In a technology driven world with rapid scientific progress, novelty rarely lasts long. Things, processes and systems grow outdated in remarkably short spans of time: the floppy disk, why even the video CD, once the promise of future, already in a decade, have become relics of the past. Caught in the midst of a changing world and the ever-growing business of entertainment, are the fast disappearing breed of video parlours.
These makeshift theatres that allow patrons to watch prime cinematic ventures for low and affordable prices (compared to conventional theatres) are slowly falling out of favour due a host of factors including the coming of internet, quick previews of new releases on television, and growing aspirational desires to participate in the multiplex experience.
Sheetal Mallar takes her camera to Orlem, also known as Chota Dharavi and predominantly occupied by Tamil migrants, to document some of the surviving centres in Mumbai. In her artist statement she writes, “There are many video parlours here showing movies, porn, cricket matches etc…For many labourers, and people who work night shifts at call centres , this is their only affordable way of enjoying cinema, which is privately run as opposed to crazy high prices at the multiplexes. Even though they are struggling for survival, due to piracy issues, the video parlours are an integral part of this neighbourhood.”
In that, she strikes at the primary nexus of emotional weight registered by these photographs. In “a densely packed colony with many narrow lanes lined with small shops, and one-room houses stacked one on top of the other”, these single room cinemas with their projection screens and benches function as a space of encounter and engagement. Producing an intimate communal viewing experience, they hark back to the advent of cinema, of moving pictures in tents, even before theatres. With the advent of newer gadgets, there has been a global movement towards smaller screens and smaller audience clusters (climaxing with the individual) in the realm of cinematic viewing experiences, be it the television, the personal computer, laptops, notebooks, and now tablets and phones; and in this context, video parlours function as an alternate form of audience engagement. Unlike multiplexes, they produce a neighbourhood-like feel with regular patrons and more consistent relationships, which in turn is reminiscent of family-film-watching traditions in the early years of television in India.
‘Video Parlours’ by Mallar is an ongoing project aimed at preserving a visual record of this phenomenon of video parlours, an endangered species now; but if one were to look carefully at these photographs, so many other layers lie, waiting to be unpeeled. Serving as an exploration of a single community in Mumbai through the backroom spaces of their video parlours, they further still, are a commentary on the ways in which class, gender (the parlours are male bastions, unfrequented by women and children), and community are entangled in the circuits of film consumption.