best film school she could’ve gone to! She had listened to all the interviews while shooting, and had subliminally incorporated so many things that she heard into her life and career. You know, I have another story for you – this must be 1991, I think – it was that moment when you realise that the people who work with you, especially the light boys, are the people who are to be loved and respected, not just at the beginning of your career, but throughout. We interviewed a few light boys as well, which didn’t make it to the documentary.

Oh, this is new! Please go on if you have any interesting stories from your interactions with the light boys.

In 1991 I was shooting a music-cum-dance show and the director wanted to shoot a special on Waheeda Rehman. They had some songs they wanted to recreate. We were shooting in Mehboob Studios. At that time, Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book ‘In Search of Guru Dutt’ had come out and I, being a big-time fan of Dutt, read it. So as a young cinematographer, I was determined to create that same beam of light from Kagaaz Ke Phool, for which they had made a hole in the roof of the studio and used the sun as the source, and later when the sun wasn’t there, they had used a 10kW light and mirrors. ‘Toh ek beam toh banana hi padega. Waheeda Rehman special hain toh beam toh jayez hain! Now, I as a twenty-three year old, would obviously not be allowed to make a hole in the roof of Mehboob studios. So I begged and begged the producer and got a 6 kW light and one big mirror to recreate that scene. I set up the light and moved it around but still, that beam wasn’t materialising. And then, one of the light dadas came and said, ‘Aap light aur mirror ko bas 20 ft door kar do’ and bam, the beam was made! I went up to the gentleman later to thank him for bailing me out and asked him how he knew about this trick. The light dada replied that it was in this very studio that the iconic scene was shot and he was holding the mirror at that time. Murthy Saab was facing the exact same problem, and one of his seniors had suggested the same solution!

This is such a great story!

You know, they are sixty-seventy years old…they have pretty much seen it all. Around 1992, I was shooting for another television show. We had taken a lunch break for an hour, and it was not even twenty minutes when the production manager started shouting and foulmouthing the light boys. So, I took it up with him and made him go up the ladder to those catwalks and made him feel the heat up there amongst those heavy lights. I was obviously sacked from the show the same day, but I made my point.

Well, sadly, I always say that Bollywood is the last bastion of the feudal system in the country. When people ask me why I left working in the industry, I say it’s very simple. If you have a conscience, it’s very difficult to work in the industry. There’s feudal anarchy, even today!

Let us now get into the topic of how you began photographing, and how you decided to document the single-screen theatres.

When I was finishing school in Delhi, I stole my father’s still camera during one of my holidays. He didn’t realise it was missing. I had money to buy one roll of film. I shot my classmates and corners of the hostel in all kinds of funny angles. That was the first time I took photographs. Then, when I was in Jamia, I got a Zenit TTL and I realised this was something I actually liked – the fact that there’s this hole through which you look and can eliminate the rest of the world, and focus on one part that’s aligning with your aesthetics, this process really appealed to me.

I believe – and I’ve given this advice to many young people – that one should always have parallel passions separate from one’s professional commitment. It could be anything, from origami to motorcycle restoration, but it should give you a reason to wake up with twice as much energy as a day of film shooting, even on a day you don’t have a shoot. The moment a shoot was over; I would be out photographing. I did quite a lot of photo projects between 1988 and 1994. I got offered to publish a book and the publisher wanted to see my work. I was going to my lab to make a hundred-page portfolio when the briefcase with all my years of work got stolen! Six years of work, gone! That was a huge setback. I used to have nightmares where there’s this faceless person sitting on cement pipes, opening my briefcase and pulling out stuff, saying ‘Ye bakwaas hain’. One of those lost projects was photographing Bollywood stuntmen like Shyam Kaushal and Allan Amin during their initial years. I had almost sixty rolls of these stuntmen doing their thing! I had also followed the path of a Ganesh idol from the clay structure to its end on the beaches where you see all the distorted structures. I had fantastic pictures in black and white and color. I went back to Chowpatty to photograph and got arrested. I didn’t know that you can get arrested if you photograph Ganesh murti in a state of decay. I got roughed up a bunch of Shiv Sainaks!

I was very traumatized. But then again, one day, I was back photographing. You know, a lot of these series would have been important today! But they don’t exist. (Sighs)

Jai Hind Talkies, Amravati, Maharashtra

You should once again pick up your camera and be at it!

No, I can’t get these people in their formative years. Also, they were shot in Kodak and Ilford, Fuji chrome, and Transparency slide. On top of that, these guys are so self-obsessed now and you now need a lot of clearance starting from the producer, you can’t publicise this and that…they have all become so secretive on set! Although, I am thinking of doing a series on women cinematographers on set. Actually, photography has been with me forever. It’s the best thing you can do. And I think photography is a lonely profession.

It’s also very personal.

That’s what makes it. Once, I was lecturing a group of students in Delhi. At that point, I think I had shot about 875 cinemas and been to 14 states. One fellow asked, ‘Sir aap bore nahi ho jaate kya?’ I replied, ‘Luckily, I’m not from your generation. I don’t get bored that easily.’ (Laughs) I think that’s the critical difference. And it’s the spirit of curiosity. When I go out with my camera bag, I don’t know what I’ll find. I might find an old projector, an oddity somewhere.

