Not Just Bollywood #2: The Cinema Travellers (India 2016)

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya ‘behind the scenes’ on The Cinema Travellers (from a review on http://nofilmschool.com/2016/09/cinema-travellers-shirley-abraham-amit-madheshiya).

This film in HOME’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season is an award-winning documentary from Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya who together seem to have been involved in most aspects of the film’s production. Amit Madheshiya is a photographer based in Mumbai who had already received prizes for his work photographing travelling cinemas before he and Shirley Abraham worked on a film documentary. Both filmmakers received an M.A. from the Mass Communication Research Centre at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2006 and then worked on globally-funded arts projects. This film also received support from the Sundance Film Festival.

A poster showing the truck in position to project into the tent

Although largely ignored in conventional film studies, travelling cinemas and similar activities have attracted the attention of ethnographers because of the curious mix of arts, religion and rural culture that surrounds the subject. It isn’t difficult to see how the film came to be listed for so many prizes and indeed to win several. The material is very engaging and the documentary style is handled authoritatively but lightly – a great achievement for first time filmmakers who have referred to taking advice from books and Sundance tutors at an Edit Lab. I would term the style ‘Direct Cinema’, going back to the classic 1960s work of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and others. This is often confused with ciné vérité and there is a useful distinction between the two on the IDEAS ∣ FILM website. Direct Cinema implies that nothing gets in between the event and the camera eye, so no appearances or commentaries by the filmmakers or ‘the voice of God’.

The film’s narrative is carried by three ‘characters’. Mohammed and Bapu are both travelling cinema exhibitors and the third character is Prakash who has spent many years in his workshop maintaining and re-building cinema projectors. These kinds of travelling cinemas have been operating for seventy years or so in parts of eastern Maharashtra, 100 kilometres or more inland from Mumbai. It is a seasonal business and the exhibitors use a lorry (truck) to transport projection equipment in parts that is then re-assembled on site and films are projected from the bed of the truck onto a canvas screen erected in a large circus-style tent. Or at least, that’s how Mohammed manages it. Bapu’s truck is so vintage that the engine no longer operates and the truck is towed into place by a tractor. The two operators each have a different approach. Bapu attracts kids and lets them in free as the audience of the future – the children are allowed to use a microphone like a fairground barker to attract the main audience in the villages presumably close to his base. Mohammed has a larger crew and his is a more commercial operation which tries to show as many screenings as possible before moving on to the next fair.

Inside the box

Fairs/festivals are common across India in cities and in rural areas. The specific fairs in this region where Mohammed operates may in the past have had a primary religious purpose, but some now seem to be as much about entertainment. As a venue for cinema exhibition they form part of the huge diversity of Indian film culture from modern multiplexes in the metros to traditional single screen cinemas in smaller centres and to ‘B’ and ‘C’ circuit cinemas as well as video screenings and mobile cinemas, outdoor screenings etc. The films are equally varied with some relatively recent mainstream films, some more ancient and in one tent what appears to be soft porn.

Part of the real pleasure of the film is in following the process of putting on a screening and seeing how the exhibitors cope with all the usual problems of exhibition – keeping the audience on side when the reels of film arrive late, keeping ancient projectors working and making sure the projectionists treat the equipment with care. The inclusion of Prakash is a good choice as his enthusiasm and his skill in dealing with projectors shines through as he demonstrates his own, hand-built projector with all kinds of refinements for perfect running. Sadly, it will probably never be used because this documentary has been made during the period when even travelling cinemas have been forced to abandon 35mm film projection and move towards digital. India has a thriving ‘E’ cinema culture which runs in parallel with Hollywood’s ‘D’ cinema system. That means cheaper projectors and laptops rather than the DCP projection. Even so, the cost of new equipment is a shock for Mohammed and the familiar problems about licence keys and software upgrades still need to be solved – and that’s not easy without local broadband connections. All this sounds like it might be the end for Prakash – a sprightly man in his 70s, immaculately turned out in his workshop. But fear not, he’s got his future sussed and his family won’t go hungry.

It’s the children that Bapu wants to keep interested in the big screen

The Cinema Travellers is a joy to watch and deserves the interest and praise it is attracting. We do get to learn a lot about the ‘business’, but I would have liked more. I’m assuming that many of the cinema crews and audience members are speaking Marathi but I’m not sure whether the films shown are Hindi or Marathi (I’m assuming a mix?). I think for audiences outside India it is difficult to grasp how cinema distribution and exhibition works for the people in the film. Many reviews refer to ‘remote communities’. I’m not sure that these villages are ‘remote’ – they are just far away enough from a town to make going to a ‘standing’ cinema impractical. We hear how people are now watching films on their phones and we see families watching TV. Is it the social aspect, the getting away from family that makes this type of exhibition still viable, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the past? My feeling is that this documentary (as distinct from the larger project for the co-directors) aims for the universal story of the small operator struggling to keep a business going than it does for ‘documenting’ an industry practice. Which is fine if it is done with the skill and artistic flair presented here.

Here is a Cannes Report that introduces the filmmakers and a glimpse of the film:

. . . and here are the filmmakers in Heidelberg reflecting on their long-term project investigating the cultural activity of travelling cinemas:

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