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The greatest show on earth

Filmmaker Dev Benegal spent close to a year following a travelling cinema, watching lakhs of people watch movies. He told Udita Jhunjhunwala all about it.

entertainment Updated: Feb 27, 2010 16:27 IST
Udita Jhunjhunwala
Udita Jhunjhunwala
Hindustan Times

Dev BenegalIt took National Award-winning filmmaker Dev Benegal 10 days to write the script of Road, Movie, another three months to "polish" it and then almost a year to research it. It was after the fictional story of Vishnu, who journeys across the desert to the sea in an old truck which happens to be a travelling cinema, was written that Benegal grabbed his camera and drove in search of a travelling cinema.

Six hours outside Mumbai, in Satara district, he found Anup Talkies. Months of trailing the travelling cinema, or ‘tambu talkies’, and documenting the phenomenon photographically has resulted in a collection of images and a journal of notes that Benegal plans to craft into a book and a photographic exhibition.

Benegal, who directed English, August and Split Wide Open, tells us about his experiences sharing the magic of movies with lakhs of people as they watched films in a makeshift cinema on a screen stretched between two bamboo poles set up in the middle of barren land.

"After I finished writing the script of Road, Movie my co-producer Sopan Muller panicked. He felt I needed to actually do research. So I went out to see these travelling cinemas.

It is an incredible phenomenon. Apparently 70 per cent of India still watches movies outdoors. That is a huge number. Travelling cinemas do not have a license to screen in small towns or villages, so they have to go into absolutely barren land without electricity or running water.

Six hours out of Mumbai I met this young guy. He was sitting by his truck and nothing was happening. I asked him what he was going to do and he said he was going to wait and see. There was no sign of life or any sign that he was going to do anything. He seemed quite content while I was getting worked up. At sunset I spotted a few people.

Anup decided to set up his screen. He unfolded the cloth, stretched it and raised it up. And then he waited. By 9 pm 3,000 people had gathered and they watched movies all night, back to back to back.

As time went by I spent almost a year with this cinema and I met the same group at different places. One time, at another location, there were 4.5 lakh people gathered for two days. It was like Woodstock – a carnival. I describe it as Facebook in flesh and blood – a place for social congregation, a place to meet and interact.

These guys had cell phones; young girls and boys were on dates; everyone was totally connected. It was like a pilgrimage, but instead of there being a god or goddess at the end, there was a movie screen.

Spreading the word

Information about the travelling cinemas spreads by word of mouth. If the cinema truck passed by a town, people would find out about it. A couple of times they put up posters of the movies, but mostly it’s word of mouth.

People also know the cinema will not function during the monsoon but will surely be around during holidays, festivals and on weekends. Then the area around the cinema expands into a mela. The energy in that space is incredible. More than movies, I was watching the people watching the movies. There was a complete sense of surrender.

In one place they sat for long hours on the hard rocks of a dry river bed. They had forgotten what they were sitting on. The gigantic screen transports you to another world. There was none of the air-conditioned comfort of a multiplex, but you do get popcorn, channa, candy floss and all kinds of eats which are probably fresher than what you get at multiplexes.

Advance booking
All the travelling cinemas charge money. They have a portable box office for selling tickets and they demarcate an entry point. If not, then some boys go around the audience collecting money.

It can either be extremely informal or fairly formal with a rope barricade. I have seen both and in my movie I chose the very informal one. Interestingly all the movies were rooted to the region. The stories were based on real life. The audience was not interested in the big Bollywood stuff. It was the stories of the region, of the soil, that they really connected to.

From research to script
Even after this time, my script remained what my script was – a work of fiction. But the way the truck looks and the spirit of the travelling cinema came from the real things that I saw.

My experiences reinforced the idea that cinema still has the amazing power to draw in hundreds of people. I realised that movies are not dead or dying and will never disappear.

The way we watch movies might change, but we are never going to stop watching movies. The travelling cinema is not nostalgia in India. By law you cannot set up the screen anywhere near a fixed cinema.

So they have to go somewhere really remote and barren. In the script I used an Australian word to describe this space. I called it the ‘outback’. I met people who had travelled for two to three days. Some had travelled for two to five hours. No one came from just 20 minutes away. It was always quite a trek to get to the place where the cinema was set up. But the sense of festivity when you got there was incredible. It’s the magic of movies that attracts people who will walk days or miles to sit in front of this screen. That is the essence of Road, Movie the idea of a journey and of escape.

Photography is a passion
My inspiration for a film usually begins with a photograph I have seen or like. A picture by Mary Ellen Mark of Federico Fellini silhouetted with an amazing play of light and shadow was the inspiration for Road, Movie.

I love photography. I think it is more challenging than movies. Photography is about the moment when you press the shutter. You can never go back in time and recreate that moment. And you know when you have got the right picture.

In a movie you can keep redoing it over and over again. In photography, if you have not got the moment, then it has gone by. That’s what’s so magical about it. One of my favourite images is of a family looking up to decide what movie to watch. I was discreetly following them and clicking.

I knew I could only take one or two pictures at the right moment – and I got the right moment. It reminded me of my friend Subrata Mitra who was Satyajit Ray’s cameraman – we shared a passion for still photography.

When I picked up the camera I realised how much we had shared about photography, and how he taught me how to read the light and see it with my eyes. When I do the book, it will be dedicated to him.

First Published: Feb 27, 2010 14:18 IST