In India, a Road Show of Celluloid Love
The Cinema Travelers, a wonderful documentary directed, produced, and edited by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, captures the magic of movies throughout its entirely too-brief 96 minutes—but there is one moment that stands out. Early on, Mohammed, who runs a traveling cinema, is having trouble with the projector his team uses. It's too low, and the image doesn’t hit the screen properly. Then someone uses glue on part of it when he shouldn’t. Then the print they’re going to show is late.
Finally things start running smoothly, and the viewing audience gets lost in the cinematic experience. Abraham and Madheshiya show the audience's delight through still photos (Madheshiya is responsible for The Cinema Travellers' beautiful cinematography), each member’s face lit up with the awe of movies and the light reflecting from the screen. It’s a charming moment, and it captures perfectly how a great motion picture experience can change anyone: You’re lost in a different world, your own melting away, for hours at a time.
The Cinema Travelers is surprisingly, thankfully unsentimental about the love of movies, and the hustle and bustle and hard work that goes into moving a cinema tent, prints, and projectors across remote parts of India. Abraham and Madheshiya follow three men: Mohammed runs his mobile cinema strictly as a business; Bapu runs his for the love of cinema; and finally there’s Prakash, a man who builds machines and claims to have built the best 35mm projector the world will ever see.
“Bapu revels in the glory of the past, and Mohammed wants to launch into the future,” says Abraham in a phone conversation. “Prakash was a myth we’d heard about in stories people told us. People said he lived in a cave and he could repair anything. I had an image of him that was totally mythical in my head. Then we met him and went to his workshop and he was kind of a loner. He’d never traveled from his village much, but he’d traveled in his imagination. And we knew that he was creating his own projector.”
When asked why she and Madheshiya made a film about traveling cinemas, Abraham says, “All around us we saw theaters shutting down and people were lamenting the loss the cinema. We wanted to seize on this loss of the institutions, and how it affects the other parts of the country. We wanted to see how films are being seen, especially in the villages. We weren’t looking for traveling exhibitions, but there were traveling cinemas flourishing in our country and no one knew about it, and we were so intrigued, we wanted to know everything.”
As The Cinema Travellers hums along, it becomes clear that traveling cinemas aren’t immune to the changing technological times. In one series of scenes, as Bapu arrives in a different town and sets up his ailing projection system—housed in a truck so rusty it’s hard to believe it doesn’t just fall apart—we see a local resident adjusting his satellite dish. It’s a canny reminder that Bapu’s scratchy old print may not be enough to lure audiences into the film tent.
“This is one of the tragedies,” says Madheshiya. “When [traveling cinemas] worked with film prints, they would be the last people to get the film prints in the villages. And that was too late because people have seen the films on their phones or satellite.”
Eventually, Mohammed and Bapu try to change with the times, with different results. As for Prakash, who perhaps has built the world’s best projector, the move to digital is bittersweet. But even he is unsentimental about it, using his skills as a builder and inventor for other industries by the film’s end.
Abraham and Madheshiya spent four years shooting The Cinema Travellers (the cinemas travel for about four to six months a year, they say), and are hard at work promoting it on the festival circuit. It’s been shown at Cannes, where it won a special jury prize, the Toronto International Film Festival, and as of this writing it’s wrapping up at the New York Film Festival. Next up: The Mumbai Film Festival.
“We’ll be on the festival circuit a little longer,” says Abraham. “It feels right to be taking the film [directly] to audiences. It’s collective dreaming; that’s what movies are all about.”