By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on May 03, 2016
"It's a place of wonder! When we first encountered it, it was like going back in time. It was like witnessing something that we had only read about. And it's almost like Mythology, you don't even know whether it's true or not, but you've heard some accounts of it. So it is a really special world..."
Shirley Abraham talks fondly about the travelling cinemas that she, along with her collaborator Amit Madheshiya, has been following and researching about for over eight years. Their 96-minute documentary on touring talkies or the tent cinemas in India, The Cinema Travellers, is set to premiere at the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival this month in the Cannes Classics section. It is an exciting prospect for the director duo, as their creation is now getting acknowledged as well as appreciated. And of course, this is only the beginning.
The real beginning, however, dates long back when the two of them got interested in the idea of travelling cinemas & tried to find any links or connections that could connect them to these cinemas in rural India. It was a tradition that was slowly disappearing into oblivion, and all they could find were a few scattered entities, which were active in little pockets with no significant presence.
"I and Amit, both of us are from smaller towns where single screen theatres were more popular and yet they were shutting down. That got us curious about how people were watching films in the villages. So we started researching it. We went to a lot of places in the country. We went to Bengal, we did some research in UP. There we found travelling cinemas, which had survived in some form. In Bengal, there were some students working with travelling cinemas, taking movies to the people in villages.
But here in Maharashtra, we found an old, organised system. A system that was integrated into the socio-cultural tradition of the religious fair or Jatra. It is organised, in the sense, that these are licensed companies, which take the particular route and they'd travel in a specific cycle. Well, they used to. I'm saying that because we've been doing research for quite a while now.
Back then when we found these companies, they were organised, they used to travel on the particular routes, they had a distribution system in place. It wasn't like they'd just go and screen some DVD somewhere. It was actually flourishing. Historically, travelling cinemas, were believed to not have survived the test of time. And here we were, looking at this system which had been in existence for so long. We found the story really fascinating," says Abraham.
Abraham, who has made documentary shorts for The Guardian, had always wanted to do something creative and innovative. Journalism attracted her as the field of adventure and storytelling. However, she realised later that journalism wasn't her calling.
"I went on to study journalism, but I somehow began to find it limiting, in terms of storytelling. That's when I found filmmaking liberating as a way of telling stories. I had thought I'd become a journalist but when I interned in a media organization, it sort of didn't appeal to me. Not just because of the pace of it, but I thought there could be something else that could help me tell stories more deeply. So that's how I came into filmmaking."
Abraham (left) and Madheshiya (Courtesy: The Hindu)
Madheshiya was a fellow student in the journalism course at the Jamia Millia Islamia, and the duo had developed a good working relationship while working on a project in college. The award-winning photographer turned a filmmaker with this project. The switch wasn't entirely planned for Madheshiya, who has also captured an award-winning photo series while researching about the travelling cinemas.
"Well, it started as a research and photography project. After the first few years of research, we decided to make it cinematic & so decided to make a film about it. Then we started thinking about direction and searching for stories. It was kind of the need of the story, the story needed to be told in a cinematic format," says Madheshiya.
While talking about capturing the travelling cinemas in two different mediums of photography and moving image, Madheshiya says,
“These are two very different mediums. Each photography and filmmaking have their own way of storytelling. So when you want to tell a story, you need to decide through which medium you want to tell it. You look at the pros and cons and decide. Like in photography, you look for that decisive moment of change to capture, all your focus is on that one moment, on making it beautiful & glorifying it. In cinema, when the image is moving, it becomes unimportant, and what comes before and after that moment is more important. There, you're trying to get into the depths.
I think each medium has its own qualities and you need to pick your medium based on what you want to say. What you want to say is the most important factor."
Portrait of an old man watching a film in a tent cinema (clicked by Amit Madheshiya)
While the research was extensive and the resolution, intact, there was something missing. It was the story.
"The instinct for a film was always there. But then, you know, there has to be a story. Just the fact that there are travelling cinemas didn't give us a story. What would be the story that I'd want to tell, was the question on my mind and we found the answers as time went by. When we had found the story, then we started filming in around 2011," says Abraham.
Eventually, they found the protagonists for their story- three people from whose perspectives this story of the travelling cinemas was to unfold. As the the backbone of this film, they became the representatives of the system. As the film's synopsis states, it's a story of these three characters - a benevolent showman, a shrewd exhibitor and a maverick projector mechanic bearing a beautiful burden, to keep the last traveling cinemas of the world running.
Over years of research and filming, they witnessed the transformation of travelling cinemas. From using projectors with film technology to digital. The film traces the tradition on the brink of a change, an irreversible one. It's not just the simple change of technology, it's also about the very basic questions of survival before the patrons of the tradition.
"It's fragile, yet it has somehow been sustained because of the travelling cinema showmen who started it and of course, their families later, who sort of kept this going. They survive on an economy that survives on a constant revival of technology and objects, but it still remains a place where their eye seeks imagination, ingenuity. The experience of cinema there, is so alive, deep," says Abraham.
Much like the perseverance of these patrons of travelling cinema, the dedication of filmmakers is also laudable. Often in the course of a project so extensive, it is quite possible for one to lose focus or hope. When asked how they managed to keep at it for so long, Abraham struggles to find a fitting answer.
"I guess I'd just say that we kept at it. It was a difficult project, creatively as well as financially. So it did take a long time, but we kind of had the devotion and fascination that it takes to stick to the story. It did get difficult at points, I wouldn't deny that. But then you just have to keep yourself inspired. You have to understand why you're doing it. And there'll be points, where it's going to get difficult. But that's where the persistence keeps you going."
A systematic approach and meticulous planning helped them keep the process under their creative control. When asked about the editing process, assuming that a film that was in production for so long would have a huge amount of footage, Abraham highlights the importance of being organised and focused.
"Actually we didn't have tremendous amount of footage to begin with. We did shoot the film over a long period of time, but in retrospect we were very focused about the story that we wanted to tell. In the sense, not that I knew the story, but I had a sense what direction it might take and so we went with it. Essentially, I think it's not about how little or how much you have in terms of footage, it's just about what's the story you want to tell and whether or not you have enough to tell that story. So by that method of organizing things, I think we had just enough to tell the story and not too much. Editing was just about arriving at the principles of organizing the whole process. I wanted to tell it through the eyes of these three people that we had been following and we had found great counsel and advice in our advisers at Sundance Lab."
The project at the beginning was self-funded. Both Madheshiya and Abraham, while pursuing their jobs, were travelling to distant parts of the country; simultaneously writing proposals for research grants.
"The first grant we got was from India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). Then over years people started joining in the project. Then organisations like Bertha foundation got involved. These people believed in the film and they came on board and contributed to help this film," recounts Madheshiya.
With the films' world premiere at hand in Cannes later this month, the filmmakers are obviously delighted. And they are quite optimistic about releasing the film at home. That's one film, we won't be missing. :-)