The Cinema Travellers
Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya
Vikalp, a group of five filmmakers from Bangalore came together to revive the screening of documentary films, given the lack of viewership or enthusiasm for documentaries. Over the last three odd years, they have been screening documentaries every fourth Thursday of a month at Everest Theatre in Frazer Town, Bangalore. That is some 40 screenings and they are going into hiatus, post their last screening last night of “The Cinema Travellers”.
This is a story of three personalities, and their environments in the Maharashtra heartland of Satara. This is a story of three people passionate about cinema as their world changes around them. This is a story of two folk using older technology carbon rod arc projectors to show movies in makeshift tents in rural settings where movie halls might not be close by. There definitely was a time, when these travelling cinema guys covered quite a distance screening movies; but the world has changed a bit. And this is also a story of the ace movie projector repairman, and innovator and his passion.
Mohammad, the travelling cinema businessman struggling to make ends meet; Bapu, does it completely out of passion, benevolence and his desire to take cinema to the villagers; and Prakash, the projector repairman, the innovator and inventor. Three related stories, interwoven beautifully.
Mohammad runs a crew of eight-nine men, going from village to village, small town to small town and pitching tent with village fairs, and other social events and screening the movies under the title of “Sumedh Talkies”. They do not make a lot of money anymore, what with Rs 30 a ticket. The projector keeps malfunctioning, the repairmen bungling more often than not and the movie distributors often getting late in getting the celluloid reels to the screening. Must have been a challenge getting movie reels to a moving destination in any case.
Bapu, based in village Ond in Satara, runs “Akhay Touring Talkies” not necessarily as a business, but more of taking cinema to the villagers. His old truck has caught rust, is crumbling away, doesn’t run, is pulled by a tractor to the destination screening location; but houses the projector. Rainfall causes havoc to the truck. The children from the village make the announcements to pull people in. Some of his crew have been with him from the beginning. But, times continue to be bad. The year is worse than the previous one which was worse than its previous one.
And then, there is Prakash. Repairs old projectors. Projectionists would pay obeisance to him, should a projector go bad mid show, just to make the machine work through and bring it to Prakash in the morning. As the travelling cinema business started on a downward spiral, many of these cinema folk fell into bad times, and could not even collect their projectors (which they had left with Prakash) back. Meanwhile, having done repairs for over 40 years, Prakash understood what is wrong with all these machines. He has made a projector of his own, named it Prakash (light, in Marathi and after his own name), which uses the motor to also rewind the reels and runs the moving parts in an oil bath instead of using the usual grease. These certainly are revolutionary changes in a way. His story is one of nostalgia, of machines waiting to be picked up, of water spoiling cans of film, dust gathering on the old machines, journals of dues that moviewallahs owe him and of the dwindling business.
Yet the movie is in a way about looking ahead, with the protagonists making peace with the change around them. Some changes that they accept, some that they despair about and can’t understand. The world has moved, movies appear on the telly, satellite television has arrived, and so has the internet.
Both Mohammed and Bapu go to Mumbai to buy new digital projectors, laptops and UPSes. Works out for the former, even with the loans that he has to take, even with him having to sell his old projector as junk. But the new complications do not work too well for Bapu. For his last shows of the season, before the rains set in, he has to fall back to his old faithful. Ironically, he even latches the door of truck with a strip of celluloid. Prakash shuts his repair shop for the day and heads over to the farms where his nephews still till the land, and the former has created handy seed sowing tools with a definite rate of seed sowing based on the speed of gait of the bullocks and the distance they cover. And that he plans to computerize the operation over time. Prakash emphasizes, how important it is to teach the young and encourage them.
This is, one of the best documentaries I have ever watched. A documentary that my 11 year old enjoyed. For many things really. The cinematography is fantastic, some of the still imagery even better. This is a story shot over five years, of a legacy of over 70 years falling to pieces. Again, as I mentioned earlier, this is a story of hope and not of despair. There is respect for the old, and some delight of the new. There is some sadness, but certainly some moments of joy.
In Abraham and Madheshiya’s not over the top work, you get an given intimate access to a delicate and sensitive experience. The scenes do not seem contrived, and the people seem to be oblivious of the presence of a camera, adding to the authenticity of the film.
The documentary won a special Jury award at Cannes last year, and got selected at Toronto, New York and many others. If you spy a screening somewhere, make time and go see it.