Bharatmata comes of (digital) age

Jun 10, 2012, 07:28 IST | Kareena N Gianani

Bharatmata Cinema, one of Mumbai's oldest single-screen theatres, recently went digital. It means better film and sound quality, but not compromised to entertainment for those who still love their leisure at Rs 25

Inside Bharatmata Cinema’s projector room, 62 year-old Harishchandra Dalvi gets up from his chair and folds his hands in greeting. He takes a step ahead, and instantly ducks. “I am not used to the blast of this air conditioner yet,” he says, carefully moving out of the AC’s range.

Harichandra Dalvi at the projector room in Bharatmata cinema in Parel in Mumbai. Pics/Atul Kamble

A sliding glass door partitions the projector room, which has an iodine-heavy, almost sterile smell. In one half of the room stand two analogue movie projectors facing two small windows that open into the theatre. To an old world-charm junkie, the height — and age — of these projectors will surely mean more than the PC-sized, sleek Cineblaster Digital Projector that has the other half of the room all to itself.

A dish, the flyover
and a sloping roof Three weeks ago, when Bharatmata, Parel’s iconic single-screen theatre was digitised, Dalvi was afraid that his job would be taken away. “I cursed this area — Parel and Lalbaug — remember how all the mill workers lost their jobs?” Dalvi, however, didn’t meet their fate.

Digitisation will benefit Marathi film producers too, since they will no longer have to spend on film prints. Pics/ Ashish Rane 

Bharatmata’s owner, Kapil Bhopatkar, called for an employee meeting and assured his staff that the move to digitise the theatre would not affect their jobs.

Out of the projector room, Bhopatkar points to two satellite dishes mounted on a pole and supported by a makeshift structure to keep it in place.

The awkward position and angle of the apparatus, he explains, is due to the unavailability of a flat roof (Bharatmata has a sloping roof). The Lalbaug flyover interfered with the transmission, too. The 34 year-old, who took over from his father in 2000, says it was time. Bharatmata isn’t exactly known for keeping with the times,  he says candidly.

“Digital technology in films has been around for years now, but to invest in something for a theatre that still sells tickets for Rs 25-30, I had to wait for the technology to stabilise. I cannot afford to keep upgrading to better models in a year here,” he says. The theatre is not air-conditioned either. 

Same same, but different
But Bharatmata is no 71 year-old rheumy-eyed Luddite. True, not much has changed inside the theatre’s premises — stoic, long, wooden benches haven’t sprouted cushions, and popcorn sold during the interval hasn’t caramelised like at its fancy, multiplex cousins and is still available for Rs 10.

Bharatmata’s booking clerk, Pandhari Kadam, says queues outside the theatre are a tad longer, thanks to digitisation 

Change, however, can be heard behind the faded, limp curtains manning the exits. At 4 pm, Bharatmata is currently showing the hit, Kaksparsha starring Sachin Khedekar and Priya Bapat. Bhopatkar says he was waiting for a film like this — thoughtful, and one that makes a strong statement — to introduce the technology to this viewers.

The sound quality has improved greatly, and the background score is sharper, too. “We screened the pre-interval half of the fifth show using the analogue projector and the last half on the digital one.

The hoots and whistles told me it was a success. Now, I don’t have to worry about screening films that demand good sound system and picture quality,” says Bhopatkar. Spend one second inside the theatre and you know the winner is the picture and light quality.

For regulars Sadhana Patil and Balasaheb Patil, Bharatmata’s step toward digitisation means more value for the little money they shell out for the tickets

Earlier, Dalvi had everything to do with the quality of light during a film screening. He shares the evening shift with 42 year-old Ramashish Gupta who has been working at Bharatmata for 20 years. The duo is seated and keep glancing at the blinking screen of the digital projector to check the proceedings.

They glance at the old analogue projector, just out of habit, perhaps. “Kuchh vyayam ho jaata tha pehle (I got a bit of exercise back then),” says Dalvi, who has now moved over beside one of the analogue projectors. “Now, it’s all click click,” he says, pressing a button in the air.

Man and his machine
These machines, now quiet, require work and precision proportional to their size, jokes Dalvi. And they aren’t very kind either. He points at his exceptionally thick glasses and says analogue projectors need constant monitoring.

After fitting in the heavy reel inside the projector, the operator must focus all attention on the flame between two slim carbon rods inside. The image of the flame — its position and intensity — is visible on a small screen outside the projector through a mirror.

Bharatmata’s owner, Kapil Bhopatkar, says the ticket prices will not rise because the whole idea of digitisation is to make leisure — of great quality — accessible for everyone

For the three hours of a film, the operator must keep staring at the flame, lest the carbon rods shift inside. If it does, the light on the screen fluctuates greatly.

To explain the effect, Dalvi increases the distance between the rods. The flame weakens and the movie screen which is showing an advertisement before the 6 pm show (ads are still shown on the analogue projector) turns pitch black for a split second. Dalvi bites his tongue in jest and grins. “See?”

The burning carbon also releases harmful white fumes that cause respiratory disorders. Dalvi and Gupta, who have been working in a single shift since 12 years, take 20 minute-long turns to do the job.

“Imagine what can happen if the rods shift and the film darkens,” he says. It has happened in the past and Dalvi and Gupta say they had to think on their toes and work in sync to change projectors and resume the screening amid shouts from the audience.

Better at leisure
Outside the projector room, viewers spill out after the 6 pm show of Kaksparsha. Dr Prasad Akolkar, a regular, raises his eyebrows in appreciation when asked about the difference in the quality of the film screening.

“I’ve been coming here since years, but I could never pick up the background scores very well. And the picture quality is a treat, too. Occasionally, I think of heading to a multiplex instead of coming here. I don’t think that’s an issue any more,” says the 37 year-old.

Dalvi admits he gets a tad bored of just sitting around in the projector room, but is happy that he still has a job he loves dearly. “This is all I know.” He says he took to learning the computer quite well. “Why? I operate one at home every day!”

Actor and filmmaker, 55 year-old Sachin Pilgaonkar, says digitisation will mean a lot to Bharatmata’s audience and Marathi film producers too. “Audiences today understand film and sound quality. The move is great news for me, too.”

He says the move will greatly benefit Marathi film producers because they will now be able to save the money that goes into making prints for analogue projectors.

Pilgaonkar’s films have been screening at Bharatmata since 50 years and he feels it offers an authentic movie-watching experience. “I hate sinking into those red lounges in multiplexes. I love to sit straight in my seat, hoot and clap with the audience, and Bharatmata lets you do just that.”

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