End of the road for India's traveling cinemas

Mobile movies provide entertainment for poor, rural workers

BANGALORE -- Picture a football field on a tea estate in northeastern India, where hundreds of workers sit before a meters-wide screen stretched across bamboo poles to watch the Bollywood hero bash up the goons and win the girl.

Cut to a far-flung district in western Maharashtra state, where thousands of farmhands attending a religious festival crowd under giant marquees to watch another movie, on another, similar makeshift screen, a few weeks later.

Traveling cinemas were for more than 60 years the only way residents of rural India could watch movies, but this tradition of the "tambu talkies" is slowly fading away in the face of competition from cable TV, bootleg DVDs and other modern forms of entertainment that have made their way into villages.

"This is a dying form of business, and if nothing is done with that then if it dies down it will be history," said Ajay Sarpotdar, the head of an organization that represents Maharashtra's traveling cinemas.

He said there are now about 40 traveling cinemas in Maharashtra state -- the home of Mumbai and Bollywood -- down from 2,000 three or four decades ago.

Before it disappears completely, researcher Shirley Abraham and photographer Amit Madheshiya have documented these cinemas in the villages of Maharashtra, in a project funded by the government's Indian Foundation of the Arts.

"When they watched the god on the screen they almost became fearful of the medium or they were showering flowers and coins on the screen or just turning back at the projector beam thinking that god will come riding on the beam," Abraham, describing villagers watching popular mythological films.

The documentary makers, who traveled across Europe and Asia with their research, were recently in Bangalore.

Nomadic cinemas have been a cheap -- and often only -- form of entertainment for millions of rural Indian workers, who earn $2 or less per day and can hardly afford to travel to the big cities, and their scores of modern multiplexes charging $4 or so for a ticket. Tickets to touring cinemas cost about 30 cents.

The cinemas that started on bullock carts now use trucks with projection equipment. On many tea estates in Assam and West Bengal, the management pays for one screening a month as part of the labor welfare fund.

Pramod Jain, manager of Kalpana Touring Talkies in the district of Jorhat, Assam said as recently as four years ago he would screen 70 to 80 movies on different tea estates every month but the numbers are down to between 18 and 20 per month.

Jain blames the decline on competition from video rental shops and cable television, which make sitting in front of a big screen less appealing.

Organizations that represent traveling cinemas are lobbying for government subsidies or marketing tie-ups to save their business heritage. But Anmol Vellani, director of the Indian Foundation for the Arts, takes a much less nostalgic approach.

"We should recognize it, respect it, document it, learn from it, but saving is something I don't place much value on, because in the end what are you saving?" he said.

"It exists because a certain economy around it exists and that's where it derives its particular flavor from. Once that economy goes it's a phenomenon that must go."