After the first screening of the film’s 40-minute rough cut at the Sundance Lab in Utah in 2014, Jonathan Oppenheim told Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya that what they were faced with was a “problem of riches”. That idea, planted in their head by the acclaimed film editor, say the directors, eventually helped them shape The Cinema Travelers.
The 96-minute documentary on travelling cinemas in India will premiere at the 69th annual Cannes Film festival in May in the Cannes Classics section. The duo, who has been working on the film for eight years, says the subject may have been widely explored — including in fictional features, such as Road, Movie — but their documentary, shot in Maharashtra, manages to capture travelling cinema at a time when it is poised for change. “When we first began shooting in 2008, cinema was flourishing. New technology had come in and a variety of films were being played, from mythology to action hits such as Mithun Chakraborty’s Loha and Gunda as well as the latest blockbusters. I remember watching endless reruns of Om Shanti Om,” recounts Abraham.
However, in 2014-15, the duo got an opportunity to attend the Sundance Labs, where they participated in workshops and the screenwriters’ lab. The experience, they say, proved formative. “We had over 100 hours of footage and while the narrative had begun to take shape, Oppenheim’s words helped us realise that the film cannot be a string of beautiful images; there has to be a meaning to it all,” says Madheshiya, who is also the cinematographer on the film.
Back from the Lab, they not only reviewed all the material they had assimilated over the years but also returned on ground for more footage. The film now looks at the subject through the stories of three keepers of the tradition of travelling cinema as they face the moment of change. “Over the years we shot, we were able to see the culture of travelling cinema transform. From using projectors with film technology, which were an assembly of carbon rods and a complex mechanical system, to going digital. But the tradition is vanishing. Many of these folded up at the advent of newer technology. Even the drought has had a role to play,” says Abraham. He adds that travelling cinemas used to record substantial business at religious fairs, but now with lesser money in hand, the number of people travelling to these fairs has reduced.
The film, adds Madheshiya, explores the association the three subjects share with cinema “and uses this instance to dig deep into what cinema leaves in you”. He explains, “In a way, this is about the role cinema plays in people’s lives.” The project itself has travelled a lot since its conception in 2005 as part of India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). It found support from various cultural organisations, including the Goethe-Institut India and fellowship at Heidelberg University among others, before Sundance.
At a post-production lab in Mumbai, both Abraham and Madheshiya are working on the colour grading of the film before they send it to the festival by the end of the month. It is one of the few times the two find themselves managing the same chore as part of the post-production of The Cinema Travelers. “We are the only two people working on the film, there has been no team, except the technicians who have worked on the sound and now on post-production,” explains Abraham, who will soon be carrying the DVDs to the other lab they are working at.
The 33-year-olds have been collaborating since their days in media school at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. Abraham, who moved to Delhi from Bhopal before the eventual shift to Mumbai, had always wanted to work with the visual medium and has directed documentary shorts for the Guardian among others. Madheshiya, who grew up in Mau, a small town in UP, was an award-winning photographer (World Press Photo and World Photography awards) before he took the leap with this project. The switch, he admits, wasn’t easy. “I was disoriented at first. In photography, one is looking at that decisive moment of change to capture, which becomes unimportant when the image is moving. At that time, what comes before and after that moment is more important. It took me a while to get used to that. I even suggested to Shirley that we bring on a cinematographer for the job. But eventually, I found my own aesthetic language, which I think is unique and suits this project,” he says.