A projectionist at the Prabhat Touring Talkies in Shikhar Shingnapur, 350km south of Mumbai Image Credit: Getty

My first brush with India’s lesser-known travelling cinemas was ten years ago in the small, dusty Maharashtrian village of Ambale, near the sprawling city of Pune. This picturesque village, like most mofussil areas in India then, had no access to any entertainment options once the sun dipped behind the lush fields. The tamasha and lavani dance shows Maharashtra is famous for were few and far between.

It was a summer night in May. In those days, the men who brought the magic of the silver screen to towns with no infrastructure to support a cinema, travelled on modified trucks or small vans. One such truck was parked close to a school in the village, and I watched, fascinated, as men and women gathered for the 6pm screening of an old Amitabh Bachchan movie.

“Today, of course, we’re much better off,” says Dandobhai Athavale, who has been taking the movies to the people for about 40 years. “We have modified vans [that] have nice screens and digital equipment.”

Athavale lives in one of the surviving chawls (a large building divided into many separate tenements) in the Maharashtrian bastion of Girgaon and travels with his cinema for at least eight months of the year. “Once, people sat on the ground in front of the big screen to watch the movie. We wound the film on the old-world projectors and then projected it on the screen. Now, in some villages, they arrange for movie shows in little auditoriums or halls, where the entire village gets together. Watching a movie in a tent is a communal experience.”

Besides Athavale’s cinema company, in the 1970s and ’80s, Sumedh Cinema and Akshay Cinema covered 300 villages in Maharashtra.

Nomadic cinema

No one is quite sure where and how the trend of travelling cinemas began, but most insiders put it in the 1940s. “You could call them nomadic cinemas,” says film historian Raghav Jadhav. “The people who took the movies to small villages across Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and not to forget Maharashtra, were nomads.

“They were on the road for months, setting up base in a village for a few weeks before moving on to the next. There were so many travelling cinemas, so many tents hitched to the back of trucks, with screens erected inside and people watching.”

Shirley Abraham, a scholar who has documented travelling cinemas in The Cinema Travellers along with photographer Amit Maheshiya, says, “Quintessential to mostly rural areas, the travelling tent talkies started about six decades ago when a handful of farmers, lawyers and electricians carted off second-hand projectors and discarded film reels by the kilo from Mumbai. The process entailed carting cinema paraphernalia such as projectors, tents and poles in a truck to remote sites to showcase films in these regions.

“These touring talkies usually happened at harvest time, symbolising the onset of festivities and celebrations.”

Abraham explains how the projectors, many of them from Germany’s Bauer, found their way into the jatras (religious festivals), where they’d be used to hawk an eclectic mix of films.

A communal experience

“Religious fairs continue to be our biggest exhibition centres,” says Athavale.

“People travel to big religious fairs and stay for days: eating, shopping and watching movies. Pilgrims first offer prayers and then watch movies together.”

The filmmaking duo of Abraham and Maheshiya first came across tambu talkies in 2008. “When we saw them for the first time, they seemed timeless,” says Abraham of the colourful trucks and tents featuring the faces of big movie stars.

“They were still using small movable projectors. And people were still coming, but numbers had dwindled to hundreds.”

Mythological topics, social dramas, comedies — almost every genre of movie, even regional ones, continues to be part of the travelling cinema repertoire. Bollywood blockbusters starring Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan attract the biggest crowds and each show is a raucous affair, punctuated by claps and whistles from the cinema-crazed audience.

“In terms of physical format, the initial two-pole white tents that facilitated day-long screening have given way to four-pole black circus tents that can be used for screenings in the night,” says Abraham.

Surviving in the 21st century hasn’t been easy though and many cinema companies have folded. The Cinema Travellers, which won the Golden Eye Cannes Documentary Award, tracks the changes in the industry through the failing fortunes of two showmen — one in his late 30s, the other in his 40s — and a repairman in his late 60s, who tends to overused projectors. As their audiences move on to other platforms, the first showman now sells cold drinks every summer, the second has resigned himself to farming and the repairman had his shop repeatedly broken into by thieves, leaving him with nothing. He subsequently retired.

“There is a lot of competition from the cable and VCD industry,” says Athavale. “We have shifted to digital projectors that are low-cost and easy to maintain.”

The changing nature of the audience’s relationship with travelling cinemas was also beautifully portrayed in Road, Movie, a 2009 Dev Benegal-directed film on India’s travelling cinemas. It starred Abhay Deol as Vishnu, a man who drives a 1942 Chevy, a battered touring cinema, across the desert to the sea so that it could be sold off. Along the way he picks up three passengers: a young runaway, a wandering old entertainer and a gypsy woman, and is waylaid by corrupt cops and a notorious water lord. He also discovers that he can bargain his way back to freedom through the eclectic collection of films he finds in the touring cinema, and the two 42-year-old film projectors.

Benegal says he was inspired by his past with a travelling cinema.

“The inspiration came from the many road trips I have taken as a teenager. I used to hitch a ride with some of the travelling companies because I loved road trips, India and movies. So, Road, Movie was my take on the road movie genre and about two worlds colliding with each other.

“Abhay Deol’s character, Vishnu, was driving the touring cinema to Mumbai, to be sold off to a museum, a comment on how all our cultural icons may find space just in museums.”