Central Theatre in Thiruvananthapuram is a striking Art Deco structure that has seen better days. The owner of the building is locked in a legal dispute with the landowner, and the theatre can’t afford to spend money on renovations and upgrades. To keep it from falling apart entirely, the show must go on. But ticket sales will barely cover the cost of screening newly released full-length features. So, Central recycles its old stock of film reels, selecting shorter titles to keep the electricity bills in check.
These old reels mostly play adult films from which the hardcore scenes have been spliced out, so that what remains is a type of soft porn. The audience comprises migrant workers, long-distance lorry drivers and waiting travellers from the nearby railway station.
Despite its broken seats and dilapidated interiors, Central Theatre is, in the barest sense of the word, still alive. It’s one of the last remnants of an era that began in 1896, when the Lumière brothers came to Bombay to screen six moving pictures at the Watson’s Hotel. Over the next century or so, this was essentially how motion pictures would be exhibited in India: a beam of bright light shining through photochemical film and throwing moving images onto a giant screen.
Photochemical film has now disappeared from the movie-making and watching experience. As of 2019, India had close to 10,000 movie screens, across both multiplex and single screen formats. Virtually all of them employ digital projection. This transition happened over the course of a decade, starting with a trial screening of Dil Se at Mumbai’s MAMI film festival in 1999. After a slow start, digital gathered steam in the final years of the 2000s. Then it steamrolled the market. The end, when it came, was swift.
But the story of Indian cinema’s transition to digital has multiple, parallel timelines. It began in the early 1990s with the introduction of digital editing. Digital sound followed in the mid-1990s. Shooting and projection started moving to digital in the early 2000s, quite independently of each other, displacing film almost completely within a short period of time. Ghost, a 2012 box office dud starring Shiney Ahuja, was the last major Indian feature to be printed and distributed on film. The 2017 release Kadvi Hawa was the last to be shot on photographic film. It was exhibited entirely on digital.
“No technology dies an ordinary death in India,” the film historian Sudhir Mahadevan wrote, “nor does it undergo an ordinary birth.”  Here is one version of the unordinary story of the transition from film to digital projection in India, seen through the eyes of some men who worked in and around the projection booths of our cinema halls.
R Hariharan Nair retired in 2007 after a 40-year career as an “operator,” the legal nomenclature for a projectionist. Hari is 69 years old now. His memories begin in 1966, when he started his working life as a production boy in Madras, then India’s second film capital after Bombay. All of the southern industries made their films there. From Kodambakkam to Vadapalani, studios, technicians and aspiring actors thronged the length of Arcot Road.
Hari worked at Arunachalam Studios, founded by AK Velan from the profits of the wildly successful Thai Piranthal Vazhi Pirakkum, which he directed and produced. Hari’s main tasks were fetching tea and coffee on the sets of NGO, a Malayalam film. “I barely knew any Tamil, but I used to sit with the Learn Tamil Through Malayalam book.”
He did odd jobs at a theatre before graduating to projection assistant. In 1973, he applied for a licence to become an operator. It was a demanding examination, involving a theory exam and a practical test. The law, even today, mandates that a cinema screen can only be run by a licensed operator. His work began with getting the reels of the film ready in sequence. A standard Indian feature film would run to 10-12 reels, sometimes more. Each reel held up to 2,000 feet of film, clocking roughly 15-20 minutes of runtime.
At the time, most theatres used a two-projector setup. First, the film reel would be threaded through the rollers and sprockets of one projector. The machine would whir to life with a crackle and whoosh when the carbon-arc lamp was switched on, bathing the screen in the light of the moving picture. As the film rolled, the strip would move from the feed reel on top to the take-up reel below.
The operator kept an eye on the screen through the porthole, the tiny glass window in the projection booth. A little before the end of the reel, a black dot would flash on the corner of the screen for exactly four frames and for a fraction of a second. This was his cue to fire up the second projector, which would already be wound up with the second reel. Another cue mark would flash just before the first reel ran out—this was the signal to switch. The projectionist’s art was in timing this move to perfection. The audience should not have noticed anything.
