Ever since it made its Cannes debut in May, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s 96-minute documentary The Cinema Travellers has been to some of the most prestigious festivals across the world and met with unanimous praise. The film 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,” Shirley Abraham told Film Companion.
Excerpts from that e-mail interview:
Their cinematic journey
Shirley Abraham: I came to love the movies because I was prohibited to watch them. There used to be a movie on television on Saturday night but the children were bundled into bed for the Sunday church service. I was scared to be on the wrong side of the angels when they separated the wicked from the just on Judgement Day.
The first film I saw happened to be ‘The Angel’. I was watchful, covering the television screen with a dark cloth and peeping in, so the escaping light wouldn’t betray me. It planted in me a deep curiosity about how cinema can give form to the human imagination.
Amit Madheshiya: One winter night, I sneaked out of my grandparent’s home in the village. They were screening a movie in the school’s courtyard to celebrate a wedding. I crawled inside the white wedding tent to find my friends, plumes of smoke, and a huge screen lit with images.
In the morning, my grandmother found me sleeping, wrapped in the loose flaps of the tent. I was punished for my indiscretion. All afternoon, I worked on compost being prepared to plant mango saplings. Since then, I have found the musty smell of the compost indelibly intertwined with my first memories of cinema, rooted deep in my grandmother’s mango orchard.
Why The Cinema Travellers had to be made
Back when we graduated, many single screen theatres were shutting down in the cities, giving way to malls and multiplexes. This saddened us and also stoked our curiosity. How are people are watching films in the villages? So we set out on a journey, travelling the breadth of the country.
It was an educating experience, not only about the modes of exhibition but also about the bond people share with their cinemas.
An elderly man was showing pieces of film on a hand cranked projector under a tree in West Bengal. A small group of entrepreneurs were carrying shiny new portable digital projectors in remote villages of Uttar Pradesh. Elsewhere, college students were taking Charlie Chaplin and Satyajit Ray to the farmers.
Traveling cinemas are believed to have become a part of the mythology of cinema and we took in this sight with a mix of disbelief and wonder. We wanted to know everything.
Why you should watch it
We believe our film speaks of the sheer wonder and transcendence of cinema. And no pressure folks, but Patrick Mullen from POV Magazine recently wrote of the film: “There isn’t a better film that encapsulates the pure bliss of going to the movies than The Cinema Travellers. Seeing it on a big screen in a house packed with fellow cinephiles is a duty to film buffs at festivals around the world.”
Filmmakers they envy
The inimitable Werner Herzog, for how he looks at the world. In Encounters at the End of the World, there is a moment when scientists lie down, ears to the Antarctican ice, listening to sounds of the seals below. In this moment, Herzog is divining the mysteries of the universe. And he does it time and time again, with grizzly bears, caves, volcanoes, and of course, the internet.
Freshman tips for aspiring filmmakers
Mine the one thing that inspires you about what you do, and hold on to it. Independent film making is mostly tough, heart breaking and needs more persistence than is feasible. You need to find something that nobody can give you or take away from you, and only that will keep you going. Money, producers and accolades will come and go.