It was difficult at first to make out if the scene projected on the cloth screen was an animated movie or real footage. Two square cartoonish houses appeared beside each other out of thin air, parallel, symmetrical and identical in every respect. Next, two lounge chairs appeared on the lawn, dragged themselves to the foreground, and propped themselves up. In the next instant, the occupants appeared. Dressed in full-sleeved shirts and trousers, and with black pipes clenched between their teeth, the two men leaned back on the chairs smoking away. They both had newspapers in their hands with big bold headlines that mirrored each other. One said, “War certain with no Peace” while the other said “Peace certain with no War.”

The anti-war short film Neighbours (1952), made by Canadian director Norman McLaren during the Korean War, was among the titles screened by the Chalti Tasveerein collective during its travelling festival through India. Setting out from Delhi on February 14, Chalti Tasveerein journeyed to Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, setting up screenings of movies, documentaries and short films in villages, small towns and cities.

“The idea behind Chalti Tasveerein is to provide access of cinema to a wider set of audience in small towns, rural areas and settlements in cities who rarely have the opportunity to watch inventive works across genres, styles, intent and content,” the group says on its official page.

The festival has been put together by a network of individuals and organisations, such as Chal Chitra Abhiyan, VIBGYOR Film Collective, Magic Lantern Movies, Marupakkam and Kirti Film Club. Its organising team comprises 61 members, and the advisory committee includes documentary filmmakers Sanjay Kak, Nakul Singh Sawhney, Rahul Roy and Amudhan RP.

They have screened films in slums, schools, colleges and village fairs and on the streets and beaches. They have shown cinema in urban and rural spaces, in colonies of Dalits, Muslims, children of people dispossessed by the Narmada dam, women’s collectives and fishing communities. In its second leg, Chalti Tasveerein travelled to Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. A final screening has been planned in Delhi for a group of Anganwadi workers on April 19.

A Chalti Tasveerein screening.
A Chalti Tasveerein screening.

The McLaren film was screened on day 24 at Tanda in Ambedkar Nagar, eastern Uttar Pradesh. The screening took place under a white shamiana in a green clearing, in the midst of rows of small houses. Fifteen minutes earlier, the neighbourhood had been buzzing in the dying daylight with the sound of hundreds of power looms packed into the small houses and work-spaces.

Locals say that weavers have lived in Tanda since the reign of Oudh ruler Shuja-ud-Daula in the eighteenth century. The Muslim weavers who now live in Tanda have never experienced the winds of war, but they have felt the waves of hatred at close quarters. Tanda is less than a two-hour ride from Ayodhya, and residents still remember the fear durign the days leading up to the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 1992. “There was a sense of fear in our hearts,” said Amir Jalal, a weaver from Tanda who had turned up to catch the movie. “Rumours were spread by word of mouth.”

On the screen, a flower suddenly appeared in the middle of the lawn. The two men ran over to it, started soaking in its smell, and then pranced around with surreal body movements. Each man pointed at the flower, and then to himself. The meaning was clear to the audience: whose flower is it? As the disagreement escalated, the two neighbours built a fence between their two houses. The film got progressively darker as the two characters pummelled each other, tearing clothes and raining blows, and finally killing each other’s families. The film ended with “Love your neighbour” messages in many languages, including Hindi and Urdu.

Afaq, the local coordinator of Chalti Tasveerein, asked the audience about the message. A young boy quipped: “Aapas mein ladne se koi fayda nahin hai.” Afaq continued, “Would anyone want to ban such a movie?” “No,” came the loud response. Afaq said, “The American government had banned it [during the Vietnam War].” A man at the back got up and said sombrely, “Yeh government bhi yahi karti hai. Humein aapas mein lada rahi hai.”

Someone then made what was probably the most politically pertinent observation: “The message is not only about people, but also about countries.They should live together with love rather than fight each other over territory. The flower could be Kashmir. And the fence the border both the nations want to draw.”

In Nandurbar in Maharashtra, Chalti Tasveerein’s mmebers participated in the annual day function celebrations of schools run by Narmada Bachao Andolan for children dispossessed by the Sardar Sarovar dam project in Gujarat. They screened the 1962 documentary Zoo for the students. In Zoo, Dutch director Bert Haanstra placed hidden cameras in a zoo in Amsterdam. The film asks the question of who is watching who as it films the effect animals and people have on each other.

The festival’s biggest crowd was in Rajasthan, when they showed movies at the Adivasi Milan Mela held at Kotra village in Udaipur. With an audience of over a thousand Adivasi people, the group chose films centred on the theme of resistance. It included the video Marching with the Bhim Army, about the Dalit group in Uttar Pradesh fighting upper caste violence. They also screened Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) in a village near Surat and in front of striking factory workers in Madhya Pradesh.

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Marching with the Bhim Army.

At the Ranbhandar coast of Kutch, Chalti Tasveerein put on a show for the fisherfolk. “We not only met different people, but we screened movies at a lot of different places during our journey,” said Aswathy Senan, the collective’s film coordinator. “We once screened a movie in a garage in Madhya Pradesh, once on someone’s balcony, in the middle of a street and on the sea front.”

Their last stop in Uttar Pradesh was Allahabad, where Turup, a film created by the Ektara Collective in Bhopal in 2017, was shown. Turup uses a local chess tournament as the framing device for interlocking narratives about a rich couple, an old woman who is their maid, and the love story of a Dalit girl and a Muslim boy.

The crowd applauded at many scenes. A group of young men bunched together in the front was particularly enthusiastic. They are Masters of Arts students in political science at Allahabad University. “The parallel narratives were fascinating, and the film is attacking the entire system,” said ravi Pandey, one of the students. “It was liberating to watch.”

Liberty is something Pandey feels is missing from the country right now. “What the movie showed about love jihad is what is happening across the country right now,” he pointed out. “The rightwing stops people from marrying using allegations of love jihad. Everybody should be free to do what they want. Free to marry whom they want, free to eat what they want, free to watch what they want.”

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Turup (2017).