The Touring Talkies of India: India’s Mobile Theaters Are Becoming Extinct, As Doc The Cinema Travellers Depicts

Red mud-baked roads. A smoggy pink dawn. Air redolent with saffron. Loudspeakers propped precipitously.

Two boys by a microphone hush each other, before calling out to the folks of Ond village in Maharashtra, Western India. There is a picture playing in the big tent at the fairground, brought to you by the uncle who travels with Akshay Touring Talkies. Do darshan (visitation) of your deity at our annual carnival. Go past the hawking ice candy wallahs, the dancing dwarf-man, the imposing giant wheel. Come one, come all, to the resplendent, dying, decades-old phenomenon of the traveling cinemas. 

The dramatic pulsations in the opening shots of Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s elegiac documentary The Cinema Travellers don’t prepare us for the film’s emotional heft. It explores the displacement of a longstanding yet little known film exhibition practice: the rural touring “talkies” of India. The heyday from the 1960s to the 1980s saw hundreds of these itinerant screens, erected in tents and transported in trucks, bringing all manner of film to the masses: social dramas, comedies, adult films, dubbed Tamil and Hollywood flicks, and regional films that never made it to metro areas.

Today, estimates vary, but perhaps a dozen or fewer remain in western Maharashtra. This version of the collective theatrical experience is on its way out. But is hope for these makeshift theaters’ effervescent sociality—their bringing together of a nation’s fourth-tier audience—forever obliterated?

“You wouldn’t know that traveling cinemas still existed,” says Abraham. “They are [now] part of the mythology of cinema.”

That’s particularly true if you’re an urban dweller, as she and Madheshiya were after finishing college in Delhi. “In 2006, single screen theaters in Delhi were shutting down. Our friends were lamenting the loss of these institutions, these picture houses of nostalgia, and the cultures that grew around them. People were concerned about how they would now access movies. We just wanted to see if there was any reflection of this moment in the villages.”

Film travels in canisters in jute bags atop ramshackle trucks from one traveling cinema village to the other

Armed with this curiosity, the two had their first encounter of Maharashtra’s traveling cinemas and their showmen entrepreneurs. Abraham recalls: “We ran into this village, and there were about 10 tents in the same space. One of them was hitched to a truck. Inside, it was like going back in time. People were just sitting by the beam of a projector. They were drinking in this magic. We just stood there in disbelief, in a state of rapture.”

Huddled inside a tent, a slide deck of stills, of faces. A 20-something woman, hands covering her mouth. A turbaned patriarch, one eye perked, one wrinkle furrowed, softened by the screen. A smile before a guffaw from a light-eyed gurkha. The man with the monkey act has snuck inside too; the simian is equally absorbed. Movie magic doesn’t get more palpable, moving. The projectionist, who until a few minutes prior was rushing through the carnival to deliver the canisters and soothe waiting customers, now watches his audience in mirrored captivation. As for the celebrity actress doing the item number on screen, did she ever imagine such reverence, so far away?

Madheshiya and Abraham excitedly investigated further in Mumbai. Traveling cinemas, they found, were a tiny part of the national box office—with tickets costing as little as an American dime, or at most half a dollar, around 2010. A high turnout is a few hundred patrons per screening (though a thousand is not unheard of; “full house” is rarely declared). With eight screenings per day, daily revenues max out at US$100 or $200. (Expenses by contrast have increased radically over the decade, especially the cost of diesel to run generators.)

“These showmen have provincialized this experience of the movies for more than seven decades and taken it to people who still live far from standing theaters,” says Abraham. “And yet traveling cinemas were a footnote in the grand history of Indian cinema.”

Years later, when new technology had begun to dismantle this exhibition form, the two knew they had a film: a story about labor and enterprise within an exhibition practice that had for a while felt timeless, right before it was ravaged by the advent of cable, DVD parlors and digital projection.

Over the years, the duo formed relationships with three individuals from this world. Two were showmen entrepreneurs, one a repairman; two were Hindu, one Muslim; all were family men in an unstructured business notable for its absence of women (though women make up a large part of the audiences). If one emerging narrative theme was technological obsolescence, Abraham and Madheshiya asked, “What is these showmen’s sense of time?”

Many of India’s rural populace depend upon traveling cinemas for their only communal theatrical experience

First, The Cinema Travellers follows Mohammed, of Sumedh Touring Talkies. You see the wheels of his mind hatching plans to pay for unexpected day-to-day expenses. Spinning downturn with haggle and fending off demanding fans with hustle, Mohammed is not above occasionally resorting to showing titillating features to drum up extra cash. “The Beautiful Maid will save me,” he determines one evening, a gambler about to roll the die.

Next is Bapu of Akshay Touring Talkies, for whom, says Abraham, “running the cinema was almost a moral duty. It was about his legacy as a showman.” Bapu maintains a stoic face, acutely sensing the gradual thinning of crowds, even though the village children whom he dotes upon keep coming back, if only for a spontaneous dance party.

“This year was the breaking of a dream,” he says, as he finally gives in and sells his ramshackle truck—an artifact of a bygone era of moviemaking transportation, in both senses of the word. He tells the buyer, “It could be scrap for you. For me, it’s my life.” A veteran showman shorn of the peripatetic, Bapu distills dignity.

And then there is Prakash, whom Madheshiya and Abraham followed for four years. A philosophical projector repairman whose name means “light,” he operates from a tiny shop you’d most likely miss, a speck among thousand similar holes-in-the-wall in the streets of small-town Maharashtra.

