A little girl who was kept away from the world of cinema and oppressed with academics emerges an awardwinning filmmaker with a debut about cinema...isn’t this a beautiful irony? Shirley Abraham grew up in a conservative environment in Bhopal, far removed from the creative arts, and fell in love with the craft of cinema. She studied journalism at Lady Shri Ram College at first, but found it limiting in many ways—in terms of the stories she could tell, the time she could stay immersed in them, the depth. Eventually, Shirley moved toward documentary filmmaking. That took a strong form at Jamia Millia Islamia, where she studied filmmaking at length.
Her debut documentary is called The Cinema Travellers, and co-directed by a talented photographer and friend, Amit Madheshiya. As the name suggests, the film takes you around the country and informs you about the ancient tradition of showmen riding lorries, bringing the world of cinema to faraway villages. Seven decades on, technology is creeping up, leaving projectors and reels crumbling. A benevolent showman, an exhibitor and an eccentric projector mechanic fight to keep the last travelling cinemas of the world running. After premiering at Cannes International Film Festival last year, the documentary travelled to Toronto, Bhutan, Goteborg, Hawaii, and Hampshire, and will soon be hitting a screen close to you. In conversation with Shirley...
How did the idea of The Cinema Travellers come to you?
This was a process of researching, travelling and eventually, arriving. When we set out to travel, we were not even looking to find travelling cinemas. We were just interested to see how people are watching films in our country. Bollywood alone produces more than a thousand films, and back then there was this whole thing of travelling theatres shutting down and people were lamenting the loss of this institution. There was this sense of nostalgia. So we just set out to see around the country. This was after college, around the time we were doing our own things; Amit was working as a photographer and I was in Bombay. We spent some time travelling and observing life around us; that’s how we came across the travellers.
So, it began as a still photography project before turning into a full-length documentary.
We took this decision of making a film out of it because that would allow us to talk about the association that people have built with travelling cinema. This was a form of cinema that had been thriving for more than seven decades. You look at it, and it feels eternal. It takes you back in time. But of course, you understand that technology will eventually catch up, or it will have to catch up with technology. And we were living with the fact that such cinema still exists; that was something that had charm. But that’s not the story. If you watch the film, it is really a specific story of three people. And living with these people, knowing them, it hit me that this had to be a documentary. A photo project wouldn’t have done justice and not even a film, because there is no way this could have been scripted—we were not as smart.
How did you come about focusing on the protagonists, Mohammad, Bapu and Prakash?
In the course of our travel, we had met people who were involved with travelling cinemas. We wanted it to be a film about how human beings respond to change. There are some of us who embrace change and there are some who resist it. There are also some who learn from the past and see how it can be an anchor for our future. We were looking at people who had varied but somewhere complimenting value systems that have essentially built travelling cinemas and how has it affected their lives. During the course I had met people who were involved in a preserving-the-film-tradi-tion kind of way; there were people like Mohammad who were enterprising, young people who did not come from a long line of showmen. And then there was Prakash and Bapu. We had heard so much about him. We spent more time learning about these people, knowing them, than actually filming them. Through this course, we arrived at people who had value systems that offered a certain dynamic to the story. We knew that these things would propel the story. There is Mohammad’s world that is so vibrant and pulsating, then there is Bapu who stays in one village and doesn’t move around, which is symbolic to the value that he holds, which is the glory of the past; and of course Prakash whose world is even smaller considering he never gets out of the workshop.
The film was in production for about six years before making its debut at Cannes last year. How was the journey?
Very intense. Documentary filmmaking is essentially a mix of delight and terror. Because there is the idea, the things you find in the field, to how you plan things and how they pan out to funding to distribution; the whole thing is so unpredictable that you just need to embrace it all otherwise it will continue to disappoint you. The film was a burden but a beautiful one.
Was getting the right partners as producers a challenging task?
It was extremely difficult. Sadly we work in a country where documentary funding is very limited, and it has also not evolved with the times. We had some funding available from the government but then the model was not favouring us. I have had editors sit down with me to ask me to not make this film but make others, like a film on how the farmers in Kerala are being exploited because a film like The Cinema Travellers would not align with what was expected out a film coming from here.
What lies ahead?
The film will continue to expand in other peripheries through festivals, and also a theatrical release in India this year. As for myself, I am doing a film with Amit for The New York Times and TED.
Text Hansika Lohani Mehtani
Shirley Abraham & Amit Madheshiya