The Cinema Travellers who impressed at Cannes

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Poornima Koonath talks to young directors Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya whose documentary on a unique aspect in the history of Indian cinema scored a win at Cannes

Cannes is believed to be the most prestigious film festival in the world and the most publicised after the Oscars. This festival has come a long way since its inception in the late 1930s. While some Indians like Shekhar Kapur, Vidya Balan, Sharmila Tagore, Arundhati Roy and Nandita Das have been members of the jury in the past, the Indian presence in Cannes has essentially been on the red carpet with Ashwariya Rai Bachchan and more recently Sonam Kapoor sashaying through in resplendent gowns. So to have their film “The Cinema Travellers” shortlisted, selected, screened and ultimately win at Cannes 2016 was almost like a bolt from the blue for young directors Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya.

Hailing from small towns in India, both Shirley and Amit went against the family norm and expectations looking for a creative outlet. While Shirley began writing and Amit resorted to his camera lens, both saw cinema as a perfect medium to tell a story.

“The Cinema Travellers” is their labour of love and their first attempt at a full-length documentary. “A lot of thought and hard work has gone into the making of this film. We did not want it to be another run-of-the-mill documentary,” says Shirley. They had stumbled upon an interesting aspect of the history of Indian cinema that has never been officially documented on the timeline. They saw a story they wanted to tell and they wanted to make this story interesting for the audience.

The travelling cinema is an indelible part of the growth and propagation of cinema in India. My earliest memory of a cinema talkies is when I went to see the Hema Malini starrer ‘Dream Girl’. I recall it being screened in a tent with dhurries or mats on the ground and folding chairs. The atmosphere there was very different from that in a theatre. Shirley and Amit have successfully captured that atmosphere and mood in their film. The wide-eyed children, the demure women and the ‘man with the monkey’ established an image that was real and endearing.

Shirley and Amit say they began their research in 2008 and started visiting villages to study the norms of movie-going there. They soon found that the travelling cinema was intricately linked with the cultural traditions and religious fairs, especially in the state of Maharashtra. During the filming of this documentary, they travelled the length and breadth of the state with two companies – each very distinct from the other, one owned by Bapu and the other by Mohammad. The stories of these individuals are interlaced with that of Prakash who seemed to have taken on the role of the fulcrum in the movie.

“The Cinema Travellers” tells the story of these three individuals and we, the audience get a glimpse of their aspirations, their struggles, their hopes and their disappointments. While Mohammed is a typical showman and sees travelling cinema as his means of income, Bapu has a more emotional take. In a society that is over run by televisions and cable networks he is trying hard to keep the age-old tradition of travelling cinema alive. He seems to consider it his moral obligation.

And then there is Prakash, a philosopher whose reminiscences of his heydays as a projector mechanic before the invasion of the digital technology are quite elaborate and detailed. His soliloquies in front of the camera are very powerful. Every instrument in his little store has a tale and a memory attached to it. Though he seems to have come to terms with the harsh reality of the present, there still seems to be a lingering flicker of hope.

I watched “The Cinema Travellers” when it travelled to Sydney and was screened as part of the Sydney Film festival. I also spoke with the movie’s brilliant directors. The ingenious blend of impressive cinematography, smart editing and great musical scores enhances the intricacies of an already well presented story. Metaphors and symbolisms have been so cleverly woven into the picturisation and depiction of the characters that the movie continues to grow on you even after you have left the cinema hall. There are many haunting and poignant moments in the story that are difficult to brush past. Though the film makers are documenting events and incidents from the lives of the three protagonists, they are simultaneously unravelling a story.

“In a country that is overridden by blockbusters, we feel there is still an audience for serious cinema. The problem lies with the distribution of such movies,” says Amit. It is quite ironic that movies like “The Cinema Travellers” first make their presence felt on foreign soil before making their way back to its country of origin.

“We believed in the story we wanted to tell and the kind of cinema we wanted to make and so initially we had to fund it all ourselves which was quite difficult and cumbersome,” say the directors, who see cinema as an art form — essentially a painting of moving images telling a very powerful story.

While Shirley is inspired by Werner Herzog, a German film director, producer, screenwriter and author who is considered to be one of the greatest figures of the New German Cinema, Amit draws his inspiration from Walter Murch, who he considers the best film editor of all times.

Talking about their Cannes experience, the two directors said that it was an amazing dream premiere. For their film to screened at this premium cinema event alongside the best from the world film industry and to win the award for the Best Documentary was a memorable moment and a magical experience. As a lover of the kind of cinema that makes me think, ponder and dissect, the work of Shirley and Amit was indeed a treat to my senses. “The Cinema Travellers” has now been etched into my memory forever.

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