“If the changeover is done poorly,” Hari told me, “whole scenes can end up getting chopped off.” The smooth purr of the second reel meant that it was time to remove the spent reel from the first projector and load it with the next one. This is how the dance continued, back and forth, until the end of the film.
In the dilapidated Prakash Talkies in the town of Hathras, a poster advertised: “Nayi computer machine dwara dekhiye Gangaajal!” See Gangaajal through the new computer machine!
All this while, Hari also had to keep an eye on the alignment of the carbon rods. In the West, more stable xenon bulbs became the norm in the 1970s. But most theatres in India still used carbon arc lamp-based projectors right up to the switch to digital. This relied on two carbon rods—one positive and other negative—to form an arc of light between them as they burned. The operator, much like a welder, peered at the arc through a tinted window to ensure that the rods were burning correctly. This dazzling light, reflected off a parabolic mirror, passed through the film and projected the image on screen.
“If the rods are too close, the screen looks yellowish. If they are too far, the screen looks blueish,” Hari explained. “If it’s even further apart, it simply dies out. A good operator needs to keep his eye on all this.” And ‘all this’ in the sweltering temperatures of the projection booth: the carbon burnt hot, and air-conditioning was rarely provided.
“If you kept an eye and did your job well, even if the film was not very good, you could increase collections by 10-15 percent,” Hari said. “But let’s say some scene got cut off because you missed the cue marks. Then the audience started abusing your mother and father.”
he first film to be released digitally anywhere in the world was George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 1999. Lucas, a passionate proponent of shooting on digital, was among the first to make the shift in Hollywood.
In March 2002, a coalition of major Hollywood studios came together to set out standards and specifications for digital cinema. The Digital Cinema Initiatives’s standards, released mid-2005, specified, among other things: a minimum 2K (2,000 vertical lines of pixels) resolution,  delivery of films on a hard disk known as a DCP or digital cinema package, and stringent encryption measures to combat piracy.
In India, the digital revolution did not wait for the DCI. Digital projection first appeared in theatres in India around 2003, spearheaded by Adlabs Entertainment in collaboration with director Subhash Ghai’s company, Mukta Arts. Given the picture quality limitations of the technology they employed, Adlabs initially focused the project on smaller towns and cities. The first installations were completed in Trimurti theatre in Sangola and Bharat Cinemas in Mangalwedha, both in Maharashtra’s Solapur district.
In December 2003, Namrata Joshi reported for Outlook magazine from another unlikely outpost of Bollywood’s digital revolution: the town of Hathras in Uttar Pradesh. In the dilapidated Prakash Talkies, a “small laptop stores images as files and pops them onto a dirty, dusty screen,” while the “giant 35mm Zenith project almost looks like a relic.” Outside, a poster advertised: “Nayi computer machine dwara dekhiye Gangaajal!” See Gangaajal through the new computer machine! Although Adlabs had ambitious plans at the time—they intended to retrofit 1,500 screens by 2007—this venture didn’t quite take off.
The baton was picked up again in 2005, when Chennai-based Qube Cinema Technologies and Mumbai-based UFO Moviez separately rolled out digital distribution and exhibition apparatus. Qube, founded in 1992 by Jayendra Panchapakesan and Senthil Kumar, was already in the thick of India’s digital cinema transition. It provided the technology for the first ever digitally-edited film in India, Kamal Hassan’s Mahanadhi, released in 1994.  Qube was also the Indian licensee for DTS, the digital surround sound system that became ubiquitous in South India in the second half of the 1990s.
UFO Moviez’s digital projectors were of 1.3K resolution, as opposed to the DCI standard of 2K. UFO used their proprietary technology to transmit the digital prints via satellite—the low resolution meant that satellite bandwidth was sufficient—and, in the process, became the global pioneers of film distribution via satellite. Qube distributed films on hard disk, also at the 1.3K resolution. Both companies installed servers and projectors in theatres, and even oversaw the digital mastering of the film print.
