PHOTOGRAPHY Amit Madheshiya zooms into the world of travelling tent cinemas in rural Maharashtra. SHAILAJA TRIPATHI

L ooking for alternative ways of exhibition of cinemas in India, Mumbai-based photographer Amit Madheshiya and researcher Shirley Abraham, in 2008, encountered a world not many know about. The sight of thousands gathering in a tent to watch a film in the remote villages of Maharashtra has got them hooked ever since. Every year, after the crop-gathering season ends, travelling tent cinemas accompany the annual religious fairs or jatras from one village to another in Maharashtra for months, showcasing Hindi, Marathi and even Hollywood films dubbed in Hindi. The charm and magic recreated in the photographs of Amit, displayed at the first edition of Delhi Photo Festival, leaves no doubt that it indeed is a unique space for showing and watching films.

Amit, in collaboration with Shirley, who has done extensive research on the project, is now busy giving shape to a documentary film and simultaneously planning a book. Amit says it's difficult not to get engaged with a subject like this where trucks with projectors fitted in them move in the rural landscape of Maharashtra entertaining people, and in such an organised manner. With technology reaching the remotest corners of India, the villagers are now able to watch the latest blockbusters on their TV sets; earlier, this was the only mode of entertainment. “But people still come in large numbers to get the big-screen experience. And it's not as if they aren't discerning. Shah Rukh Khan's ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi' was off the second day,” says the young photographer, who in the first phase of the project chose to concentrate on the way these cinemas operate. So there you have pictures of the trucks, Ambassador cars announcing their arrival, film print being blessed by a saint, and tents being installed and dismantled.

“It is very labour-intensive work. Each cinema has about 15 to 17 staff members who are either paid per season or per month. They stay put in a place for 10 to 15 days, where they have to arrange for their own electricity and water.” Despite the hardships, everything is so well put-together and Amit's frames establish that clearly. One shot shows a side profile of a woman at the ticket counter, and the people queuing up for tickets appear amused and desperate to have a glance at her. “The lady at the counter is the heroine of the film that is being screened at the moment. The owners sometimes try these promotional tricks to get more audience.”

Also, some films premiere here at the same time that they do in regular theatres in urban circles. And despite big releases from Hollywood and Bollywood, Mithun Chakraborty, for a host of reasons, remains the most popular star.

It is an important circuit for many and Amit tells us that there are people like R.S. Patil, a Marathi actor, director and producer, who produce films exclusively for this platform. A few of those, along with the travelling cinema owners, will be featured in the documentary. “They have interesting stories, like Arun Kachre, who was a vegetable seller who then got involved in the world of film music before he came to own a truck. Then there is Mohammed, who started off as a sweeper at Sumedh Touring Talkies, became the manager and is now on his way to owning it,” tells Amit. His series of 12 pictures of “Night Screening at Travelling Cinema” in India got him the prestigious World Press Photo award.

From artsy shots of the tent and the ambience, Amit in the last two years has returned to do straight portraits of the audience. As he says, it's now more about reception of cinema than anything else and, in any case, “I was always a street photographer.” So, the latest body of work comprises close-ups of people in the tent watching the films. The vivid honest expressions on the faces of his subjects make them extremely arresting. “It's like they wait for this time of the year. Entire families turn up for the event. Since there is no boarding and lodging available, what they do in order to get a safe and secure place to sleep is to keep buying tickets. The films go on all night.”