Thursday 25 January 2018

Road movies: "The Cinema Travellers"

In the week Padmaavat receives its delayed release, we might not have needed another reminder that India is cinema-mad, and sometimes driven mad by cinema. Still, new doc The Cinema Travellers ushers us into that madness at ground level by following the movements of those mobile operations touring remote villages with the aim of bringing the movies to the masses. We are, it's quickly clear, some distance from the cosmopolitan multiplexes of Mumbai. Prints arrive on vast, burdensome spools, often mere minutes before showtime; the restless crowds stampede upon admission; and delays and technical hitches leave some punters clamouring angrily for refunds. (One of the film's achievements: to leave us with a newfound appreciation for the basic order and functionality of our local fleapits.) With its close links to the sideshow circuit, this model of cinema may be closer to the grindhouse than it is to the arthouse: one of the operators doesn't hesitate to book and play softcore porn after a dip in profits. Nevertheless, at every stop along the route, people flock to sit, more often than not on bum-numbingly rocky floors, transfixed by the images beamed in so erratically from the wider world. Here lie the grassroots of escapism.

The good news is that the film, co-directed by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, forms pretty sound observational cinema in itself. It helps that the filmmakers have before them a cast of salty vagabonds, busy using mud to shore up their projectors, applying their own cigarette burns to the prints, and cursing wherever events go awry, as they frequently do. Their film returns us to the romance of the carnival, and all those elements that once tempted young men and women to run away from their homes: the tents being raised, and the moon - and the boom of the barker's voice - rising up over those in turn. Yet it's also attuned to the elbow grease required to get and keep this show on the road. Abraham and Madheshiya appear suitably in awe of one of their subjects, greying engineer and part-time inventor Prakash, these operations' go-to for overnight equipment repair and philosophical wisdom: while showing the filmmakers around his small, cluttered workshop, he arrives at a casual parallel between the complex inner workings of the projector and those of the beating human heart, a comparison that comes to linger over the film entire.

Some day, as the elephants' graveyard of dusty, abandoned equipment on Prakash's shelves indicates, those hearts will very likely stop beating. "New films don't come on prints," laments one tour manager, when faced with a schedule of especially tatty, outmoded product; cutaways to satellite dishes being bolted to the roofs of houses along the carny's route underline how the alternatives to this most traditional form of exhibition are only growing in sophistication and number. And so from what opens as a film for the format fetishists among us - spotting that the scratchy and flickering images that these teams project are arguably closer to the statuary they see carved into a mountainside on a morning off than they are to the hi-def visions being shown off inside a television showroom - The Cinema Travellers comes to witness a transition of sorts; the travelling inscribed within the title proves as much figurative as it is literal.

That transition will be a haphazard one: ahead of the first digital projection, a ritual is performed that involves the burning of turmeric and the cracking open of a ceremonial coconut - and even after this conjuring of good fortune, everyone has to sit around waiting for a laptop to have its drivers updated. (As anyone who's turned up with child to see The Boss Baby only to witness the latest Paranormal Activity being projected in its place could testify, new tech can be just as glitchy as old tech.) And perhaps the film could have done with a little more editorial tightening or narrative clarification: the impression I took away was that one of its operations made the quantum leap to digital and the other didn't and died, but I couldn't be sure. Still, quietly, often poetically, the film allows for the possibility of positive change in the lives of its scrappily heroic subjects, even as it frames a wider snapshot of Indian modernisation, and the way cinema (as both business and artform) has to move forward if it is to survive. As Prakash acknowledges in the course of his closing appearance, sometimes in life the reel runs out, the picture fades to black, and a change of scene is required.

The Cinema Travellers screens at the Curzon Bloomsbury, London from tomorrow.

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