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While Western theater owners may weigh on the potential future damage of Sean Parker’s Screening Room and continue to bemoan Netflix’s growing global expansion, spare a thought for those film industry professionals driving battered projectors and dusty old reels around rural India.
The traveling cinema world, mostly based around Maharashtra, the vast state whose capital is Mumbai, has been bringing the magic of the silver screen to remote villages for some 70 years. Setting up tents in rural fairs that often are several hours from anything even approaching a local multiplex, the screenings draw hundreds, who line up to see the latest Bollywood hits, old Hindi classics and even the odd dubbed Hollywood title.
But it’s a tradition that is nearing extinction. “There are very few of these cinemas left,” says Shirley Abraham, who together with her co-director Amit Madheshiya, has spent eight years tracking those remaining in the industry for The Cinema Travelers, screening in the Cannes Classics sidebar on May 15. “It has been petering out over the years. I don’t think they’re going to survive the march of time and technology.”
But streaming platforms are the last of their worries. While modern technology has played a part in their demise, there are concerns unlikely to affect your average U.S. theater manager, namely severe drought and migration toward the cities.
Opening with chaotic scenes at one rural fair, where increasingly restless crowds wait for the show to start (the film reels are running late), this rich and intensely colorful documentary focuses on a trio of figure still attempting to forge a livelihood in the traveling cinema industry.
One central character looks after one of the last remaining lorries, a rusting heap of a vehicle with a door he’s forced to — somewhat poetically — hold together with a piece of film.
“He has a really deep, beautiful association with cinema,” says Abraham. “But he really belongs in the past and wants to hang on to what was — he’s confused and conflicted and befuddled by what’s happening.”
Although The Cinema Travelers simply could have been a sad chronicling of the struggles of a once-vibrant industry in its final throws, its triumph lies in how it also captures the magic of this unique, collective movie-watching experience.
Via a series of montages, we see the enchanted faces of those who have counted down the days for the fair to come to town and now finally get to watch a film as an antiquated projector splutters into life.
“It has wonder that you or I are not able to encounter in our everyday lives,” says Abraham. “This longing and this anticipation for the movies — and often having waited for one whole year for them — is what was so important for us.”
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