Meet the masters of moving images

Feb 25, 2013, 02:28 IST | Hassan M Kamal

As we celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema, the film buff is able to revel in the experience amid plush interiors, flavoured pop corn et al. While the cliches remain, it's the unseen hand that runs the projector in these movie halls who makes the magic of cinema possible in reality. The Guide did a backroom visit

For someone like Jagjivan Maru of Maratha Mandir at Mumbaic Central, Mumbai, who has spent everyday of the last four decades doing the same thing — screening films, cinema is literally a life-long journey. For this 62-year-old projectionist, his work is a symbol of respect, responsibility and love for the moving images. Maru became a projectionist when he was 20, training at the now-demolished New Talkies in Bandra, Mumbai, for two years and then moving to G-7 where he manned its carbon arc lamp projector for 20 years. 

Abdul Rasheed, projectionist at Liberty’s Cathay Preview Theatre. Pics/ Hassan M Kamal

Later, he was transferred to Maratha Mandir, where he now manages its Xenon Lamp projection system. “The projection systems have changed a lot. carbon arc lamps are replaced with xenon lamps, and analogue audio systems have been replaced with the Dolby Theatre Systems,” says Maru, adding, “Now, digital is replacing everything else, which is good as the quality is far better.” But Maru feels that despite the improvement in technology, the quality of cinema has fallen. “Today’s films are all about vulgarity. Going to the cinema is no longer a family affair,” he rues.

Jagjivan Maru at Maratha Mandir’s projection workshop.

Sheikh Mohammed Aslam, the projectionist at the 1947 Art Deco theatre, Liberty Cinema in New Marine Lines, Mumbai, however, has no such complaints, but looks up at his job with the same pride. He also doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that Liberty is now transforming itself into a cultural venue, and that he doesn’t get to screen as many films as he used to do, a few years ago. “The audience pays a lot to watch a film, and it’s our responsibility that we do everything to ensure that the audiences get to watch the film the best way possible,” he says, as he proudly takes us through Liberty’s projection system — one of the few in Mumbai with both analogue and digital projection systems.

The projection room inside the Cathay Preview Theatre at Liberty, however, remains caught in a time warp. The projection system, over 50-year-old carbon arc lamp system, has screened countless number of films in its lifetime, often the first to screen a film before it reaches the Censor Board or hits the Box Office.

“Even now, a film comes here first, and then to the censors,” says Abdul Rasheed, projectionist at Cathay Preview Theatre. “A first screening is very important, as it’s here where one can figure if the light in certain scenes is good or bad, and can check the audio quality of the film. While the system is over 50 years old, most filmmakers prefer Cathay for a first screening,” he reveals, before getting back to his work. 

Fixing it
When a film breaks during projection, a projectionist has to manually fix the two parts together. Earlier when film reels were made of cellulose triacetate plastic base, they would use a liquid chemical called film cement to fix them together. Now, films are put together using transparent tape.

Impatient Aamir
When Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak opened in 1988, Aamir Khan would visit Gaiety Theatre in Bandra, everyday. He would sit in the projection room with Jagjivan Maru and watch the audience from a small window inside Gaiety’s projection room. Aamir was keen to see which sections were applauded, and other reactions too. During the screening of his film Pyaar Ishq Aur Mohabbat, Arjun Rampal did the same at Liberty Theatre.

A closed projection system
A reel is fed from the top. The film passes through motorised wheels, which push it at an already set speed (also called the frame rate). The film first passes through the light source (shutter) and then through an audio sensor. A reel usually lasts for 16-20 minutes. A projectionists is able to figure the time needed to change a reel (changeover) through cue marks (the black dots — also called cigarette burns — present on the right side of a frame). Most theatres like Liberty use a two-reel, two projector system. When one reel gets over, the projectionist has less than a second to turn on the other projector. (Left) Sheikh Mohammed Aslam, the projectionist at Liberty cinema.

What’s Inside a carbon arc lamp?
>> Initially, incandescent light or limelight was used to project an image on the screen. carbon arc lamps were introduced in first decade of the 20th century. While globally, they were replaced with Xenon lamps by the 1970s, carbon arc lamps were in use in India till the 1990s. In fact, even today, some theatres like the Cathay Preview Theatre at Liberty uses a carbon arc lamp for projection.
>> Carbon arc lamps produce an arch, thus generating light when a 440V DC current is passed through two carbon rods (electrodes) in close contact. The carbon rods burn in free air to produce a high-intensity light and last for an approximately one hour.
>> Light rays are concentrated to a high intensity beam using a convex mirror (above), which then passes through a shutter (film gate) that works in synchronisity with each frame to create an illusion of a moving image. The image is focussed and sharpened using a focussing lens before it falls on the white screen. 

The inside of a carbon arc lamp

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