Prakash reminisces about going to the touring cinema as a school kid in the ’50s. “Most children were lost in the images. But I wondered how they were made, where the sound came from.” He has now spent 45 years fixing projectors of all kinds, from the U.S., France, Sweden and Italy, profoundly aware that local traveling cinema operators no longer line up at his door. “There used to be no space to walk [in my shop],” he says ruefully. Now defunct projectors just accumulate layers of dust, and there are thousands of rupees in unpaid bills. Inventor of an impressive oil bath projector that he avers would be a panacea if ever a corporation were to buy it, Prakash sits outside his shop, his immense knowledge of these machines fading into the dusk. “One day will come,” he says, “when everything will be buried, submerged, like the ancient civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.”

Directors Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham behind the scenes in an old projector repair shop

Rusty green, labyrinthine, shining. A tender barrage of equipment: spoiled pulleys, tepid spools, burning arc lamps, screwed-up photo diodes. Late-arriving reels in jute bags. Commotion, customer complaints… yet concentration. Nimble hands snap film onto resistant, patina-coated nuts and bolts. Sounds of outside drums die down. The projectionist quickly waves an incense stick. An assistant expertly breaks a coconut. Auspices in place, picture rolls. A rare women-only audience cheers: headstrong customers who commute in the morning and return home by early evening. The feature that unfolds is a mythological, a story of the gods brought to the village. “Tonight’s a lottery, motherfuckers,” exclaims Mohammed.

If Travellers is remarkable for its portrait of a dwindling exhibition culture, it’s even more splendid for its breathtaking depiction of machines, equipment and assiduous assembly and dismantling work. Madheshiya says that if ever the doc were to become part of a film studies curriculum, he’d like it to be discussed for these underrated aspects, to pay homage to the real “impresarios” and the labor of cinematic exhibition. He thinks of the traveling projectors as “timestamps of the way human civilization is evolving. Maybe 20 years from now, they will evoke a similar kind of surprise and awe.”

He points to a scene in which Mohammed visits the world-famous Buddhist Ajanta caves in central Maharashtra and is filled with heady wonderment. These cinema travelers, say Abraham and Madheshiya, are part of “the same continuum” of craftsmanship. The people who etched those beautiful sculptures are the same who designed the machines. It’s the same creative imagination.”

It’s easy to mistake the film to be an ode to cinematic materialism, but that was not the directors’ intention. Abraham says, “These things solidified in the edit room. At the traveling cinemas, the interaction between men and machines was so human. The machines were almost like living things. They would rust and bleed. And to get them to move, you had to touch them, pull, push, shove. There was an intensity that characterized this relationship. They were subjected to tough love, but there’s also a sense of religious devotion to the machines, because from them came livelihoods.”

In fact, that religiosity is exactly what differentiates India’s traveling cinemas from perhaps their closest counterpart, the fairgrounds of pre-war Europe and America. India’s cinemas, Abraham explains, “exist in village fairs, which are integrated into the religious lives of the people. They are important to the religious calendar, always tied to a ritual performed at that time of the year. Entertainment is a part of [religion].”

“We wanted to bring that experience into the film, to create this transcendental space of cinema,” Madheshiya says. “We were looking at audiences in a very divine form. It was akin to looking at them in a temple. That divinity had to be evoked.”

The film’s third act shows each of the three characters responding differently to advances in digital projection. While both Mohammed and Bapu part ways with their trucks full of analog equipment—the discarding of which constitutes the doc’s most unexpectedly heartbreaking moments—Mohammed has a distinct personal response. He is thrilled by the quality of the digital projector, at the sharpness of its image: “I’m as happy as a man on his wedding day. Finally, I’m married to my business.” The Asian erotica he plays is all the more vivid for an all-male nighttime audience for whom the nether pleasures of the internet are not yet routinized. Mohammed’s projectionist can take a nap now, since digital play requires few adjustments.

Bapu, on the other hand, has trouble grasping with the software. He has to cancel a show. “The children will be upset,” he worries. We see him unflinchingly looking on as his last analog picture show unfurls.

But it’s Prakash that has moved on the farthest. He has accepted that his prized invention has had no buyers. Instead he has brought his flair to farming, designing a computerized plough that mechanizes seeding. “The cinema line gave me a lot. It’s over now,” he says with his trademark upturned smile. “The ability to think ahead is what makes us human.” He cranes his neck, like a heron. A hero for Abraham and Madheshiya, who is proud that their film eschews over-romanticization: “Prakash was not nostalgic of that system, of that place being lost. What reason then did we have?”

Abraham says The Cinema Travellers leaves viewers with hope. “There’s a lot that we lament in our lives. There’s a lot that we look upon as loss that might essentially just be about transition. Movies are shedding their skin, and maybe so are these traveling cinemas. It is us who sentimentalize them. We mourn the death of cinema very often. Maybe the traveling cinemas will continue to live in another form, to reach their audiences in different ways.”

“Tickets are flying off.” One final beckoning on the mike by a village child to the other children. One final turn of a canister, snap of a reel. One final turn of the pulley, like Gandhi-spun khadi cloth. Whirring against the starlit sky. Inside the diaphanous tent, the final dance of the flickering projector light. Bulbous heads huddled, huggable. Then the pilgrimage of stills. Mesmerizing slides of children agape, soaking in, wafting away. Indian Neverland. That family of albino children at the front, where they can see better; one girl with a single tear on her left cheek. Bapu watches it travel. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue. Photographs courtesy of Amit Madheshiya.

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