Producers and filmmakers started to warm to this new technology. The convenience and cost savings more than made up for the comparatively inferior quality of the projection. A 400-foot roll of Kodak 35mm film today, for instance, costs ₹16,000 plus taxes. It provides roughly four-and-a-half minutes of shooting time. Translate this to a two-hour feature film, accounting for retakes, and you’re likely to need ₹50 lakh worth of shooting film. Distributing it would cost about ₹5 lakh per print, and that’s without factoring in the costs of processing and scanning.
If this film was released with 100 prints, each of them would have to be transported in heavy aluminium trunks to various parts of the country. Once the film finished its run, all but one or two archive copies would be trashed. The economics dictated that the number of prints was limited by the producer’s budget and risk appetite. So film releases would be staggered, premiering first in the big cities and towns: the “A” centres. Then, they’d move to the smaller towns, and finally to the smallest towns and villages, the “C” centres. This also meant that pirated videotapes and, later, DVDs of the film would reach the smaller centres before the official theatrical release.  The advent of cable television in the 1990s meant that local cable operators could broadcast the pirated copy of a new film to thousands of people.
Digital distribution solved these problems to a large extent. Now, producers could have wide and simultaneous releases in lavish large-screen formats without spending a lot of money. The age of piracy wasn’t over, but its first run was.
n uncompromising push by the big Hollywood studios meant that theatres in India, especially multiplexes, moved to adopt 2K projectors, compliant with the DCI’s stipulations. In 2015, Universal Pictures experimented with releasing a few of their titles on the 1.3K projectors (referred to as “e-Cinema” in the trade), but they abandoned the idea due to image quality and piracy concerns.
Still, even today, only about half the screens in the country use 2K projectors, Sathesh Thulasi, general manager (south) of Qube told me. Many single screens, especially in smaller centres, continue to use the e-Cinema projectors since they are considerably cheaper and there’s little to no demand for Hollywood titles in these places.
The average film projector cost under ₹5 lakh at the time. With good care and maintenance, the sturdy electro-mechanical devices could be expected to run reliably for decades. Of a range of manufacturers including Photophone, Westrex and Kinoton, only Christie has managed to survive the transition in India. These days, it also makes DCI-compliant digital projectors, having licensed the technology from the US company Texas Instruments. The others have wound up or exited the country.
DCI-compliant projectors are imported and prohibitively expensive, costing upwards of ₹50 lakh. The e-Cinema ones come in at under ₹30 lakh, still a substantial outlay for a non-multiplex theatre owner. These numbers highlight how the cost benefit of the transition accrued mainly to the producers, while exhibitors have had to shell out a great deal more than they used to.
Hollywood found a way to address this producer-exhibitor imbalance: producers subsidised the exhibitor’s investment in the technology by paying out a Virtual Print Fee (VPF) for each release. This is not how it’s played out in India, where many theatre owners, particularly single screen proprietors, don’t have the financial muscle to put down a ₹30-60 lakh investment for a digital projector. Instead, they end up leasing the system from Qube or UFO, who stand to gain in two ways: they get to keep the VPF from the producers, and the revenue from the advertising that is screened alongside a film. 
Sebastian CV got his operator’s licence in 2010, in the twilight days for film projection. His first job was as a projectionist’s apprentice at Sindhu Theatre in Kerala’s Irinjalakuda. His father had worked at the theatre and Sebastian had been interested in the work since childhood. By the end of 2010, Sindhu Theatre had retired its film projectors. Sebastian could only run a handful of releases on them.
Sebastian’s workday usually runs from 11am to well past midnight, much like Hari’s once did. But the nature of their jobs couldn’t be more different. Now, movies come in the form of a digital cinema package or DCP—a military-grade hard disk that holds the film in an encrypted format. The distributor sends the DCP to theatres in a secure foam-cushioned box with a handle. It looks like a small plastic briefcase. An operator like Sebastian connects the DCP to a Digital Cinema Playback Server, a chunky metal box that resembles a desktop CPU lying on its side. The server takes a few hours to “ingest” the film.
“Flop films would have the best prints because they wouldn’t have been through the projector too many times. They were the best to test our systems on.”
