A recent exhibition captured the atmosphere of the travelling tent cinemas of Maharashtra
The focus of The Travelling Tent Cinemas of Maharashtra, an exhibition of photographs that took place at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library as part of the recent Humanities in Ferment conference, is predominantly the audience. The photos literally take members of the audience out of the darkness of the hall, or shall we say tent, and shows them in their various moods, locked in the gaze of cinema.
The impulse to document the travelling cinemas was borne out of their absence in any form of mainstream records, say Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham, photographers and researchers based in Mumbai who have been travelling with the cinemas for about four years now. “When we saw the cinemas, we were intrigued by it and curious to see the literature on them. They have not been written about in mainstream history, apart from being treated as a unit of distribution.”
The travelling tent cinemas operate in remote villages where there are no fixed-site theatres, and whose forms of entertainment comprise the traditional lavnis and tamashas. To these, the travelling cinemas add an eclectic mix of popular Bollywood films, mythological dramas, and dubbed films from Hollywood as well as Indian regional languages.
The cinemas travel along with the jatras, from the months of October to June, avoiding the monsoons that set in during July. In their heyday, travelling companies used to number in the three hundreds, but with the arrival of television into rural households since the 1990s and the increasing digitisation of film technology, their numbers have declined sharply. “Now there are just about 50 companies left,” inform Amit and Shirley. While the phenomenon of travelling tent cinemas is not unique to Maharashtra, they are the only companies that don’t use digital projection or storage technologies.
Doesn’t this endanger them further? “While their numbers are dwindling, the business is still profitable,” Shirley says. Although the duration of a company’s stay in a particular village is not fixed, they show films from the afternoon to, on some occasions, the early morning. Each film is now priced at Rs.20 and seen by thousands of patrons.
In a sharp contrast to the civility of multiplexes, the photographs reveal an informality of conduct, where individuals are lying down, smoking or shouting. Informality notwithstanding, the travelling companies are a highly organised bunch, they add.
The cinemas, which have been around since the 1940s, were started by village folk who returned from Mumbai with film equipment. A company comprises roughly eight persons including a manager, projectionist, gatekeepers, cooks and ticket sellers.
Started in 2008 with a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts, the project fetched Amit a World Press Photo prize in 2011. The duo is also working on a documentary on the same subject which will be out later this year.