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Documentary ‘The Cinema Travellers’ is a bittersweet look at the fading culture of touring cinemas

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya evocatively capture a fast disappearing film exhibition tradition in rural India.

The truck trudges along, barely holding its contents together. It spills over at its stop, unloading its matter with a thud. The tents are built, the posters plastered and tickets sold. The movie reels are fitted into a projector used and rusted beyond belief. The establishment is then pulled down, only for the truck to make its way into a new town, onto a new set of people. This whimsical nature of a touring cinema is evocatively brought to screen in The Cinema Travellers. The documentary, directed, produced and edited by Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham will be shown at the Mumbai Film Festival in the competition section after a premiere at Cannes and screenings around the world, including New York Film Festival.

A touring cinema does not hold the same romance anymore. Television brings the world into the living room. Films don’t come in large rolls of print but are instead projected into theatres or burnt on pirated CDs. The Cinema Travellers chronicles this shift in the medium.

‘The Cinema Travellers’.
‘The Cinema Travellers’.

The intimate portrayal was eight years in the making. Madheshiya was documenting the phenomenon in a photo-essay that won him the 2011 World Press Photo award, and Abraham’s research helping the project make its transition to the big screen. That development happened organically, Abraham said. “It had been about three years of having researched the travelling cinemas,” she told Scroll.in. “We spent a lot of time trying to understand their motivations, absorbing ourselves into their journeys. There was a moment when it dawned on us that change is in the air and once the technological shift happens, it will change the playing field at large. It was at that point that we decided to make a film about it.”

Three characters are at the centre of the narrative. Mohammed and Bapu run touring cinema businesses. Prakash is the ingenious engineer. “We chose them because they represented three different perspectives and the continuum of life,” Madheshiya said. “Mohammed lives in the present and is a businessman. He is not in romance with cinema, as much as it is his livelihood. On the other hand, we have Bapu who is so nostalgic about how cinemas used to be. His entire narrative is rooted in the past. And then we have Prakash who is a bridge between these two people. He lives in the past too, but he is also somebody who can look ahead and is a man of the future as well.”

The result is a diverse look at a tectonic shift in film viewing practices. “The story wasn’t merely about technology being obsolescent, it had to go beyond that,” Abraham said. “By the time we actually came to make the film, we had spent about three years with all of these people. We had a sense of how each one would respond to this moment of change. We really wanted to understand what the place of cinema is in our civilisation. Why would you preserve it?”

‘The Cinema Travellers’.
‘The Cinema Travellers’.

The intimacy that the filmmakers shared with the characters is reflected throughout its 96-minute run. The people featured in the film seem oblivious to the lingering camera – a possible consequence of the amount of work that went into its pre-production.

“With your first film, you want to create something that will hopefully live for the time,” Abraham said. “The biggest burden was the knowledge that we had been entrusted with this story. It was a beautiful burden, but the travelling cinema is also a beautiful burden that these showmen are carrying. So many times, we were struggling to find the right grammar and narrative to tell the story. But we take pride in how the struggle inspired us to create this story. You discover that eight years have been spent on it, but at that time it was all about getting on from one point to another.”

The documentary also functions as an archive of a uniquely Indian film exhibition tradition. “We are speaking about something that has ceased to exist in the rest of the world, perhaps,” Madheshiya said. “Travelling cinemas were the first medium through which films came to people, and since then things have progressed and changed.”

Madheshiya’s photographic eye results in beautiful frames infused with rich details. The shift from still image to the moving one was, for him, a learning process. “As a photographer, it was all about consolidating a moment and finding a story in one single image, so the transition was terrifying,” he said. “It initially appeared to me as a chaotic process. But then the aesthetic evolved. It was a journey of four to five years.”

Abraham, who has directed short film projects for The Guardian and Al Jazeera in the past, found a story to sink her teeth into. “Money is not our currency,” she said. “We had this beautiful story about imagination and ingenuity, and how their need for cinema goes beyond their daily lives, and our biggest struggle was to be able to translate it.”

Initially a self-funded project, The Cinema Travellers was the beneficiary of generous grants from the Sundance Film Festival and the Bertha Foundation. The rousing festival reception is an encouragement to aim higher, said the filmmakers. “These film festivals are like travelling cinemas in every way – they go to places and transform it for a week or so with cinema from all over the world,” Madheshiya said. “But we would like to take the movie through travelling cinemas too.” Distribution is definitely on the cards. “We have the conventional offer to go via a theatrical release,” Abraham said. “We also have offers from online platforms. This decision will impact the life of the film, so we want to make sure that we’re discussing all the possibilities to choose the model that would be the best fit.”

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya.
Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.