Then, Sebastian waits to receive a key delivery message or KDM from the distributor. This is a password specifically designed to decrypt the movie for that specific server and projector in that specific theatre, for a limited time. It arrives in an email a short while before the first show of a film’s run (usually a Friday), and is typically valid for a week. If the theatre wishes to extend the run of the film, they make a payment and a new KDM is issued.
Once the KDM is entered into the system, the movie is ready to show. All Sebastian has to do is hit play. While the movie is running, he can grab a coffee and a puff, or scroll through Facebook on his phone. Everything is programmed: the pause for the interval; the ads and trailers; even the blackout following the end credits.
In the early days of digital, when his theatre received the print via satellite, things were not as smooth for Sebastian. On days when it rained, the connection could be notoriously unreliable. “Sometimes, the download would fail. I’d have to rush to the nearest theatre with a USB drive, copy the file from them and bring it back,” Sebastian told me.
He currently works as an operator at Surabhi Theatre in Chalakudy, in central Kerala. He laughed when I asked him if he missed the good old days of film. “I’m very happy,” he said. “Digital is pretty easy. We have a UPS, air conditioning. Stress is less. The early 1.3K projectors had some issues but I’ve been working with 2K projectors for eight years now and there’s not been a single show break.” 
“Look at how picture quality has now improved,” Sebastian explained. “In the early days with 1.3K, it was quite poor. Then 2K came along and now there’s 4K. The best part is that it looks as good on the hundredth day as it does on the first day.” This marks a change from the days of film. Celluloid is tactile and delicate—every run through the teeth and sprockets of the projector would cause some level of wear and tear.
“Once we’d install a sound system, we’d call the nearest producer for the cans of a flop film,” Mohan Balaji from Coimbatore, who used to install sound systems and projectors in theatres across south India for Photophone, told me. “Those would have the best prints because they wouldn’t have been through the projector too many times. They were the best to test our systems on.”
n their award-winning documentary The Cinema Travellers, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya tell the story of Mohammed and Bapu, two travelling showmen who would set up and operate temporary tent cinemas at local festivals across rural Maharashtra. Shot over five years, they are seen transitioning—hesitantly—to digital at the end of the film. The tent cinemas are obsolete now. “The travelling cinemas don’t exist in the form that was documented in the film,” Abraham told me. “They were always seasonal. Those who ran it had alternate professions and so, for instance, Bapu continues to be a farmer.”
The Cinema Travellers also featured a little shop run by Prakash Phuladi, an aging “engineer” who restored and repaired film projectors. He even “invented” a film projector of his own called the “oil bath projector,” which he claimed solved all the problems of the existing machines. It’s a poignant tale: an unknown craftsman in a small town, completely in love with the technical art of projection, engineering what he imagines to be the perfect machine, but just far enough in time and space from when it could have earned him wealth and recognition. Prakash died in 2018, a couple of years after the documentary’s initial release.
In Kerala, miles away from Prakash and the “tent pictures,” is the world of “thundu padams” or “bit padams.”  These were put together by splicing film strips of pornography into the reels of otherwise innocuous or nondescript films. Theatres like Ajantha in Fort Kochi were known for their “screenings.” Kochi resident Vivek Poduval recalled bunking school to take the ferry from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi to pay his respects at Ajantha. “The whole crowd would disappear after the ‘bit’ was finished,” Vivek said. Ajantha is now closed. “Thundu padam” lives on as a euphemism for pornographic film clips shared online, including via WhatsApp.
The UFO-Qube duopoly currently dominates the exhibition space. Initiatives like Caravan Talkies (a UFO venture) or PictureTime take digital movies to the rural heartland, but they are only offshoots of what is a centralised corporate distribution framework. Non-mainstream modes of film exhibition have all but died out, replaced by digital projection on the one hand, and smartphones and 4G internet on the other.
The fishermen would head down for a night show, getting respite from the mosquitoes in the company of a Rajinikanth film that had long left theatres elsewhere.
