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The nomads of cinema

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya spent three years researching travelling cinemas and another five in making a documentary film —PHOTOS: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya spent three years researching travelling cinemas and another five in making a documentary film —PHOTOS: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT  

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'Cinema Travellers' that premieres at Cannes Film Festival next month takes us into the little-known world of travelling cinemas of rural Maharashtra

If the many casualties of the drought-hit areas in Maharashtra, the unlikeliest are its travelling cinemas. Travelling cinemas is also the subject Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya have been immersed in for eight years now. The first three years went into research. They spent the next five years making a documentary film on the subject. It is still not finished, technically, as we pin down Madheshiya, who shot the film, and Abraham who is co-editor and co-director, in between the editing and subtitling sessions for an interview. The work will be done by May 11, when this, their first documentary film, premieres at the Cannes Film Festival 2016.

Cinema Travellers is about the nomadic cinemas of India, Maharashtra to be precise. It is about the surreal, kaleidoscopic world of movie-going in India’s villages that we have a vague idea about but don’t know still exists. It came as a surprise for Abraham herself when she first saw the travelling tent cinemas. “It is during the time when single screen theatres started shutting down in the cities that we got interested in seeing how people in villages are watching movies,” she recalls. Expecting one-off instances of such shows, what sucked the filmmakers into exploring it is the discovery that travelling cinemas are a 70-year-old tradition, an organised industry that has been quietly thriving on the margins of Indian cinema.

Abraham gives us a glimpse of a unique ecosystem: “There are licensed companies, a distribution model in place, from where one has take permission for going to a village with cinemas. The trucks carry projectors, film tents and everything else they need to set up the cinema along with the crew. They even have maps with routes drawn out.” It takes place once a year, when people gather for religious fairs in Western Maharashtra, Vidarbha and Marathawada. The centre of attraction: the tents that can hold up to 2,000 people. Following an unsaid rule, men and women sit separately and, as those dreamy images of celluloid come on, a myriad emotions flicker across their childlike wonder, joy, guilt, anxiety and sadness. Madheshiya’s series of photographs that focussed on these faces won him the World Press Photo (2011), Sony World Photography Award (2011 and 2009), and the Humanity Photo Awards (2009).

“It’s a small act of watching a movie that we do all the time, but it is also magical,” says Madheshiya. Perhaps more so in the less privileged lives in rural India where cinema still retains the quality of being magical, unlike urban dwellers who have easy access to multiplexes. “A sense of magical realism is present in Cinema Travellers,” says Madheshiya. “We could have also written a book with the kind of material we gathered from our research. But given it is a story about cinema, it was only fitting that we told it in a cinematic way, with our love for images and sounds.”

Part self-funded, the film features in this year’s Cannes Classics section along with other non-fiction films about cinema including one on the Coppola family and the Cinema Novo movement in Brazil.

The 96-minute long film also belongs to the new wave of documentary filmmaking in India that is consciously breaking away from the traditional format. There are no talking heads, voiceovers or texts to tell the audience what is happening.

Madheshiya says, “It flows like a simple story with three characters: a benevolent showman, a shrewd exhibitor and a maverick projector mechanic.” These characters are representative of the stories of people who run these cinemas. And they are often, misfits and non-conformists, some of who have run away from their homes or refused to do conventional jobs. “For some, it’s about keeping a tradition alive while for some the feeling of getting on that truck and travel is liberating,” says Abraham, who earlier worked as a researcher for documentaries made for The Guardian and Al Jazeera English.

Eclectic range

The eclectic range of movies that are screened at the tent talkies are another story. In the five years that Abraham and Madheshiya were filming, they’ve seen everything from James Cameron’s Avatar to the Mithun Chakravarthy-starrer Gunda, Bollywood blockbusters like Om Shanti Om to old Marathi Dada Kondke comedies to mythological movies. And late at night, the all-male audiences troop in to watch soft-porn films. How a soft-porn film is deemed morally correct by villagers at their annual religious fairs is both baffling and fascinating. Then there’s also the demonstration of the various acts of ingenuity that surrounds the projection of the film: modified trucks that house projectors, film reels and the entire crew; the tents often stitched together from a string of discarded movie banners and sometimes getting the stars of a B-movie to sell tickets from inside a cage-like counter. Abraham says, “For instance, when they show the movies of Telugu actor Gopichand, they project him as Arjun Devgn, the supposed brother of Ajay Devgn. It’s because Gopichand has a [resemblance to] Devgn and the star has a big draw in the audience.”

Cultural document

Cinema Travellers is a cultural document that operates at several levels. For one it highlights the urban-rural divide; India’s film origins in Maharashtra dating back to 1940s when second-hand European movie projectors made their way to these villages and at another it’s a heartfelt story of the basic joy of moving images. But what makes it poignant is this tradition may have seen its end; but its last days, thankfully, have been recorded by the able hands of the filmmakers. The travelling tent cinemas have held on to celluloid for long, the old instruments repaired over and over even as cities and suburbs moved on to technological innovations. But the digital wave has started to make swift inroads there as well.

Abraham says, “There were murmurs of a digital invasion for a while. And we saw it changing the shape and form of travelling cinema: the projectors getting sleek and light-weight and the hand painted posters change to printed ones. More and more people are watching movies on their smartphones and it’s successfully slowly taking over the ritual of people gathering in a dark theatre to watch a movie.” Adding to that the drought in the State has come as another blow, she says: “If people aren’t making money in farming, there is little chance that they will travel to these fairs.”

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2018 2:38:12 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/cinema-travellers-on-travelling-cinemas-of-rural-maharashtra/article8526740.ece