When Amit Madheshiya, 35, first began researching India’s travelling cinemas in 2008, he was struck by their physicality. The trucks that carried the projector in their belly from village to village, the technology that made cinema accessible in the remotest of villages and the people who managed the overall ground logistics — all seemed fascinating to him. But only when he shifted his focus to the audience, did he realise that the main story of travelling cinemas revolves around the people who watch it — and that’s the story he wanted to narrate through his photographs.
“Cinema, universally, evokes a sense of wonder in people. But it was in travelling cinema that I could witness such intense engagement with the medium. The audience sits on the ground, very close to the projector and the screen. And, due to the nature of the setup, I could watch and photograph them from a short distance,” says Madheshiya, adding, “It was a revelation to observe how we react to cinema… that I am sitting so close to the person, but they are so absorbed that they aren’t bothered by my presence.” Madheshiya shot the pictures while working on the documentary The Cinema Travellers.
The photo series won him several awards, including the World Press Photo award in 2011. The documentary, which he co-directed with Shirley Abraham, went on to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. Madheshiya’s photo series, also titled “The Cinema Travellers”, is showing in Mumbai for the first time. Although part of developer and art collector Manish Maker’s private collection, the series is on display at Maker Maxity at the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) till mid-March. The series is part of a larger exhibition themed around cinema, titled “Reel Lives”, which includes two other commissioned artworks — by German artist Susanne Rottenbacher and Sudarshan Shetty. The curator, Manon Gingold, says that “Reel Lives” is directly inspired by the legendary past of the Maker Maxity site, the city’s erstwhile drive-in theatre. “Far from erasing this fascinating history, Maker Maxity has been honouring and celebrating the memory of the iconic open-air cinema,” she explains.
Rottenbacher’s light and LED installation, Spin!, is like “an oversized film roll” and the optical impression of the work changes depending upon the point of time and the angle from which it is viewed. And Shetty has worked on The Dream Box Project, a set of wooden replicas of four projectors from the drive-in cinema, accommodating the smallest of details and corrosions into the replicas. These will later be moved to the mall within Maker Maxity that is currently under construction. Madheshiya’s photo series, which was first shown in Delhi last year, mostly comprise audience portraits, captured using the light reflected from the cinema screen at a time when travelling cinemas used film technology. Working without any external light source or flash, he would wait for the right burst of light and hope that his subject didn’t move. “The light from both the projector and the screen is far more vibrant compared to the white light in a multiplex, which added a lot more character to the portraits,” he says. Madheshiya returned to the travelling cinemas after digital technology had replaced film, “but it wasn’t the same because the light was flat and white”.
However, the reaction of the audience watching cinema in the digital medium didn’t change. This made Madheshiya realise it’s often nostalgia that drives the romanticisation with film technology. The insight later helped shape his and Abraham’s documentary — an homage to the dying tradition of travelling cinemas but also a celebration of cinema and people’s love for the medium. The film, which premiered at Cannes in 2016 where it won a Special Jury prize, has since travelled to 106 festivals across the world, including New York Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. It has won the director duo 18 awards, which includes the National Award in 2017. For Madheshiya and Abraham, the successful journey of the film is also a validation of their struggle during its making. “It was a huge fight for legitimacy. The funding sources are mostly from the US and Europe, and people expect a documentary from India to have a certain kind of narrative that focuses on exploitation,” says Abraham, adding that they would often be discouraged from making “this (kind of) documentary”.
Beyond the reception their film has received internationally, the duo’s engagement with the subject isn’t quite over yet. They are also working on a book that can tell the tales they couldn’t through the film or the photographs. “Like the story of Alka Kubal, a Marathi film actress who became a big name in the travelling cinemas after the release of her film Maherchi Sadi. Later, she devised an ingenious way of marketing her films when she turned producer. She would show up at these travelling cinemas and sell tickets to her film, which was a huge attraction to the audience,” says Abraham. “Every story requires a different medium for its telling, and we don’t wish to limit ourselves,” says Madheshiya.