It is unlikely that you have heard of Tujhe Meri Kasam, a 2003 Bollywood film which introduced Riteish Deshmukh and Genelia D’Souza to the world. (The actors, of course, are now a much married star couple.) Filmmakers Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham have watched Tujhe Meri Kasam several times, though not entirely by choice.
While researching their own film in the interiors of Maharashtra, they realised that while city slickers had rejected the movie, it had proven to be a runaway success among village folk. Year after year, Madheshiya and Abraham watched crowds congregate inside tents to cheer and clap for this film. “I’m pretty sure Riteish Deshmukh has no idea what a big hit it is,” says Madheshiya with a laugh. The other crowd-pleasers were Shah Rukh Khan’s Om Shanti Om, almost every Mithun film, especially Gunda, and a few dubbed Hollywood action flicks.
These were some of the many exciting discoveries that Madheshiya and Abraham made while filming their debut feature Cinema Travelers. Later this week, the duo will showcase their 96-minute documentary at the Cannes Film Festival’s Classics section – a category which celebrates cinema about cinema itself. Cinema Travelers takes a detailed look at the ancient tradition of travelling cinemas in the interiors of India. “In the 1940s, there were people who travelled to Mumbai from the villages and they were so charmed by cinema that they wanted to take it back into the villages. They took back the rejects like second-hand projectors and film reels that were sold to them by the kilo. This is how cinema reached the villages,” explains Abraham.
Over the course of making this film, they met several workers who were, in a way, the true keepers of cinema. The stories of a young man who escaped the Army to fix tents and another who took great joy in fixing old cinema projectors form the crux of Madheshiya and Abraham’s film. Unfortunately, all of them have been forced to move on from the world of film.
The travelling cinemas showcase their films in tents during annual village fairs. (Photo by Amit Madheshiya)
When the duo saw the potential for a film around these travelling theatres, their decline had already begun. “The last high point of the travelling cinemas is believed to have been between the years 1991-92. By the time we started, we could see that digital had started making inroads into the villages. People had started watching some clips on cell phones and cable TV was everywhere,” she adds. In fact, they later learnt that the secret behind Tujhe Meri Kasam’s success was that it was one of those rare films which were not available on DVD or cable. So this was the only way admirers could access it.
When we meet Abraham and Madheshiya, they are barely 48 hours away from jetting off to Cannes. They’ve been duly warned about the madness that awaits them. “Last year we were at Sundance, so we got a glimpse of how people run from one place to another at these festivals and what it is like to cut deals in parking lots,” says Abraham.
But at this point they are torn between putting last-minute tweaks to their film and also to their red-carpet attires. They seem exhausted, excited and also a tad jittery about finally showing their film to the world. It has taken eight long years and a sizeable chunk of their personal finances to bankroll this project. “There is a dot somewhere in the subtitles that is giving me sleepless nights. I loathe that there is that dot. But at some point you have to let go,” says Abraham.
Film reels stacked on the ground after a screening in the Vidharba region. (Photo by Amit Madheshiya)
One wonders what took them eight years. For starters, there’s hardly any documentation on the history of travelling cinemas. Madheshiya and Abraham spent three of them purely on research. The next five were spent tailing the travelling cinema companies across Vidharbha and Marathawada with their tents and projectors. What slowed them down further was the dwindling frequency of these screenings – they took place annually during village fairs. “These films were normally screened at fairs along with other things like a circus and lavani performances. The travelling theatre companies would attract people with big film posters. The tickets were initially Rs 15 and later went up to Rs 30,” says Madheshiya.
The biggest challenge was pulling off this project with a crew of merely two people – that is Madheshiya and Abraham. “Our end credits are really embarrassing,” they both exclaim. “For structuring purposes, we had to divide the departments between us. But essentially, we both did everything,” adds Abraham. “We were booking our own tickets, finding where to go, also who to coordinate with.” Since Madheshiya is a photographer, he by default became the DOP. Abraham was the sound recordist. They both edited the film together and contributed to the funding, so they are co-producers as well.
“It’s not easy and it’s not smart. I would not recommend it to anyone. Do not do this at home,” warns Madheshiya. Having said that, he says the experience of making Cinema Travelers has been like attending film school. “I would definitely not do it again. But at least I now know how not to make a film,” he concludes.