FIVE QUESTIONS WITH...Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya

“Told through the lens of myth”

An interview with Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, directors of The Cinema Travelers

In the Cannes-award-winning documentary, The Cinema Travelers, Indian filmmakers Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya follow traveling film projectionists who bring the magic of the movies to faraway villages all over India. But as the men’s caravans and film projectors begin to fall apart and their film reels become scarce, their once faithful audiences are lured away by slick new digital technology. Called a “spellbinding” “masterpiece” (Huffington Post), this lyrical, humorous and cinematic journey follows three memorable individuals who are all struggling to keep their fading tradition alive. DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with the filmmakers about the film’s stunning visuals, choosing their characters, and the comedy of human innovation.

One thing that stands out about your documentary is the cinematography. India is often known for being very photogenic, but you really capture the power of visual imagery. Can you talk about how you orchestrated the visuals? Were you inspired by other movies or movies about movies?

Through the eight years of making this film, we have often felt a burden—admittedly a beautiful one—of the grand narrative of cinema that we were to create. We wanted our film to reflect upon the language of cinema. And cinema, in its most distilled form, is images. Conscious of this, we wanted to create images that would not just index an idea of India, but evolve a language organic to the cinema culture we were telling the story of. The celluloid-centered ecosystem of the travelling cinemas has remained largely unchanged over seven decades and seemed set in a well-oiled time warp. We knew instinctively this has to be told through the lens of myth. And the strokes would be magic realist. For inspiration, we leaned on the masters, particularly Gabriel García Márquez, Werner Herzog, Salman Rushdie and Raghu Rai.

How did you decide to focus on these specific characters? Were there other men in the world of traveling film exhibition that you also could have focused on?

We chose to focus on Mohammed, Prakash and Bapu because of their unique value systems that would come to life as this world of traveling cinemas stands at the precipice of change. For Mohammed, it is a matter of business, for Bapu, his legacy, and for Prakash, a gateway into the imagination. Each of their unfolding narratives help us lay the doors, windows and secret passageways of the story. We had some touchstones: the characters must have a dynamic, evolving story, an urge for cinema that goes beyond everyday needs, and a response to the changing nature of the medium. This guided our choices. We were also filming with a few audiences, who are finally not in the film. We discovered that they were unaffected by the mutable nature of cinema technology. It was tough to drop their stories, but ultimately comforting to realize that, for some, movies are just shedding their skin and not their wonder.

I think some viewers might be surprised by the movie's humor. While it's definitely about the magic of motion pictures, I think it's also a portrait of human foibles. When preparing the movie, did you always think it would have a sense of humor, or did this come out of the process and from your characters?

The story that we were interested in telling was one of human imagination and creation, and not one of technological obsolescence. So the challenge was how not to make a film lamenting what might be lost? And how will the film emerge from the cocoon of nostalgia? The humor in the film arrived as a relief and surprised us, too. Umberto Eco reminds us, culture is how people do things: From building Gothic cathedrals to plugging the right cables in a new digital projector. It is the celebration of human foibles.

I noticed you have a number of American collaborators on the project. Your sound editor Pete Horner has worked on some terrific recent docs (Chasing Coral; Life, Animated; Cameraperson; Romeo is Bleeding, etc) and your composer, as well. Can you talk about your team, and how this movie was made with an international crew?

While making the film, we were fortunate to receive unstinted support from the Sundance Institute. In particular, their Labs – Edit and Story, and Music and Sound Design, were transformative. Invited to the lush mountains, far away from the distractions and compulsions of everyday life, we entered the labyrinths of our story and absorbed its rhythms. At the weeklong Labs, each filmmaking team is teamed up with collaborators and advisors. At the Lab, we had an opportunity to collaborate with these stellar artists whose work we loved, and they were receptive to ours. We are very proud and honoured that our Sundance Lab collaborators came on board the film: Jonathan Oppenheim as consulting editor, Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum as music composers and Pete Horner as sound designer.

Do you know what's happening with your characters now? Can you give an update?

Mohammed occasionally runs his travelling cinema on digital technology. Bapu has packed away his cinema; it is not viable to run it anymore. Presciently enough, the last show in the film was the last show of his company. Prakash’s workshop was burglarized. Thieves stole away everything he had been making, to sell the metal for scrap. Seventy years old now, he is trying to make everything all over again.

Paula Froehle