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Cinema play house.

Chacun Son Cinema (Each His Own Cinema, 2007) is a compilation of 35 three-minute films made by 37 global film auteurs commissioned on the occasion of the Cannes Film Festival's 60th birthday. The brief issued simply invited filmmakers to express "their state of mind of the moment as inspired by the motion picture theater". It is worth emphasizing - not merely the "motion picture" but rather the "motion picture theater"! Cannes was then emphatically asserting that the history of cinema is inextricably linked to the space of its exhibition, the cinema theatre. As Roland Barthes enunciates, rather succinctly, in his essay Leaving the Movie Theater, "Whenever I hear the word cinema, I can't help thinking hall, rather than film"

The overwhelming theme that emerges through the diverse imaginings of many of Chacun Son Cinema's filmmakers is a spectre of death haunting the existence of this shared public space and experience. While David Cronenberg portends this death rather provocatively by staging himself as the last Jew about to commit suicide in the last cinema theatre in the world; in the shorts by Takeshi Kitano, Theo Angelopoulos, Andrei Konchalovsky, and most strikingly Hou Hsiao-Hsien, we get the sense of film theatre as an empty, left-behind space fallen into a state of ruin and disuse. When we do receive images of vibrant communal viewings as in Claude Lelouch or Abbas Kiarostamis pieces, these are sealed with the stamp of the past and a sense of nostalgia.

I first encountered Nandita Ramans series of photographs, Cinema Play House, with the same despair as evoked by the images of Chacun Son Cinema, and also by other photographic series around Indian cinema theatres that, commonly, either reminisce on the grandeur of the bvgone single-screen theatre era or, conversely, mourn their majestic loss. It cannot be denied that the recent advent of multiplex in urban India has crucially altered the experience of cinema as a public space, transforming not only the industrial history of the film exhibition sector but also the history of urban development, public culture, and social change.

Although acutely aware of the need to account for this transitory history, Raman's photographs, located in the single-screen theatres of Kolkata, Delhi, and Varanasi, attempt to rescue the shifting cinema space from its ruinous and nostalgic imaginings. Albeit on the cusp of abandonment and loss, in Raman's images, these spaces continue to thrive in their dilapidated quirkiness: ladders behind a missing; screen inviting von to look beyond and clamber outwards; lacerated upholstery wittily disrupting the symmetry of the seating arrangement, and the elegance of celluloid, flowing downwards, in a crisp conversation with a pair of scissors.

In seminal work around cinema theatres, it is often the screen and the darkness of the auditorium that occupies the imagination. In Hiroshi Sugimoto's Theaters (1978--) series the luminescent screen remains at the centre of the composition, in turn illuminating the architecture of the surrounding space. Barthes rustles up his language to fetishize the "urban dark" of the movie theatre that, "... leads him from street to street, from poster to poster, finally burying himself in a dim, anonymous, indifferent cube where that festival of affects known as a film will be presented ... In this darkness of the cinema lies the very fascination of the film (any film)."

Raman's relationship with cinema theatres stems from her childhood. Her maternal family owned the first talkies theatre in her hometown, Varanasi. As an insider, she had access to the relatively inaccessible and privileged spaces: the projection room, the box office, and the supplementary offices. For her, then, the space of cinema extends beyond the screen and the screening room. In Ramans images, the empty symmetry of the entry corridor takes over Barthes's "dim, anonymous, indifferent cube" and the auxiliary office, in all its bareness and abruptness, remains stubbornly resilient in its functionality. A view from the ticket-sellers booth, while obscure, depicts the cinema hall of today, the picture palace of yesterday, as breathing, and as a burgeoning organism.

For a photographer who has had bundles of tickets and rejected film posters as her childhood playthings, nostalgia is more than easily evoked. Raman made a deliberate decision to disrobe nostalgia, looking for new ways to enter the affective dimensions of this space -- "... what became increasingly interesting were the idiosyncrasies of these spaces. These cinema theatres, mostly designed by the owners themselves, seemed to contain cues to the psyche of the people who had built them and who have inhabited them for several years now; as if the space and its arrangement was an extension of the occupier's interior."

In his 1927 essay "Photography" the cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer discusses how the organizing principle of memory is different from the organizing principle of photography. "Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Since what is significant is not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory images are at odds with photographic representation." In Kracauers analysis, then, compared to photography, memory's records are full of gaps. It is as if Ramans camera has an intuitive understanding of this gap, informed by the realization that memory is not an idea associated with the past but rather inscribed within the present. In Raman's photo series each image attains the difficult task of serving as a certificate of the living presence of the motion picture theatre.

The attempt to relinquish the pathos of pastness and print the palimpsestic presentness has imbued Raman's images with a series of thematic and aesthetic counterpoints. An essay of incisive images, Cinema Play House is a visual document of the real, decrepit space of the single-screen cinema theatre, but one that attempts to imagine it Actively and creatively; a portrait of the people who inhabit these shrinking spaces, but one that evokes them entirely in their absence; and finally a contemplation about death and passing, but sans any mourning or lamentation. Simply put, Cinema Play House has the perspicacity of playfulness.

If photography Is a function of the flow oj time, then its substantive meaning will change depending upon whether it belongs to the domain of the present or to some phase of the past.

- Siegfried Kracauer, "Photography"

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Photographs by Nandita Raman Text by Priyadarshini Shanker
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Author:Shanker, Priyadarshini
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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