Nostalgists may mourn the passing of film culture, but the fact is that the access afforded by digital is breeding its own culture. Mohan Balaji told me about the Odia films screened at the Prakash Theatre in Chinnakarai, Tamil Nadu. Many Odias work in the garment factories of the nearby textile town of Tiruppur. The economics of digital made this a viable proposition. These days, it is not uncommon to watch a Malayalam film in Faridabad or a Bengali one in Bengaluru.
In the 1980s and 1990s, two theatres in Karwar in north Karnataka—Pallavi and Prasanna—used to procure reels of old Tamil films from distributors. The target audience was fishermen from faraway Thoothukudi. The fishermen typically spent the night on the beach, in their docked boats. They’d head down for a night show, getting some respite from the mosquitoes in the company of a Rajinikanth film that had long left theatres elsewhere. Digital has meant that this once unusual phenomenon has become ubiquitous.
n the closing sequence of Celluloid Man, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s 2012 documentary on legendary archivist PK Nair, Nair laments the loss of the tactile aspects of handling film, such as the thrill of taking it out from the can: “When we come to know that the cellulose film is getting extinct, I feel so sorry about it because the images with which I have grown up with was always the optical image which is projected on the screen: the beautiful, wonderful, black and white images of the 1930s and the 1940s.” Nair goes on to say that he has been unable to reconcile with the quality of the image in the digital age: “Somehow, I feel there is something terribly missing in those images.”
Photographic film has already become an old medium for a young art form. Compared to music, literature or theatre, cinema was born yesterday. As recently as a decade ago, most people who worked in cinema would have physically handled celluloid; the sight, smell and feel of film would have been an integral part of their working lives.
In 2012, American film historian Haden Guest wrote that “something important” was lost with the removal of the cue marks. Cue marks were symbolic of the art of the projectionist, “those showmen and women whose interpretation of aspect ratio, frame rate, sound level, intermissions, subtitles” brought shades of variations to films.
Film prints elevated the projectionist to the level of a craftsman. Hari laughed when I asked if projectionists miss working with film. “Actually the current projectionists have no idea how to operate the old projectors at all,” he said. “If you give them a reel, they’ll probably drop it, and all the film will come unspooled.”
Filmmakers often speak about the romance of film, and some have tried to put their money where their mouth is. Director Christopher Nolan, for instance, does a lot of shooting on celluloid. In 2018, when he flew down to Mumbai to announce a collaboration between production solutions company Filmlab and Kodak, he participated in events to encourage Indian producers and directors to do more of their shooting on film.
It hasn’t quite panned out that way. “People here are struggling to survive. They don’t have enough money to spare in the theatres. Are we going to preach the greatness of celluloid to them?” renowned cinematographer Rajeev Ravi told The Hindu at the time. “Only a small section of people, a privileged few, still hold nostalgia for celluloid.”
Whether it’s vinyl records or shooting photographs on film, analogue formats are now mostly indulgences that serve as markers of taste. They are often dismissed as affectations by those more directly concerned with the economics of art. A vinyl record costs a minimum of ₹1,500. A roll of Kodak Gold photographic film—with 36 exposures—retails for ₹600. Shooting and distributing an entire movie on film, however, is an indulgence on a millionaire scale.
The scant demand is visible in the number of places supplying and processing film. Raju Shah of Filmlab, one of the last of its kind in India, told me that only two or three independent movies shot on film (on the smaller, cheaper 16mm format) processed in his lab are currently in post-production. When it comes to distribution and exhibition, even these will have to convert to digital.
I've often wondered how all of this plays out outside the cinephile community. The regular movie-goer, far from having strong feelings about format, probably didn't even realise how and when this transition took place, unless they noticed a neighbourhood theatre advertising their leap into the digital age.
In the Fall 2012 issue of Cineaste magazine, Grover Crisp, executive vice-president of restoration at Sony Pictures, brought up a Canadian study in which the audience was shown movies in both film and digital formats. Crisp said the audience was told which was which and then asked which they liked better. “In every test, the audience chose the digital version. Then, someone decided to make a switch and told the audience that the print was the digital version and vice versa. At that point, the audience said they preferred the print, which they thought was the digital.”