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In an age of instant gratification and unprecedented accessibility, it may be difficult to imagine the romance that envelops the big-screen experience when it’s made available only once a year. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s Cannes award–winning debut feature, The Cinema Travellers, is an elegy for a regional phenomenon that began to develop in the western Indian state of Maharashtra seven decades ago, when enterprising showmen established pop-up “tent talkies” as a fixture of the area’s annual religious festivals. The result of three years of research and five years of shooting, the film documents the work of two of the last remaining exhibitors in the traveling-cinema profession and a local technician who has spent his career finding innovative ways of repairing projectors. As these men strive to keep their businesses afloat in the twilight of 35 mm, Abraham and Madheshiya capture the sights and sounds of cinema’s pre-digital past: the clunky machines lugged from one location to another, the teeming crowds pushing their way into the screening tents, the motes of dust floating through shafts of light. What emerges is a loving tribute to the sheer physicality of this soon-to-be-lost moviegoing tradition.
Before heading back to Mumbai for the film’s Indian premiere last Friday, the directors stopped by the Criterion office to share their stories about this long-gestating project.
What inspired you to explore the tradition of traveling cinemas?
Shirley: Both of us studied film in college, and since we come from a country that produces around a thousand films a year, we’ve been interested in film history for a while. There’s a lot of talk about how the big impresarios brought cinema to the people, but there’s very little discussion about how people actually watch movies. We tend to treat films as these finished, timeless objects, without really looking at how they are rearticulated when they reach their audiences. There was this moment while we were studying film history when a lot of single-screen theaters in India were being shut down, and everyone was concerned about potentially losing these institutions, as multiplexes came to replace them.
We started wondering if there was any reflection of this in the villages, so we started traveling and ended up spending a year going all over India. We saw a lot of interesting things: in one place, there was a man showing scraps of film under a tree with his hand-cranked projector. When we started this journey, we didn’t know there were traveling cinemas; neither of us had ever been to one. Then we got back to Maharashtra, which is where we are based and where the film is set, and went to this one village where we saw eight tents pitched in one place. Inside each of them was a projector beaming images onto a screen, with a huge audience watching. This was the first time we had witnessed such a devotion to cinema.
We met the three men we follow in the film in Maharashtra, and we just started traveling with them. It was fascinating. They would take their cinema to market places and hillsides and even graveyards. It was like going back in time. We typically think of cinema as this clean, sanitized space where you don’t talk and don’t take a phone call. Here, there was a kind of informality to the audience’s interaction with the screen; people would lie down and smoke and eat and drink and fight. The men who ran the traveling cinema had come upon their projectors decades ago through businessmen who were selling them secondhand on the back roads of Bombay.
When you were doing the initial research, did you find that these traveling cinemas also existed outside of Maharashtra, or are they specific to this region?
Shirley: They are specific to Maharashtra because they are integrated with religious fairs that are local to the area. Because these fairs only happen once a year, there is a lot of anticipation for the cinema, and depending on the size of the village, the film festivals last anywhere between five days to three weeks.
Seventy years ago, in Maharashtra, cinema came first to these fairs, and it’s because there was an audience for it. People were coming in for trade and business, as well as for social interaction and matchmaking. So our film is partly the story of how cinema has been integrated into an existing local tradition, and how that tradition has helped it thrive.
What are the kinds of movies that are exhibited in these spaces?
Shirley: There’s an emphasis on local Marathi-language films, because those connect most directly with the audiences, but the lineup is fairly eclectic. They show everything from social dramas and comedies to popular Bollywood movies to older films, and the prints are all sourced from distributors. Indian cinema is an incredibly diverse landscape. Of course, Bollywood is the most recognized for its range and its reach and the volume of films it produces, but there are industries in the North, where you find Punjabi cinema, and the South, which is known for producing some of the most sophisticated technicians.
Amit: One other distinction is that the Bombay industry is predominantly Hindi, but the smaller regional industries serve the seventeen other official languages in the country.
There’s a poignant moment in the film where you see prints that have been damaged in the rain. Do you know if there are any extensive efforts to archive and preserve these regional cinemas?
Amit: We have a strong national film archive, but for a country that produces so many films, it’s not sufficient. It doesn’t have the infrastructure and facilities to be doing the level of archival work that we need, so a lot of these films are being lost. At one point, we visited one of the most respected labs in Bombay, and I saw a hallway full of prints that were being sold or trashed. I asked the people working there, “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you try to preserve these films instead?” And of course I was told that no one has the money to do that. We definitely need a much more concerted archival effort. At the same time, I’m reminded of something that Umberto Eco says: culture is a strange thing, and you’re never sure what it will take and what it will reject. Human beings can’t remember everything, and forgetting is an important part of how a culture functions.
Your film evokes the magic of cinema as a physical, mechanical apparatus. Can you talk about your decision to spend so much time exploring that side of film?
Amit: Early on, we realized that we were trying to build a grand narrative around cinema and that it had to speak the language of cinema. Bergman compared cinema to gothic cathedrals; you walk into a cathedral and you wonder how they were able to do it. This is what we felt when we were looking at these cinemas. The people running them don’t have great equipment or technology, and they’re carrying these heavy machines on their shoulders and piling everything up in a truck and traveling hundreds of miles. Of course this tradition will change and eventually be lost for good, but we wanted to look at it through the lens of mythology. Why not take a look at it while it’s in its most glorious form?