'The Cinema Travellers': Cannes Review

The Cinema Travellers - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Colorful, corny, unstructured and occasionally magical.

An elegiac doc mourns the last days of India’s mobile tent theaters.

The glorious days of India’s traveling tent cinemas that brought the movies to rural areas are almost over now, and all that is left are salutes to their heydays. One of these is The Cinema Travellers, a windy, elegiac but often fascinating documentary by Shirley Abraham and photo artist Amit Madheshiya that captures the last minutes of these magical mobile cinemas halfway between circuses and film theaters. Colorful and corny, bathed in misty Indian light that weaves a spell in reds and golds, the duo's debut feature banks on atmosphere rather than storytelling. It found appreciative audiences at its bow in the Cannes Classics section and will engage festivalgoers.

Watching the disappearance of these exhibitors is like observing the destruction of giant statues carved into mountainsides. Who is to blame? The only hint lies in a fleeting sequence showing village homes lit by flickering TV sets.

The original idea comes from Madheshiya’s award-winning 2010 photo show, and his images of the rapt faces of Indian villagers young and old as they gaze at the big screen are truly priceless. One wonders what they are watching that entrances them so. It's certainly not Chaplin or Spielberg, as it later becomes clear that only titillating B-movies sell tickets now, but perhaps they are caught up in an old Bollywood melodrama that works its magic despite scratches, dark lighting and a nearly inaudible soundtrack.

The filmmakers interview two men who own and operate ancient 35mm projectors as they drag them around the state of Maharashtra in rusty old trucks ready for the junkyard. They erect huge circus tents in farmers’ fields (the audience sits on the stony ground) and lash loud speakers to the treetops, where they harangue village “cinema lovers” with tantalizing visions of the evening’s pleasures, should they buy a 30-cent ticket to the show. Fiercely proud of their work and livelihood, the men sweat out the rainy nights and no-show audiences, the interrupted screenings and the public demanding its money back, their creditors and  as a last resort  the hawkers of newfangled digital projectors supposed to revolutionize the business. Can laptops and hard drives save the day, replacing the grainy prints and inaudible sound of 35mm? The film mentions the problem of downloading films without an Internet connection, but perhaps the touring talkies will find a work-around.

It doesn’t take much trying to wax poignant on the subject, which was well treated in fictional form in Gajendra Ahire’s 2013 Touring Talkies, starring Trupti Bhoir as the tough female owner of a traveling cinema in Maharashtra. Both films could be described as love letters to a dying way of exhibiting movies, following in the footsteps of Cinema Paradiso. Whereas Ahire emphasized the carnival aspect of the traveling theaters, here the filmmakers follow two dedicated tent owners, Mohammed and Bapu, as they struggle to find audiences and keep their substandard equipment in working order with glue, incense and prayers.

The most intriguing character, however, is not an exhibitor at all. Prakash, around 70, is an ace repairman of 35mm projectors and an inventor in his own right. Visits to his dilapidated, leaking workshop reveal shelves housing rusting metal carcasses and tins of film whose images have faded. Still, Prakash smiles and shows off his latest inventions  a self-oiling projector, which seems to have come a little late in the day to be useful, and an ingenious mechanical seed-sower for farmers. It is as if India is too full of invention to fail, even if outward forms must change.

The editing, done by the filmmakers themselves, lacks structure and relies on simply alternating interviews with the three characters, leading to minutes of tedium that a better editing job could have avoided.

Production company: Cave Pictures
Directors, producers, screenwriters, editors: Shirley Abraham, Amit Madheshiya
Executive producers: Shirley Abraham, Minette Nelson, David Eckles
Director of photography: Amit Madheshiya
Music: Laura Karpman, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)

In Hindi

96 minutes