I have always grappled with this question of deciding when to stop documenting a subject that one has been documenting for years.

 I think a project of this scale will stop when it is ready to stop. I have this target of shooting at least one cinema hall from every state. I’m almost there, except for a few states in the northeast. It would be very interesting to visit those states as they have very few cinemas there but unique ones, some made of bamboo. There’s a cinema hall in Nagaland which got converted to a church. I’m very keen to see a Jesus on a crucifix in front of a cinema screen and candles in a pulpit. It would be very fascinating!

So these things end on their own, you can’t really predict. When I started off shooting those four cinemas in Allahabad, I didn’t realise I’d end up shooting 1045 cinemas! There’s that moment at which a commitment to a project changes. When you realise that its future is finite, I call it the tipping point…recently, I was in Benaras, someone asked how many cinemas I had shot. I said 939, and it sounded really foolish. When you say I have shot more than a thousand, you feel better just saying that. You know when I went back to UP recently, I found that we have lost sixty percent of the cinemas in these few years from the time I last went to photograph there, in 2019. There was an unusual-looking cinema called Natraj Talkies in Benaras which was demolished a year and a half ago. I had taken a rickshaw to see it. We reached this iron fence on an empty ground with a signboard saying ‘Disputed property. Trespassers will be prosecuted.’ Next to it, was a cluster of three old cinema seats – they used to be front stall seats. That was the irony – a cinema had nothing left but only three seats! In Sultanpur, where I’d shot my thousandth cinema, the front wall had fallen but the old booking office window was still there. I need to find one small thing to represent the cinema, I don’t need the entire thing.

Padma Talkies, Solapur, Maharashtra

Do you think your work, your style of shooting, has changed over the years, or has it remained the same?

There are certain things I’ve done throughout. Also, each cinema offers certain unique things. You know, that’s the beauty of single-screen cinemas. Each one has its individuality. There’s no chance of a replication of them. One cinema owner, a very funny man, said to me one day, ‘Arre Hemant why are you wasting time and money shooting all these decrepit cinema halls? Go to any PVR down the road and photograph. They are all the same.’ He said it as a joke but it is so true! You shoot any PVR and you can represent any multiplex in the world.

Okay, so certain things I follow, certain angles I maintain. The entire project is shot on a tripod from eye level maintaining the base ISO. I’ve fixed the ISO as I wanted the same grain structure. The idea of shooting from eye level is that I have entered the space and that’s how I see it. That’s my point of view. As you get deeper into a subject, you evolve as a researcher, you evolve as a photographer. I had shot Niranjan Cinema five years back, it was this gigantic Art Deco cinema in Allahabad from 1952. Coincidentally, the last film that they showed was Company which was my first film as a cinematographer. I realised later that Niranjan was such a spectacular cinema, but since I was inept at that time to tackle photographing such a structure, I might not have shot it as I should have. My approach has changed, my angles have improved, my lensing has changed. So, I called up the owner and said ‘Sir I need to go back to your cinema’. Now I shot it better than I had shot it five years ago. I have changed as a person. Then you understand that no job done seriously can ever be approached superficially. You have to know your subject inside out!

Did you also photograph the projectionists or the ticket collectors or any people associated with the cinemas?

At the third cinema I shot in Allahabad, Manas Talkies, I had gone up to the projection room and found an elderly gentleman who had been working as a projectionist for sixty-five years! He refused to get photographed facing the camera as he was too shy. So I only had his portrait with his back to the camera. On this journey, wherever I have found the projectionist and his machine – and also sometimes the old man only, where the machine isn’t there anymore, I have photographed. I now have a hundred and fifty photographs of the projectionists. I have heard the most amazing stories from them. I also did portraits of the owners. But several of them had refused. So I abandoned shooting them. But I majorly shot the empty spaces. I’m more interested in the design and architecture aspects of it. 

The way of experiencing cinema has changed more so after the advent of smartphones. What are your thoughts regarding that?

There has been a sociological study amongst researchers on how a mass of people has been excluded from the cinema-watching experience. Single-screen cinemas are forced to shut down and the multiplexes cater to a certain class of people. Therefore, the only viable medium is to resort to earbuds and a phone. The family of four going to a PVR spends four thousand rupees and if the film isn’t good, it’s a waste of money. This is a time when the experience controls us rather than us controlling the experience.

Jumna Talkies, Haridwar, UK

Finally, Hemant, what are your plans with the Cinemas project and what else are you working on?

The Cinemas project is just one thing I’ve been working on. There are other projects as well. I realised that I won’t get to travel like this in my life again, so I started documenting British-era cemeteries and Parsi Cemeteries which is rare as they usually leave the dead in the Tower of Silence. Other than this, I have almost five thousand images of abandoned idols! So yeah, cinemas are one of these projects. But I’m happy about completing a thousand cinemas since no one else will perhaps be able to achieve such a feat. Most of these single-screen theatres that I shot don’t exist anymore.

For folks in Mumbai who are interested in Hemant’s work, an exhibition of select photographs from the single-screen theatre project is on at the Kala Ghoda Cafe till March 31, 2024.

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