Modernism meets tradition in South India's hybrid cinemas

Story highlights

  • Photographers Stefanie Zoche and Sabine Haubitz documented hybrid cinemas throughout South India
  • The buildings combine traditional Indian and modernist aesthetics

(CNN)Scattered across India are architectural anomalies.

In some of the densest parts of cities like Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad, stand geometric modernist cinemas in rainbow colors, like something out of a children's book.
    Built between the 1950s and early 1980s, these hybrid modernist buildings -- combining elements of European and Indian architecture -- are the remnants of an optimistic period of change in India's history.
    "A building is a lot like the face of a person," says Stefanie Zoche who, with her partner Sabine Haubitz, photographed cinemas in South India between 2011 and 2014. "If you watch it carefully, you can read a lot in it."
    And, indeed, the buildings speak to an intriguing history.

    The Corbusier effect

    India's history with modernism can be traced back to the early days of Indian independence, when Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, commissioned French architect and city planner Le Corbusier to lay the master plan for Chandigarh, the newly conceived capital of Punjab and Haryana.
    One of independent India's earliest planned cities, it was meant to establish a new type of city to bring India into the future. It would become home to sprawling European-style piazzas and imposing Brutalist buildings, a far cry from the crowded streets, markets, and dense housing that had been the standard for city living.
    Le Corbusier's distinctive, sparse style then spread throughout India as local architects sought to emulate and reinterpret the foreign architectural language. However, as Zoche points out, to call these cinemas modernist would be a mistake.
    "It is a kind of architecture influenced by modernism, but it is very hybrid because there's not the sense of form following function that modernism supplied. It's rather like a pastiche of signifiers that they use as symbols," she says. "Modernism is reduced to a kind of iconography to convey a certain feeling -- something special is happening here, we are modern."

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    The Sree Padmanabha cinema in Trivandrum, India (Photographed by Stefanie Zoche and Sabine Haubitz)
    While the look of the buildings was of course a factor, it's South India's almost obsessive relationship with the film industry that inspired Zoche and Haubitz to focus on the region.
    In the last 50 years, for example, five of the last eight elected chief ministers of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the second largest state economy in India, have come from the film industry. Current chief minister Jayaraman Jayalalithaa, for example, was one of India's most prolific film stars before taking office for the first time in 1991.
    You need only visit the theaters to notice the importance. Even those with tattered original seats and no air conditioning will spring for state-of-the-art digital projectors.
    "There's one cinema that has been completely covered with images of this one star," she says. "Usually if a new film is released, or an important star [is playing the lead], the film club -- not the cinema owner -- decorates the whole cinema, and hosts all sorts of activities and music. It's a very lively scene."

    A sense of nostalgia

    Since the series debuted in 2014, it has been exhibited across the region, making stops in Goa, Bangalore, Chenai and Nandanam. Zoche has always been surprised by how many visitors seem to connect with the photos. Many, she observes, seem heartened to learn these cinemas still exist, in the age of the megamall multiplex.
    "For them, it has a very strong nostalgic aspect," she says. "In former times, going to the cinema was a big social event. People would meet and spend a whole afternoon or evening together."
    "That doesn't take place in a multiplex any longer."