The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, January 12, 2003

Movie exhibition: From theatre to cinema
Sarbjit Singh Bahga

Bollywood Showplaces: Cinema Theatres in India
by David Vinnels & Brent Skelly with additional material on Rajasthan by Braj Raj Singh. E & E Plumridge, Cambridge, in collaboration with and distributed by Decorum Books, London. Pages 288 (hardback). £ 30.

BOLLYWOOD — the Indian film industry — is undoubtedly the largest in the world. Copious works have been written on its economic, social and artistic significance and considerable literature is available concerning film stars, directors and productions. But woefully little attention has been paid to the other important constituent of the business, namely cinema exhibition and venues.

Bollywood Showplaces: The Cinema Theatres in India is the first book of its kind, which unfolds the metamorphosis of the Indian cinema theatre and throws light on its development, history, design and associated personalities. Its authors, David Vinnels and Brent Skelly, who are members of the Cinema Theatre Association of the UK, and the Theatre Historical Society of America, deserve all praise for their meticulous research on the hitherto neglected aspect of the Indian film industry. Credit also goes to Braj Raj Singh, an expert on the history of the former princely states and architecture of Rajasthan, who wholeheartedly contributed to the publication and supplied valuable material on cinemas in Rajasthan. Three cheers for the publishers as well, who have dared to choose the subject at such a juncture, when the establishment of new cinema theatres is already in decline due to the advent of alternative electronic media.


The book explores the first-century Indian film exhibition by tracing the individual stories of some one hundred cinemas selected in 12 cities across the country: Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi, Shimla, Pune, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Mysore and Chandigarh. The contents have been divided into two parts. Part one traces the changing fashions in cinema architecture from the earliest days of tents and converted theatres to the post-modern multiplexes of today. It looks at the development of purpose-built venues, the use of Hindu and Mughal decoration, the classicism favoured by the British and the lasting influence of the luxurious American-style art-deco, as well as later designs inspired by the work of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh.

In part two over one hundred cinemas designed by a number of well-known and comparatively lesser-known architects are described and lavishly illustrated. These architects include Shiv Nath Prasad, Maxwell Fry, Joseph Allen Stein, Charles Correa, Aditya Prakash, Uttam Chand Jain, Raj Rewal, H.S. Chopra, besides Walter George, Thomas W. Lamb, W.H. Nichols, W.M. Namjoshi etc., to name a few at random. Also chronicled are the achievements of major exhibitors, studios and filmmakers, such as Filmistan, Sivaji Ganesan, Globe Theatres, V. Shantaram, B.N. Sircar, J. F. Madan etc.

The chapter "Cinema Comes to India" unearths the origin of cinema from scroll paintings, illuminated and dramatised sequentially to the accompaniment of a vocal chant or instrumental music, which were the traditional means of story telling in India. Later on with the advent of the so-called magic lantern or slide projector in 1870, it became possible to show pictures many times enlarged by projecting the image on to a screen. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, inventors were working to perfect just a moving picture apparatus and ultimately succeeded in evolving ‘cinematographe’.

The first film show in India was given on July 7, 1896 in Watson’s Hotel in Bombay. The chapter "Theatres into Cinemas" explains that initially no new cinema buildings were constructed; instead existing European-style drama and variety theatres were converted. The chapter deals with when, where, and how such development had taken place. "The Purpose-Built Cinema: Changing Styles and Fashions" explains the changing trends from the first purpose-built cinema, Gaiety in Madras built in 1914, to Chittar Palace in Jodhpur built in 1944. "Travelling and Temporary Cinemas" tells of how cinema reached the rural India, as the purpose-built cinemas were largely located in urban areas. Travelling cinemas provided an economically viable alternative in such places, where the opportunity of ever seeing a film projected on to a big screen would otherwise be denied. More sophisticated temporary cinemas were established at the end of the Second World War to address the problem of over-crowding at city-centre venues.

"Modernism and After" explains that cinema designers in India showed little interest in Modern Movement till the 1940s. However, resistance to modernism evaporated after the demise of Mahatma Gandhi. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his desire for a complete break with the past, sought a different, modern architectural vocabulary for India. He embraced not an Indian style but European Modernism and a few years later was instrumental in the appointment of Le Corbusier as principal architect for the new city of Chandigarh. The impact of the European master was profound, resulting in cinema theatres designed by many architects of the new generation reflecting his aesthetics.

Apart from this, the book dwells on the evolution of building techniques, equipment, music in cinema, and current trends.

Printed on superior art paper, this hardcover coffee-table book includes about 18 colour and 280 B/W illustrations. In spite of these rich illustrations, the architectural fraternity may find it wanting in scaled drawings for better understanding of the buildings. Authors and publishers may consider that for future editions. Nevertheless, the treatise is a must for cinema and architectural historians and enthusiasts as well as those entranced by India and the fabulous and exotic world of Indian films.