The mushrooming of multiplexes in India in the mid-nineties, drastically changed the dynamics of Indian cinema through its reconfiguration of the viewing experience. Initially signifiers of social status and financial power, the multiplex audience was seen as reflecting the consumer aspirations of a growing urban middle class — whose expectations from the experience of film-viewing demanded both new forms of film exhibition and a new genre of cinema, now widely recognised, and termed the multiplex film.
In recent times, multiplexes have become common in their ubiquity; serving as a symbol of aspirational desire, rather than the status quo, they are currently once again involved in the configuration of a new kind of audience. As they have gradually assumed centre stage in all matters of film exhibition in urban centres, what has happened to the old bastions of cinema, once symbols of modernity themselves: the single-screen theatres?
Exploring this question, Zubin Pastakia’s photographic series, The Cinemas Project (2006-2010), documents the vanishing institutions of the single-screens. Anchored by historical weight and produced in a contemporary moment, these photographs are explorations in the relationship of cinema to not only space but also time. Cinema, in Pastakia’s context however, extends far beyond the film as cultural product and includes an appreciation of the diverse structures that support its existence — from the materiality of its reels and projectors at theatres to its audiences.
Though single-screen theatres are a fast dying breed, Pastakia’s photographs capture them as yet-living organisms, pronounced through social engagement, labour and habitation. They are less about capturing a sense of timelessness, than a sense of time-lived, of endurance. Though in part nostalgic, these images rise above being a mere record of anachronistic once-treasured architectural tropes and styles, ferreting out instead the human traces in these corridors, logbooks, projector rooms. Uniquely these images, with both human presence and absence, are framed in compounded time — bearing witness to the past and present simultaneously. Producing a complex web of history, architecture, biography, the city and memory, they frame the single-screen theatre within a wider mesh of social relationships, central to cinema and spectatorship.
By highlighting the historical and the social in relation to the cinematic, Pastakia produces an affecting and polyphonic chronicle of these disappearing spaces of labour and leisure: a slice of life, sliced from, and in, time.