Art deco single screen movie theatres in Karnataka 

I started to shoot single screen movie theatres or ‘Talkies’ during an exploration of the changing urban landscape of my neighborhood in Bangalore, India. Formerly a traditional, residential locality, it was losing it’s iconic landmarks and thereby it’s unique character and heritage. Much to my chagrin, beloved Bangalore itself was falling victim to the agenda of property ‘developers’.

 Single screen theatres are particularly vulnerable to gentrification. In urban India, a lot of ‘talkies’ are giving way to gated residential communities, shopping complexes or multi-screen cinemas (multiplex). Due to a combination of factors, talkies are stuck in a vicious cycle of low ticket sales/profitability and inability to update their facilities, making their existence a constant struggle for survival. In the circumstances, demolition of the theatre and leasing out the land is an attractive proposition to owners to ensure an assured income at no hassle.

 Theatres that hold out against the inevitable march of capitalism, have to resort to screening B-grade regional cinema. Production houses and distributors offer talkies unfavorable financial terms relative to national multiplexes, effectively nudging them out of the reckoning when it comes to big ticket releases. Sadly, even these desperate measures cannot ensure Full Houses – shows are often cancelled because the minimum ticket requirement remain unfulfilled.

 It is no surprise that the infrastructure of the talkies begins to mirror the falling quality of content being screened in them. Outmoded sound systems, tattered upholstery, broken seats and air-conditioning, missing roof panels are all part of the deal. An usher at a single screen theatre in a small town told me that their screenings attract a rather ‘disreputable crowd’ – alcoholics, the unemployed looking to duck out of the heat, people holding furtive meetings and the like.

 Despite their decline, these spaces are well cared for and their configuration is relatively relaxed, unique and open to personalization. More than one theatre housed a resident pet animal; dressing rooms, kitchenettes and lounges are not uncommon and almost all had a little shrine and waiting areas. One particularly impressive theatre even had a sprawling garden. As an ‘objective’ architectural study, talkies are less orderly and dogmatic about the use of space, giving the opportunity to stumble upon a nook.

 It was hard not to succumb to nostalgia while shooting talkies. Their anachronism is a huge part of their charm. The characteristically art-deco style, the retro ticket booths/stubs and the snack bar were reminiscent of the early 90’s when I used to visit with my parents to enjoy melodramatic Bollywood movies and ‘theatre samosa’.

 Despite the obituaries, single screens are still critical to a movie’s success, especially in smaller towns. A majority of screens in India are still housed in talkies and movie producers/distributors are mindful of this audience. Even urban single screen theatre owners are trying to find innovative ways to diversify their audience and pull in more numbers. While the prognosis is still dire, there is no cause to sound the death knell for talkies just yet.