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 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.