Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya craft a love letter to film with NYFF doc ‘The Cinema Travellers’

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There are a lot of documentaries about making films, but very few about exhibiting them—which is only one of the things that makes The Cinema Travellers, from first-time directors Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, so extraordinary. At once culturally specific and universal, The Cinema Travellers follows three members of India’s traveling cinema community. In doing so, Abraham and Madheshiya craft a compelling metaphor for no less than the entire span of exhibition history, encompassing everything from scrappy burgeoning impresarios straight out of early 20th-century Hollywood to the emergence of TV to the switch from film to digital projection. It’s a film that perfectly encapsulates the magic of going to the movies, and bonus: it’s one of the most gorgeous documentaries to come out in recent years.

After making stops in Cannes and Toronto, The Cinema Travellers had its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival, which is where I had the chance to speak with Abraham and Madheshiya about their ode to the importance of movie theatres, whatever their form. The pair started working on the film in 2008, visiting traveling cinemas throughout India and eventually winnowing their research down to three main protagonists. Mohammed and Bapu are both exhibitors, toting tents, screens, decades-old projectors and film prints loaded in burlap sacks to religious festivals in small villages lacking in permanent theatres. Of the two, Mohammed is the more business-minded. “He’s a showman,” Abraham explains, willing to do whatever it takes to keep his tent full and “put on a show”—including, in one memorable scene, screening a porno. Bapu, on the other hand, is steeped in nostalgia, viewing his profession more as a legacy than a way to make money; he pines for the days before television leeched most of his ticket sales away, but at the same time, he lets children in for free.

The Cinema Travellers trifecta is completed by Prakash, a repairman philosopher king who used to be the guy to take broken projectors to… until more and more traveling cinemas started closing, leaving Prakash with a shop full of projectors in various states of disrepair that no one’s interested in except him. Untrained and largely uneducated—“I think he had to leave school at eighth grade because he had to take care of his family,” Madheshiya recalls—Prakash learned to repair projectors from all around the world by reading magazines and books.

“One of the first things [Prakash] said to us was, ‘All of the glory in cinema history comes to the people who are in front of the camera, or in front of the lens, who are putting on the show, but there are people like me who are never written about,’” Abraham says. “This man has spent so much time meditating on his craft. He believes that human creation is what will take you forward. It’s a very simple philosophy, but it’s not something that a lot of us live by. It’s something for us to learn from him: You have to move forward. Change is going to come, and it’s going to come for all of us.”

That’s a familiar refrain for readers of FJI, many of whom have experienced first-hand the changes that have rocked the exhibition industry over the last several decades. Abraham and Madheshiya’s years filming happened to coincide with a pretty big change for Mohammed, Bapu and Prakash, one that had hit their big-city brethren years before.

Bye bye, film. Hello, digital.

When Abraham and Madheshiya started filming, the traveling cinema industry had been rolling along, largely unchanged, for more than 70 years. “When we went there, we sensed that there was going to be a change coming,” Abraham recalls, “but we had no idea that it was going to be so completely transformed so quickly. It just goes to show how digital technology makes inroads so quickly. It’s not tiptoeing in. It ambushes everything in its path.”

The issue, Madheshiya says, is that the cities had already made the transition to digital…which meant that prints of newer films—i.e., the ones people wanted to see—were becoming an ever more scarce commodity. Mohammed and Bapu are left with a daunting decision: switch to digital, and do it fast, or risk this season being their last.

The abrupt transition to digital marks a change in the look of The Cinema Travellers, which up to that point was shot by Madheshiya with an atmosphere of serene, intimate warmth; the attention lavished on the projectors, and on the crowds of rapt audiences packed into airless tents to watch movies despite the sweltering heat, is almost worshipful. (It’s shocking to note that this is Madheshiya’s first project as a DP, though he has experience as an award-winning still photographer. Further, he shot the whole thing on a Canon 5D—not the most technically advanced camera, particularly nearer the end of the eight-year span it took to make the film, but the way it looks like a still camera let Madheshiya get shots he wouldn’t have otherwise. One guesses the lady haranguing a man for cutting in line at Mohammed’s makeshift box office wouldn’t have been so un-self-conscious if Madheshiya had had a huge film camera in her face.)

With digital projectors come a colder visual aesthetic. The change, Madheshiya explains, came not because of any conscious decision on his part, but because when Muhammed and Bapu ditched their film projectors for digital, they also went from Tungsten bulbs to CFL. “When they changed to white CFL lights, everything looked different,” he explains. “It felt different. There was this distance that came with the white light, with the coolness from the CFL bulb. That was a key point for me, as far as the visual aesthetics of the film, because these two worlds now look different. These early celluloid projectors have been with them for generations. They worship them, they love them. And the newer machines that they are acquiring now, there’s not really any history to them.” The reverential feel given to the film cameras comes from “their associations,” Madheshiya says. “We were trying to look at the technology that they were dealing with through their lens.”

There’s a bittersweet element to The Cinema Travellers in the transition from film to digital, particularly in the case of Bapu, who was unable to adapt to the changing times; Abraham and Madheshiya noted in a post-screening Q&A that, after they had finished filming, Bapu closed the tent flaps on his cinema for good. But the directors never intended to make a filmic elegy for a bygone era. Traveling cinemas still exist in India, after all, and will continue to exist, regardless of what form projection technology takes.

That, to Abraham, is the crux of The Cinema Travellers: how important film is as a “vessel of our culture,” and how the whole of humanity, from the time when the wheel was the pinnacle of technology up to now, has been compelled to create art. One particularly memorable scene has Mohammed being shown around a network of ancient caves, the two-thousand-year-old statues therein illuminated by a flickering light that draws an explicit connection between the art of the ancients and film. “It was the most unbelievable thing, for me, in this film,” she recalls. “Throughout the course of making this film, I’ve been wanting to find a way to explore why it is that cinema matters. That in some ways the past is speaking to the future—that we are inspiring generations, because [in the future people] will wonder how these things were made, how people operated traveling cinemas. And this is the conversation that is happening in those caves! […] The man who sells Mohammed the projector and takes him into the cave, he’s reflecting upon how these things were created when they had no technology. They just had their imaginations. It was really the spirit of the film, here and now in front of me.”

The instinct that compelled those sculptors is the same one that compels people to make “gigantic metal cinema projectors”—and the same one behind the “small, white box” that is the digital projector. To Abraham, the specific technology doesn’t matter: “It’s the same instinct for creation. For wanting to move forward.”