MOST backpackers making their way through India do the typical things: They stay in ashrams, dabble in religion, take extensive yoga and meditation classes.
Jonathan Torgovnik spent his time there in a more unusual way. He came up with an idea for a photographic book about cinema, the one thing in India that unites the numerous -- and often fractious -- faiths, castes and cultures of this vast nation.
The movies are virtually a religion in India. The country churns out some 800 films every year, and its pantheon of stars are treated as demigods. It was something that Israeli photojournalist Torgovnik couldn’t ignore.
“I couldn’t help but notice how influential and big cinema is in the Indian population,” said Torgovnik of his first visit to India in 1992.
“I saw long lines at the cinemas, the big billboards and cutouts everywhere,” he says. “Many countries have cinema, but not to the extent that they have it in India.”
Four trips and a decade later, Torgovnik had enough for his just-published book, “Bollywood Dreams,” a lush, 120-page pictorial tome that illustrates myriad facets of Indian cinema, from the glitzy megastars to the impoverished audience members who spend their last rupees on a seat at the movies.One photo captures street-corner markets where images of saints, Lord Shiva and Jesus Christ are sold alongside those of India’s hottest movie stars. Another shows the cutouts and billboards plastered on buildings across Madras and Bombay, towering above the masses.
Torgovnik also collected revealing anecdotes: how millions of fans walked backward for 300 miles in an act of penance and sacrifice to pray for the fast recovery of superstar Amitabh Bachchan; how fans threatened to commit suicide when another leading actor announced his desire to quit the movies.
“People there worship gods, Gandhi and movie stars,” he said.
He photographed elderly ushers collecting tickets, the cheapest of which are 12 rupees, or about 25 cents. He caught the dedication of crew members for traveling cinema events, for which old trucks trundle from village to village transporting screens and projectors, catching some workers asleep on rocks and wrapped in canvas.
The book coincides with an international series of events and exhibitions running over the next few months in cities ranging from Prague to Portland. An exhibit of 40 photographs from the book also opens today at the Stephen Cohen Gallery on Beverly Boulevard.
Torgovnik was born in Tel Aviv , joined the Israeli army at 18 and spent the next three years working as a combat photographer. Once his military stint was over, he began his trek through India, Thailand and the Himalayas, a popular route among backpackers and those just out of the army because it was exotic and inexpensive.
Eventually he traveled to the U.S., where he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and is based today.
He works for numerous international publications but has remained enamored of the subject of Bollywood.
“I had a secret fascination with it, and was intrigued by the fascination that Indian people have with the cinema,” he said. “The most important things in their lives are cinema and religion. Beyond work, they don’t have any means of entertainment, so cinema is their only real escape.”
The photographs in the book and the exhibitions capture everything from the prayers that typically precede a day of filming in India to the endless lines that snake outside the box office to the garish, lighted billboards that trumpet the latest release. Among Torgovnik’s favorite images are those that show the “traveling cinemas.” “They set up big tents and show films in the middle of fields,” said Torgovnik. “It’s surreal and romantic. For many of the people there, this might be the first time they are ever experiencing cinema.”
Torgovnik’s work first caught the eye of gallery owner Stephen Cohen at Photofest, a biannual event in Houston for curators, collectors, galleries and photographers.
“I saw 71 portfolios in four days,” Cohen said. “But as soon as I saw one or two of Jonathan’s pictures, I knew he was very good. The pictures were journalistic and told a story, and at the same time were charming and beguiling.”
The fact that Indian cinema -- from “Lagaan” to “Monsoon Wedding” and the current “Bend It Like Beckham” -- has been in the media spotlight recently hasn’t hurt Torgovnik. The timeliness of the subject matter also got the attention of the people at publishing house Phaidon.
“Six months or a year ago, there was a lot of excitement about Bollywood,” said Noel Daniel, commissioning editor of Phaidon in London. “Now, it’s not just a fad anymore, and I think people are ready for a book that show’s one man’s approach.
“It’s not just about the glitz and gloss,” Daniel said, “but about the way people live for the movies.”
Where: Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles.
When: Opens today. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; ends July 5.
Info: (323) 937-5525
What: Talk by photographer Jonathan Torgovnik
Where: Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Info: (626) 396-2365