Narayan Singh

Guwahati, India

(A) Room to Contemplate

For 47 years I have worked in one cinema. And in those many years, I have not seen a single film in a cinema hall. My world is the projection room. A dull yellow, rectangular room, of a few square feet. In the last four decades every film that has screened at Guwahati’s Rupasree Cinema has passed through my hands. Preparing a celluloid print for a Friday opening is my ritual and the projector my God. Film projection is a human craft. It is manual, repetitive and it quietens me. Having worked in the projection room for most of my life, I do not like to be in crowded or noisy spaces. I get nervous and cannot relax. People ask me, ‘Don’t you get overwhelmed by the sound of the projector, the hot temperature in the projection room, the bright, blinding light of the projector?’ I like them all. For me they make the movies come to life.

I love to watch films. Since I became a projectionist, I have watched every film from the little window of the projection room only. If a technical check of some kind was required, only then I would step into the cinema hall. To this day, I don’t know the colour of the seats there. The projector’s sound, flicker, light, heat, smell — all this makes this machine like a living companion. The projector is my close friend and if it is in any way faulty I get very uneasy. I repair it, and once all is well with it my happiness is restored. In my entire career, the projector has never broken down in the middle of a show. It was my goal that every show under my supervision would run flawlessly. In Assam, this is a challenge: there is high humidity and heat here that can affect machines; there are regular power failures and an overall lack of cinema infrastructure given the remoteness of this region. The first projector I started working with here was an American model, a Super Simplex. It took a lot of work to run that projector. It was foreign-made and so when the smallest part broke down, one had to open up the whole machine and it could take a few days for replacements to be sent over. Running shows was very challenging in such situations. That projector was replaced by an Indian-made machine, Mobitex. We got it from Calcutta. Now that has been replaced by another Indian-made projector, Raja. It makes me happy these machines are made in India now, so we are not dependent on foreign sources to show our films. They are much simpler to operate and maintain; they have been made with consideration for conditions in India.

I was introduced to cinema at a very early age and back then cinema was a family affair. My grandparents, my parents and I all went together. Our home in Guwahati, where I was born and still live with my family, is sandwiched between two cinema halls: the Kelvin and the Rupasree. My father was an electrical engineer. Alongside other jobs, he was the Chief Engineer for the Rupasree. Our house used to be full of large machines that he would bring to repair from all over town. As a little boy I was fascinated by machines and I used to help him repair them. By my teenage years I could understand and repair machines myself. When I finished school at 16 years of age, a friend said to me: ‘Cinema is very popular and you love it. You even know how to run its machines. Why don’t you look for a job in the cinema?’ I started as an assistant projectionist and then worked my way up at the Rupasree. I became a licensed projectionist in 1966 and I retired in 2009, having served as Ruapsree’s Chief Projectionist for over two decades. A few days later, the cinema owner came to our house and requested that I somehow continue to work at the hall. He said I could supervise the new projectionist. So now I go in the morning and stay for about two shows. No late night shows run now, given the tense political situation here and the overall decline in cinema viewership. I come back by evening. This is the only job I have done in my whole life. I had offers to work in other cinemas, but I felt committed to Rupasree. I learned my whole craft here. I can’t just go to any other projection room and feel the same connection as I do here.

About three years ago there were plans to convert the Rupasree into a multiplex. They brought some machines over and I set them up for testing. But the city authorities denied permission because of parking limitations in this part of Guwahati. There is too much traffic in this city now. This was a small town, but now it is very crowded and things are haphazard. In a way I was happy that the cinema was not converted into a multiplex. Of course, multiplex projection is technically more advanced, but I don’t identify with the overall film culture that multiplexes have brought with them. The ticket is so expensive [Rs. 300-500, approx. $6-10] and I have worked so many years in the cinema that I know anyone who is an honest tax-payer in this part of India cannot afford to see a film in the multiplex with their whole family on the monthly salary they earn.

Films have also changed aesthetically. Today, I feel mainstream Indian films are not made with faith in film as an art form. Hindi cinema has become technically advanced and this is good; but the stories are so hollow. Films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s were all studio-based and there was hardly any location shooting, yet there was an admirable quality to them. See films like Mother India (1957) or Upkaar (1967). Hindi films depicted love so poetically. Romance had a timeless quality and to this day some of those images are so vivid in my memory. Now very little is suggested to the viewer; hardly anything is left to the imagination. Everything must be spelled out. Loudly. Hindi films have even surpassed B-grade English films in their obscenity. I hesitate to watch new films of what is called ‘Bollywood’ with my children and grandchildren. I cannot fathom that children of today will grow up without knowing the difference between cinema, television and video games. For them it is all one and the same. It is not entirely their fault. The world is full of images; they keeping pouring in and there is no room to contemplate them.

One of the most profound impacts of technological advancement in filmmaking and exhibition in India has been the slow erasure of the projectionist. In the era of celluloid, projecting a film legally required the manpower of at least four skilled persons: the chief projectionist and three assistants. Now one person is needed, if that. Everything is in a digital cloud that no one sees, touches or feels. You press a button and that’s it. The projectionists’ union has dissolved and many of my fellow-workers who were my closest friends are no longer living. I feel alone. When I meet aspiring projectionists I can sense their talent, their appreciation for the tactility of the celluloid medium. But I see no future for them. And as technologies have changed, audiences have changed. Previously, when people came to watch a film, they would queue up and wait patiently for a ticket. Hindi films or foreign films like neo-realist cinema, they would sit in the hall and watch the film in silence, attentively. Making any noise — talking and even coughing was considered disrespectful towards other viewers. In my projection room I could sense how engrossed the audience got. Now everything has to be instantaneous and noisy; and if it is not that way, people just leave the cinema hall. There is no burning thirst to watch a film on the big screen. The magic of that experience does not hold much sway now. Everything is instant and remote-controlled. And in this remote-controlled culture, the human link between celluloid and audience, the projectionist, is becoming ever more remote.

Our thanks to Professor Aparna Sharma of the University of California – Los Angeles, who interviewed Narayan Singh for this vignette and also translated it.

March 2013

© copyright caboose 2013

Narayan Singh is a retired projectionist from Guwahati, the largest city in the Indian state Assam. At the age of 16 he became an assistant projectionist and in 1966 a licensed projectionist at Guwahati's Rupasree Cinema. He worked at Rupasree for 47 years until he retired in 2009. Since then he has continued to work at the theatre as a supervisor to the new projectionists.
A 35mm Raja projector at Rupasree Cinema.
Narayan Singh in the projection room at Rupasree Cinema.
Narayan Singh in the projection room at Rupasree Cinema.
The morning shift at Rupasree Cinema.