Studios of Dreams

The concept of a photo studio today is confined to limited occasions to get a passport photo or some such thing. The idea that these little studios might be a place where one goes to get photographed standing against a hand-painted backdrop of the Taj Mahal or a train accident, would be alien to nearly all of us. Until not very long ago, however, such old and forgotten studios in the dingy bylanes of nearly every city in the country were the means of livelihood for a number of people.

A Mumbai-based independent filmmaker, Nishtha Jain, in the beginning of 2000, went out exploring such photo studios in various parts of the country for a film she was going to make. This film was completed in 2005 and titled City of Photos. What the film does, as she puts it, is "it explores the little-known ethos of neighbourhood photo studios in Indian cities, discovering entire imaginary worlds in the smallest of spaces". City of Photos has since been screened at a number of festivals around the world following a premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) in Amsterdam, but has never seen a public screening in India.

Through the stories of the people that feature in the film, Jain manages to explain why people went to these studios and what they wanted from them. The owners of the studios would hire artists to paint large pictures of the Taj Mahal or big green gardens, and customers would then pose in front of these backdrops, transporting themselves to these fantasy lands.

In one scene, a young boy comes into the studio, takes off his shirt and begins to pose. He wants to look like the Bollywood star he idolises. As with every tale in the film, this has an interesting story too. "That was the first day of my shoot and a couple of people had heard that we were going to come there," Jain recalls, adding, "This boy was trying to impress me to be a part of the film."

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