The magic of cinema is fading…. literally. In existence for over a century since the first moving images mesmerized the world, the film format has been replaced with digital systems – both for shooting and projection. The replacement of analog with digital has sparked a long running debate for film lovers as to whether this paradigm shift has resulted in a loss of aesthetics and creative vision. Add to that the complete shift in consuming moving images on digital devices questioning the very future of cinemas, and you find yourselves standing at the crossroads.
I started photographing this series from 2013 just when 35mm prints and the last surviving film processing labs began to disappear in a country which is home to the biggest film industry in the world in terms of volume. This also meant that I could not fulfill my dream of actually photographing this series on film and hence the irony of shooting with a digital camera was obvious. My journey took me to projection rooms, derelict warehouses and cinemas that were still resonating with the whirring sounds of the last reels of celluloid. I could only imagine how the Imperial Cinema in Delhi’s Paharganj would have been in its heyday in stark contrast to its current state of decay as its warhorse Westrex projectors breathed their last before the cinema was shutdown. On the other hand, I ended up having a Cinema Paradiso moment while witnessing the projection of a 35mm print of Federico Fellini’s La Strada at Delhi’s Siri Fort auditorium.
But the highlight for me was Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk film distributors district where the manual transportation of prints in decaying film cans to shabby cinemas still running 35mm projectors offered a historic closure to a fading legacy: not the first time the ancient alleys of Old Delhi have witnessed the end of an era, from the Mughal Empire to British colonialism.
Chandni Chowk also offered an unexpected vista when I chanced upon some film shoots considering the old quarter’s historic locations have long been a muse for many a film-maker. Perhaps a moment that can probably never be repeated is when I chronicled a 16mm Arri camera being used to shoot a flashback sequence set in an old haveli for the film Line of Descent.
But Chandni Chowk also had a harsh wake-up call when I saw how film reels were brutally shredded and sold as scrap. If you had any fantasies about the magic of flickering images, well, this is where it all ended – the last picture show indeed.
In Mumbai, I managed to photograph the Kodak Cinelab just days before it shut down in 2014, heralding the end of a legacy. My photowalk through the empty laboratory and its storage rooms only led me to imagine how the place must have been as a beehive of activity in its glory days. Just when I thought that there was nothing left to photograph, in 2019 I discovered that the Habitat Centre in Delhi was still screening one film a month on 35mm. As Ritwik Ghatak’s Megha Dhaka Tara unspooled, I had to accept that this was indeed curtains as the flickering light of the projector ran its final round. The spool of life fading out at 24 frames per second.
Prix de la Photographie Paris Awards – PX3 – People’s Choice Awards : Book (Series Only) | Documentary – Professional Award: Gold
International Photography Awards 2014 – Honorable Mention – Deeper Perspective