The Cinema Travellers, the only Indian documentary set to be screened at Cannes this year, looks at the disappearing travelling talkies of rural Maharashtra
It’s a packed house and all eyes are glued to the compelling visuals on the screen: a Bollywood starlet gyrating to a raunchy dance number in Gunda.
Soon, the hero, Mithun Chakraborty, joins in and whistles erupt from a group of men in the front row, while women, seated only a couple of feet away, giggle among themselves.
Every year, for a week, the sleepy village of Bahiram, in the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra, turns festive to mark the arrival of a travelling cinema that stops by to screen the latest Bollywood blockbusters.
It is an elaborate operation. Trucks lugging projectors and other paraphernalia arrive. The tents are pitched in open fields and makeshift projection rooms are set up. This very sighting is enough to draw an instant thrill among locals, for whom, the nearest theatre is 70km away.
Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya have documented the journey of such travelling talkies in Cinema Travellers, which premieres at the Cannes Film Festival’s Classics section this year.
Business of cinema
Historically, travelling cinemas have never found a place in popular narrative, and that is what excited the makers. “When we began researching, we didn’t find any documented record of them. They are an important aspect of our cultural history as this is how cinema first reached the masses,” asserts Abraham.
Shot over a period of five years, the 96-minute documentary tells the story of people who run these cinemas in Western Maharashtra, Vidarbha and Marathawada. “We had about 150 to 170 hours of footage, which is not much, considering that we shot for a period of five years. My training as a photographer helped me use the available resources optimally,” says Madheshiya, who is also an award-winning photojournalist. Presently occupied with last minute editing, the duo spent three years researching the subject before taking the project to the floor. “The idea was triggered when the single screen theatres began shutting down in the Mumbai and Delhi. We wondered how people in rural India would access films if single screens across the country were to shut down,” says Abraham. .
Their research took them across the country. “We started with West Bengal and traveled to Assam, Bihar, UP. In West Bengal, we met students from Jadavpur University who were curating the best of world cinema and screening them in villages. Their objective was academic. But in Maharashtra, audience’s tastes were accounted for as commercials are involved,” says Abraham who feels that watching the demi-gods of silver screen in these packed makeshift tents is a unique experience. “For women, this became an eagerly awaited outing. Draped in their finest, they’d arrive early to queue up at the ticket counter,” adds Madheshiya, whose frames won him a number of prestigious awards (World Press Photo, 2011 and Humanity Photo Awards, 2009).
A brief history of time
The tradition of these tent talkies dates back to the 1940s when mythological films were popular and screenings were held at religious fairs (jatras). “Realising the economic possibilities, many enterprising men acquired second-hand projectors and junk reels sold by weight from studios in Mumbai and joined in. By 1950s, this venture grew, and the number of traveling cinema companies rose to about 300,” adds Madheshiya, who met this 90-year-old who used to host portable screenings in his village in Vidarbha. “He told us how, in the 1970s, he had devised a code for his manager about films and daily collections so that his rivals don’t get a whiff of it,” he says.
With mobile and internet penetration in rural areas, the numbers of companies invested in this business have dwindled. Those who’ve survived are forced to incentivise audiences by offering bars of soap, shampoo sachets and pocket-sized photographs of film actresses — all for the price of a movie ticket. Some don’t even mind forging family ties. “We met a painter, travelling with the cinema troupe, who was promoting Ajay Devgn’s brother, Arjun Devgn’s next film. On asking around, it turned out to be Telugu actor Gopichand who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Singham star,” adds Abraham.
While filming, the duo has seen films like Om Shanti Om, Murder, Loha, Avatar, Naagin to the Riteish Deshmukh-starrer, Tujhe Meri Kasam. But they say that the mythological films, that drew a predominantly female audience, were a particularly fascinating experience.
“The moment ‘God’ appeared on screen, the older women would bow their heads or fling flowers and coins towards the screen, while the younger ones would snigger,” reveals Abraham. The late night shows drew a different audience — men who’d congregate to watch soft-porn films, which went on till the small hours.
The fact that travelling cinema won’t survive in the multiplex market is a reality that most in the business have accepted. Cinema Travellers is a cinematic effort to preserve this cultural vehicle, reminiscent of a time, for posterity. “But what makes it poignant is the crux of change that it finds itself in, and how it will affect those associated with it,” concludes Madheshiya.
The duo recommends 5 documentaries you must watch:
1) Fast, Cheap & Out of Control: The documentary by Errol Morris interweaves the stories of four obsessive men — a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a mole-rats expert and a M.I.T. scientist, each driven to create eccentric worlds of their dreams, all involving animals.
2) The Act of Killing: Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, the film is about the Indonesian killings of the mid-sixties. It offers a ringside view to the edifying, confrontational power of a documentary.
3) Cave of Forgotten Dreams: This film by Werner Herzog provides a glimpse of Chauvet cave in France where pristine artwork, dating back to over 30,000 years ago, has been discovered.
4) Grissly Man: The film explores amateur grizzly bear expert Timothy Treadwell’s compassionate life as he found solace among these endangered animals. The footage was found after he and his girlfriend were killed by a rogue bear in October 2003.
5) Particle Fever: The 2013 American documentary film tracks the first round of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland.