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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.
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