The Cinema Travellers - 5 Director Questions
In India, travelling cinemas bring the wonder of the movies to faraway villages in India. As their cinema projectors crumble and film reels become scarce, The Cinema Travellers accompanies a shrewd exhibitor, a benevolent showman and a maverick projector mechanic in their efforts to keep the last travelling cinemas of the world running.
Your beautiful film follows two touring cinemas in India and the men who run them, and an indefatigable projector mechanic-come-inventor. How did you meet your three main characters, Mohammed, Bapu and Prakash?
Thank you! Back when we graduated from college in Delhi, many single screen theatres were shutting down in the cities, giving way to malls and multiplexes. Decades-old theatres were razed down, this saddened us and also stoked our curiosity. How are people watching movies in the villages? How is their big screen experience affected by this change? So we set out on a journey, travelling the breadth of India. It was an instructive experience, not only about the modes of exhibition but also about the bond people share with their cinemas. Closer home in Maharashtra, was the most fascinating sight of all. About ten bulbous tents were hitched to the back of gigantic trucks. In the belly of the trucks, age old cinema projectors whirred away. Thousands sat crouched by the beam, drinking in the magic. We spent years travelling with the showmen, projectionists, projector mechanics, workers, painters and tent makers who have sustained this oasis of cinema exhibition.
We chose to focus on Mohammed, Prakash and Bapu because of their unique value systems that would come to life as this fragile and yet specially preserved world of travelling cinemas stands at the precipice of technological change. For Mohammed, it is a matter of livelihood, for Bapu, his legacy, and for Prakash, a gateway into the imagination. Each of their unfolding narratives helped us lay the doors, windows and secret passageways of the story. We had some touchstones: the characters must have a dynamic, evolving story, an urge for cinema that goes beyond their everyday needs, and a response to the changing nature of the medium. This guided our choices.
How long did you spend filming, and what was it like travelling with Mohammed’s cinema to the huge fairs where they set up shop?
We made our first visit in December 2008 and started filming by 2011. We filmed intermittently until 2015.
Mohammed used to travel to the biggest jatras (religious fairs), hosted by nodal villages. He would pitch his tent in fairgrounds, farmlands, graveyards, marketplaces and hillsides. He often wondered how the thronging audiences found their way to the cinema in these faraway places. “Like ants for sugar,” he reflected. In these big fairs, we heard myths of how audiences had embraced the annual visits of the touring cinemas – it was said that a child was once born in the tent, when the mother, about to deliver, couldn’t resist her yearly ritual of watching movies. It was a fascinating and magical time. Also, significantly, it was through accompanying his cinema company that the sheer mechanical labour of the enterprise came home to us. The group of ten - including projectionists, labourers, cooks, tickets sellers and gate keepers would often travel one whole day to reach the next fair, and mount the cinema through the night.
Amit’s background is in photography. What do you think that brought to film?
Through the eight years of making this film, we have often felt a burden—admittedly a beautiful one—of the grand narrative of cinema that we were to create. We wanted our film to reflect upon the language of cinema. And cinema, in its most distilled form, is images. Conscious of this, we wanted to create images that would not just index an idea of India, but evolve a language organic to the cinema culture we were telling the story of. The film, by the sheer act of film making, was going to become a document of its time, but how could we find a way to contemplate upon this time, this monumental moment of change? Amit’s photographic practice helped us develop a meditative visual language for the film.
The film is full of the magic and the romance of cinema. What is it that you love about cinema and film projection?
We believe cinema is the most profound expression of the human imagination. And as the British novelist Angela Carter wrote, the communal watching of cinema, the gathering together in the dark, is akin to “ancient Greeks participating in the mysteries, to dream the same dream in unison.”
It also feels like an ode to film itself and you explore it in a very tactile way - the feel of the machine, sprockets and lenses, light passing through celluloid, the weight of film prints. Did you sense a need to record these physical things before it’s too late?
India’s travelling cinemas, centered around the ecosystem of celluloid, are one of the last stops of travelling cinemas in the world. They are mostly believed to have become a part of the history, even the mythology of cinema. It is the sheer ingenuity, imagination and enterprise of the showmen that has kept the wheels of their cinema trucks moving for more than seven decades.
Observing the travelling cinemas, we were reminded of Bergman, who compared making cinema to making cathedrals: you walk into a cathedral and wonder, how did they make these, with the bare technology they had all those centuries ago. Similarly, the people running the travelling cinemas do not have the savviest equipment or technology, it’s all mechanical and homegrown, they carry heavy machines on their shoulders, pile everything up in a truck and travel hundreds of miles. Of course, this tradition will eventually be lost, but we did feel the need to record this physical, sensual means of cinema exhibition and watching. Simultaneously, seeking inspiration from genius inventor Prakash, we felt motivated for the film to evoke, that the story of human progress is not one of technological obsolescense, but that of constant moving forward though human imagination.