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Nandita Raman brings Indian movie theaters to ND

Brigid Mangano | Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It would be safe to bet that 99 percent of students at Notre Dame have been to at least one movie theater in their lives. From that large pool, however, only a very small minority will have seen a film in India. Nandita Raman’s award-winning “Cinema Play House,” a series of 14 photographs of historic Indian movie theaters that are on display at the Snite Museum of Art through Dec. 4, offers these students a unique opportunity to learn more about the rise and decline of Indian cinema.

Raman herself will deliver a gallery talk at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Mestrovic Gallery of the Snite Museum. She will discuss not only her personal experience with movie theaters as a child growing up in Varanasi, India, but also the impact of home video on the movie theater industry and the ways in which cinema spaces reflect the personalities of their owners.

The photographs themselves are remarkable for their stillness. Only one photo indicates movement or activity in any of the photos. They are enigmatic because it is not always clear why Raman chose to capture a bare wall with a broken light switch or a locked trunk bearing the scarcely legible label, “Handle with Care.”

Some of the photographs are unambiguous depictions of theater spaces. One photo features an empty stage whose floor has been partially removed. Raman framed the stage tightly, bringing it quite close to the picture plane so that the viewer cannot help but wonder how it ended up in such a state of disrepair.

Another photograph zooms in on three rows of numbered, cushioned seats, while a third in the series offers a panoramic view of a large theater noteworthy for its missing chairs and decrepit ceiling. The viewer has no trouble identifying these photos as views of cinema spaces, even if they are a far cry from the modern cinema complexes to which Americans are accustomed.

Other photographs look much more like domestic spaces, so that the viewer would be unlikely to associate the image with an Indian cinema without foreknowledge of the series title. A photograph of a curtained window through which light is streaming is a fitting example. The fire pail, fire extinguisher and portrait of a balding man, all of which are hung adjacent to the window, offer no clue that the space in question is part of a cinema.

Certain photos attest to Raman’s appreciation of geometric form, including one of a paned, circular window whose shape is reiterated by two flanking film reels. Although all of Raman’s photos are aesthetically pleasing, this one in particular seems harmonious to the human eye.

The most hopeful of the photographs, and my personal favorite, is the only one with people and a sign of movement. The photo was taken from the inside of a box office, giving the viewer a look at the moviegoers from the point of view of a ticket distributor. Although the pane is dirty and cracked, the blurry outlines of moviegoers prevent this cinema space from having the air of abandonment that characterizes all the others.

Undoubtedly, Nandita Raman will have much more to say about this intriguing series, and all who take interest in photography or movie theater culture should attend Raman’s upcoming gallery talk.

What: Gallery Talk: Nandita Raman

Where: Mestrovic Studio Gallery, Snite Museum

When: Thursday, Nov. 17, 6:30-7:30 p.m.

How Much: Free

Learn More: sniteartmuseum.nd.edu