In India’s metropolitan centers people go see films in multiplexes often located in malls with food courts and expensive bars. That is when they are not watch- ing it on their television sets at home, on their laptops and even their smartphones.
Filmmakers Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya were
intrigued about how people in rural India watch cinema and
interact with stars — Bollywood and regional movie stars.
Their curiosity led them to the tradition of traveling cinemas
in the hinterlands of India, especially in Maharashtra where
this form of movie viewing is most popular.
Their hour-and-a-half-long documentary The Cinema Travelers explores this tradition in India through the perspective
of three characters who bring these films to the villages.
The beautifully made film premiered earlier this summer
at the Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Cam-
era D’Or and the L’OEil d’or. Abraham and Madheshiya ear-
ned a special jury mention in the latter category
This fall the film was shown at the Toronto International
Film Festival before heading to New York Film Festival.
In conversation with Abraham and Madheshiya:
When I began to watch the film, I realized that you actually
call it The Cinema Travelers and not The Traveling Cinema. Tell me about the thought behind that.
Shirley Abraham: We wanted to squarely put the focus on
the three custodians, who struggle and persist on keeping
this tradition of traveling cinema alive. In their own ways
these three people — Mohammed, Bapu and Prakash
become the three pillars of the story. They are also the travelers in this landscape, and also traveling through their own
legacy imagining what they will leave behind.
Amit Madheshiya: With Prakash we have someone who
can exist in many backgrounds — now or even thousands of
years earlier. So, he is also a traveler for us in that sense. He’s
the sage like man. But we believe even the audiences travel to
get to the cinemas, so they also are the travelers.
Were the three protagonists open to talking to you both?
SA: In the beginning they were certainly unclear about what we were doing. They felt cinema history is about big impresarios. And here these three were small-time showmen
taking the experiences of cinema from cities to villages. They
couldn’t fathom why we would want to tell their stories.
And we wanted to make this film precisely because of this
reason. These stories had not been told. They were forthcoming once they got a sense of our perspective.
Where was the film shot? Somewhere in Maharashtra?
AM: In a lot of villages in Maharashtra.
I am curious to know why you selected this subject for your
documentary and are the traveling cinemas popular all over
India or do they exist more in Maharashtra?
SA: They have existed in one form or another throughout
India. But they are not as organized as we see them in Maharashtra. That is because the tradition of the religious fairs,
the jatras and the traveling cinemas got integrated. It was a
setting that made it possible for the traveling cinemas, because there is already an audience there. That is also the reason why mythological stories were first forms of films that
played at the jatras. They were instant hits.
These films and the traveling cinemas have survived for the
longest time in Maharashtra. We don’t see them in such an
organized manner anywhere else in India.
AM: In fact, without the religious fairs these traveling cinemas would not have been able to survive so long.
Some of the villages you showed seemed developed, but
there are no movie theaters in these rural areas.
AM: Bapu’s village is quite developed with cable and dish
Mohammed travels in much smaller villages where at times they do not even have proper electricity. That is the reason
why fewer people are coming to Bapu’s shows, because they
can watch the films on their television sets at home.
So, what fascinated you about this subject? Had you seen
open-air films growing up in India?
AM: As a child, I had seen something like this in my grandmother’s village (near Varanasi). It was actually a film shown
at a wedding in the open-air. I think it was the first big-scr-een experience I had.
I probably had forgotten about it. The memory came alive
when I was working on this documentary.
But the impetus for this film came when we were both studying at Jamia Millia University in 2006-2007. That was the
time when a lot of single-screen theaters were shutting down
in Delhi. We used to go see films there on the weekends.
We were really sad about these developments. So, we were
curious how this change in the urban landscape of watching
films is reflected in rural areas? How were people watching
films in rural areas? In theaters? On television? That’s when
we started traveling and finally came across these travelling
cinemas in Maharashtra.
We came back and realized this was a largely an untold story. There was hardly any mention of these cinemas in India.
Did you see Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie Of course, it is a
SA: Yes, but by that time we had already done a few years
of research on this subject.
How long did you work on this project?
SA: We started working in 2008, but the first few years
were just spent researching since it was a completely un-
researched subject. There was nothing we could go back to
other than to visit these cinemas in the field. We were fortu-
nate to meet some of the first people who had brought these
cinemas to their villages. We were aware that this world
would not last forever and there would be some moment of
technological change. But we wanted to say something for
the legacy that these traditional cinemas used to exist.
How long was the shoot?
SA: We eventually started shooting in 2011. So, from research stage we made the film for five years.
In between you were doing other projects also?
SA: A little bit here and there since we had to keep ourselves going. It’s so difficult to raise funding for independent
documentaries. But largely we were focusing on this film.
My sense is that the tradition will continue. There are dish
antennas in Bapu’s village, but suddenly towards the end new
digital screening equipment comes into the scenario. So, it is
not like it is a dying tradition at all.
SA: The audiences have declined since they also now have
the same technology available to them, but the travelling cinemas will continue for long. As long as there will be the religious fairs, there will be traveling cinemas. In the recent years the drought in Maharashtra has also somewhat impacted
the number of these cinemas.
AM: In Bapu’s village that was the last screening — what
we show in the film. He stopped playing films in his village,
but Mohammed is still doing business.
The number of people coming is dwindling, but there are
people who still like to see films on the big screen, even though they might have seen them on their mobile phones or at
home on TV. The market is much smaller now.
I find it really fascinating how since 1990s — as cable television mushroomed in India — people have connectivity not
only in cities, but also in villages. They may not have toilet
facilities or drainage systems but cable TV will still be there.
So, you would go quite far into the hinterlands of Maharashtra. What was that like? Where would you stay?
SA: There were some places where there were small hotels,
or dharamsalas or temples and even cinema tents.
AM: At some of the religious fairs millions of people come
and the land is transformed. People put up tents to sleep. The
nearest town would be like 30 km (about 19 miles) away.
Since we would do all night shooting that would be the
busiest time. So, we would stay there itself.
I can’t even start to imagine how tough that can be for city
people. I hope you were getting bottled water to drink.
AN UNTOLD STORY OF INDIAN CINEMA
Shirley Abraham and
Amit Madheshiya tell
Aseem Chhabra about the
making of The Cinema Travelers
and what it means to take their
film to the high temple of movies.
The Cinema Travelers explores the tradition of traveling cinemas in India’s hinterlands through the perspective of three characters who bring films to villages.