Documentary channel

Documentary ‘The Cinema Travellers’ is a bittersweet look at the fading culture of touring cinemas

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya evocatively capture a fast disappearing film exhibition tradition in rural India.

The truck trudges along, barely holding its contents together. It spills over at its stop, unloading its matter with a thud. The tents are built, the posters plastered and tickets sold. The movie reels are fitted into a projector used and rusted beyond belief. The establishment is then pulled down, only for the truck to make its way into a new town, onto a new set of people. This whimsical nature of a touring cinema is evocatively brought to screen in The Cinema Travellers. The documentary, directed, produced and edited by Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham will be shown at the Mumbai Film Festival in the competition section after a premiere at Cannes and screenings around the world, including New York Film Festival.

A touring cinema does not hold the same romance anymore. Television brings the world into the living room. Films don’t come in large rolls of print but are instead projected into theatres or burnt on pirated CDs. The Cinema Travellers chronicles this shift in the medium.

‘The Cinema Travellers’.
‘The Cinema Travellers’.

The intimate portrayal was eight years in the making. Madheshiya was documenting the phenomenon in a photo-essay that won him the 2011 World Press Photo award, and Abraham’s research helping the project make its transition to the big screen. That development happened organically, Abraham said. “It had been about three years of having researched the travelling cinemas,” she told Scroll.in. “We spent a lot of time trying to understand their motivations, absorbing ourselves into their journeys. There was a moment when it dawned on us that change is in the air and once the technological shift happens, it will change the playing field at large. It was at that point that we decided to make a film about it.”

Three characters are at the centre of the narrative. Mohammed and Bapu run touring cinema businesses. Prakash is the ingenious engineer. “We chose them because they represented three different perspectives and the continuum of life,” Madheshiya said. “Mohammed lives in the present and is a businessman. He is not in romance with cinema, as much as it is his livelihood. On the other hand, we have Bapu who is so nostalgic about how cinemas used to be. His entire narrative is rooted in the past. And then we have Prakash who is a bridge between these two people. He lives in the past too, but he is also somebody who can look ahead and is a man of the future as well.”

The result is a diverse look at a tectonic shift in film viewing practices. “The story wasn’t merely about technology being obsolescent, it had to go beyond that,” Abraham said. “By the time we actually came to make the film, we had spent about three years with all of these people. We had a sense of how each one would respond to this moment of change. We really wanted to understand what the place of cinema is in our civilisation. Why would you preserve it?”

‘The Cinema Travellers’.
‘The Cinema Travellers’.

The intimacy that the filmmakers shared with the characters is reflected throughout its 96-minute run. The people featured in the film seem oblivious to the lingering camera – a possible consequence of the amount of work that went into its pre-production.

“With your first film, you want to create something that will hopefully live for the time,” Abraham said. “The biggest burden was the knowledge that we had been entrusted with this story. It was a beautiful burden, but the travelling cinema is also a beautiful burden that these showmen are carrying. So many times, we were struggling to find the right grammar and narrative to tell the story. But we take pride in how the struggle inspired us to create this story. You discover that eight years have been spent on it, but at that time it was all about getting on from one point to another.”

The documentary also functions as an archive of a uniquely Indian film exhibition tradition. “We are speaking about something that has ceased to exist in the rest of the world, perhaps,” Madheshiya said. “Travelling cinemas were the first medium through which films came to people, and since then things have progressed and changed.”

Madheshiya’s photographic eye results in beautiful frames infused with rich details. The shift from still image to the moving one was, for him, a learning process. “As a photographer, it was all about consolidating a moment and finding a story in one single image, so the transition was terrifying,” he said. “It initially appeared to me as a chaotic process. But then the aesthetic evolved. It was a journey of four to five years.”

Abraham, who has directed short film projects for The Guardian and Al Jazeera in the past, found a story to sink her teeth into. “Money is not our currency,” she said. “We had this beautiful story about imagination and ingenuity, and how their need for cinema goes beyond their daily lives, and our biggest struggle was to be able to translate it.”

Initially a self-funded project, The Cinema Travellers was the beneficiary of generous grants from the Sundance Film Festival and the Bertha Foundation. The rousing festival reception is an encouragement to aim higher, said the filmmakers. “These film festivals are like travelling cinemas in every way – they go to places and transform it for a week or so with cinema from all over the world,” Madheshiya said. “But we would like to take the movie through travelling cinemas too.” Distribution is definitely on the cards. “We have the conventional offer to go via a theatrical release,” Abraham said. “We also have offers from online platforms. This decision will impact the life of the film, so we want to make sure that we’re discussing all the possibilities to choose the model that would be the best fit.”

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya.
Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya.
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
__('Sponsored Content') BY 

London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

Play

For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.