In The Cinema Travellers (PG, 136 mins, ★★★★) , we see Bapu, an itinerant Indian film-screener, unravel a loom of nitrate film with one leg squatted, one leg stretched; he looks like Gandhi, in his famous spinning wheel picture. Travelling cinemas are hardly revolutionary in India – they have been around for more than 70 years. They are, though, a medium that is very much at odds with prevailing trends – 167 million Indian households (two thirds of the total) now own a television, compared with just 78 million households (a third) in 2001.
This equates to a dearth in ticket sales for our hard-up protagonist screeners, as they tour the crop-over jatra fairs in Maharashtra province. These circus-tent projectionists coax the celluloid film into hard-won acrobatics over the labyrinths of spools in the seemingly unending machine, as devotional incense smoke warps and wefts against the piercing projecting light.
While the forbearance of these fragile machines describes a relief of the crude, putrefying everyday life of India, to the distracted observer just the plain shots of India’s workplaces, places of leisure and civic spaces drive one to despair. Our world is collateral, incorrigibly plural, to paraphrase Louis MacNeice. The neurosis du jour is to believe we live in a bridgeable global community. Bapu’s home, and his adjacent, rusted storage facility, as well as projector-repairman Prakash’s workshop, deserve mention only for showing how cramped, how alien-for-a-Westerner, the conditions are, out in locals-only India. Cinema makes you travel, and tellingly here we see for real what life is like for non-Western people: rusted, coked with airborne contamination, ignobly narrow. Hardcore reality is very different from the reflective mirage of the internet.
We see see shots of children (one, intriguingly, an Indian albino) entranced by the films they show, which raises a flicker of Garcia Márquez’s cinema-goers in One Hundred Years of Solitude, with their unbending refusal to suspend disbelief. These are astonished to find “a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears of affliction had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one”.
The demise of the celluloid projectors, which occurs at the end of the movie, puts me in mind of the last time I had seen real film projected – as part of a randomised sound-art “happening” in Hackney a few years ago. The mere sight of the digital projector – which opened myriad opportunities to the locals here – made me angry after the magic of the cinema travellers’ old ones.
I suppose this exposes the self-loathing of a progress-loving Westerner. For the Hackney randomiser, vintage reel projection was a foil to his automatic music.
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