Mumbai, 09 Feb 2018 9:12 IST
The reflective documentary features three men — two travelling cinema owners and a film technician, caught on the shift of technologies — from film to digital.
The Cinema Travellers, directed by Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham, begins inside the projection room of a makeshift tent at a fair where a film is being loaded up to screen. Everything is in place, except there is one problem. The print hasn’t arrived yet.
The owner of the travelling cinema, Sumedh Touring Talkies, Mohammed anxiously waits at the front, selling tickets. The crowd grows restless; some demand a refund. Suddenly, the print arrives. It’s loaded into the projector and, voila, all is well! The crowd settles in and the movie begins.
The 96-minute documentary in Hindi and Marathi, which first premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2016, takes us away from the single-screens and air-conditioned multiplexes of India’s towns and cities. It goes deeper to villages in Maharashtra where citizens view films at religious festivals and fairs where the masses gathered.
Two more subjects are introduced in the film. Bapu is the owner of Akshay Touring Talkies, whose projection room is a rusting, decaying old truck. The sad-eyed man has one ambition — to show the people of his village cinema. The large tent doesn’t hold as many audiences as it used to; mostly children attend his screenings, but he is determined to carry on.
Projector repairman, Prakash, smiles serenely as he enters his repair shop. At one point, he tells the camera, there used to be line of people outside waiting to get their projectors repaired. They all disappeared; some of them leaving behind their machines as well.
The inventive technician has created his own oil-bath projector that he hopes someone will purchase. Prakash also has made a machine which easily rewinds reels — a tedious process by hand. Despite these handy inventions, he sits alone in his store, occasionally tinkering away here and there.
The advent of the digital age has dramatically changed the lives of Mohammed, Bapu, and Prakash. New films have all gone digital, meaning no more prints, so Mohammed and Bapu have to resort to showing older films to their audiences. But even that isn’t enough to sustain them.
The taste of the audience is changing as well. Films have to compete with 24-hour television and smartphones now. In Bapu’s village, the call on the loudspeaker for the film screening is ignored as residents view the television. Meanwhile, the canny Mohammed, seeing a dwindling audience, changes his marquee film — a B-grade film that headlines a virtuous wife to a semi-pornographic film about a mistress maid.
There is an air of sadness that surrounds the documentary. It heralds a changing of the guard, but I didn’t expect to feel such loss to see the lives of these men changed, especially Bapu. Even when they upgrade to all-new digital projector, there is a snafu. Bapu remarks that he hates to disappoint the children who have gathered to see the film.
Mohammed sells his beloved projector as scrap, while Prakash pragmatically uses his ingenuity on the farming field instead. One must move with the times, after all.
In Walter Salles’s 2004 film, The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna says, “How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?” as he visits an old town. I felt the same way while spending time with Prakash and Bapu in The Cinema Travellers.
This dreamy documentary, which brought great acclaim to first-time filmmakers Madheshiya and Abraham, will evoke great nostalgia for those who love cinema in all its forms.
The Cinema Travellers was screened in the International Competition category at the Mumbai International Film Festival on 30 January 2018.