Life doesn’t give you a perfect story. It also doesn’t give you a neat three-act structure. It, in fact, resists documentation, unfolding slowly (at times, even pointlessly), producing one meaningful moment, lasting for a few seconds, in lieu of hundreds of minutes of bland sameness. Which is why documentary filmmaking, at its very core, is a tussle between the passion of moviemaking and the monotony of life. Often, filmmakers cave in, abandoning their story (and the people involved in it), compensating it with the voice of others (experts featuring as talking heads), and, as a result, you get a documentary that seems less a work of art and more a jab at creating something ‘important’. The Indian documentary The Cinema Travellers, though, playing in the 18th edition of the Mumbai Film Festival, is cut from a different fabric. Its filmmakers, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, have followed a story for so long (around five years) that they haven’t allowed life to escape, distilled its complexity and absurdity in a 96-minute documentary that beats with the heart of a fine fictional film.
Based on the lives of three people in rural Maharashtra, Mohammed, Bapu (the owners of two travelling cinemas) and Prakash (a technician who fixes projectors), The Cinema Travellers is about a form of film exhibition on the verge of extinction. It’s a film about loss, memories, displacement, movies and, above all, time. Given that digital projection is still a relatively new phenomenon and celluloid has been around for more than a century, The Cinema Travellers constantly juxtaposes the old and new, past and present, old-fashioned and modern. Besides, the film’s principal characters (two of them in their 60s) have seen the world of cinema, and the world itself, change in front of their eyes. They talk about the past easily and casually, as if it’s still right there. Prakash, for instance, was first intrigued by the movies in the year 1959, or was it 1956, he struggles to remember. He was in fifth grade then, wondering what it that made images move. When Prakash grew up, he turned his passion into profession and continued fixing broken projectors for the next 45 years – though only few need his expertise now. Bapu’s truck is so old that cobwebs rest inside its interior, a discarded cinema reel locks its front door, its bonnet shakes and creaks. Mohammed and Bapu’s projectors keep dying on them, struggling to keep up with time.
The Cinema Travellers’ protagonists, and their machines, are stuck in a unique time capsule. They revere their film cans, light incense sticks for them, line the flap of a new carton – containing a digital projector – with tilaks, place that projector in front of a fan, on a new tablecloth, before turning it on for the first time. Which is why it’s not surprising that time is a constant presence in the film – at times, even literally. At one point in the movie, when Prakash is talking about his past days – or, more appropriately, a past life – a clock on the wall of his workshop is stuck at 55 minutes past two; its minute hand ticking back and forth. An image that encapsulates the film: the pain of letting go. The filmmakers soon cut to the shot of Prakash speaking, but the haunting clicking sound of the clock keeps running in the background, imbuing the scene with a beautiful, heartbreaking motif.
The Cinema Travellers, however, is much more. The filmmakers not just follow the characters and their stories, but, in their midst, capture scenes of sublime beauty: an open field bathed in fog gently intruded by beams of sunshine; kids dancing in the field, before the start of a show; the slow fading of a bulb melding to a shot of moon in the sky. And the most beautiful of them all: a small moment of visual magic in the middle of the movie, where photography flirts with cinema. These scenes don’t really advance the story, but then, The Cinema Travellers seems to be asking us, “Does beauty need a reason to exist?”
This is a very confident and assured debut. Madheshiya and Abraham seldom pause their narrative to explain their film to us, make us look at the bigger picture. Their fly-on-the-wall approach – observational filmmaking stretched to its most satisfying conclusion – tells us that these characters, their lives, their joys, heartbreaks and sorrows are complete in themselves, that they don’t need to be underlined through talking heads, title cards, or voiceover. And the fact that this documentary unfolds like a fictional film (with clearly defined characters, settings, conflict, and resolution) points towards the filmmakers’ tenacity, making The Cinema Travellers an exemplary specimen of narrative journalism.
True to its name, this documentary has travelled all around the world, including such prestigious film festivals as Cannes, Toronto and New York, and now it’s come to India, nudging us to see a part of the country’s tradition that will soon be history, soon be extinct. Extinct, yes, but not dead. Because anything documented with this much love and passion doesn’t deserve to die.
The Cinema Travellers will be screened at PVR Phoenix on October 27 (3.15 pm).