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Screen + Sound + Stage
April 10, 2017

Meet The Duo Behind One Of India’s Most Charming Documentaries

Text by Nittal Chandarana. Photography by Prateek Patel

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya earn critical acclaim with ‘The Cinema Travellers’ for their portrayal of a vanishing cinematic tradition

The Starry Night by Van Gogh rests on one wall. Murakami paperbacks line the shelves on another. Numerous books and posters stare resolutely at you, but there’s not a stray mug or newspaper in sight, and the office-cum-home bears no sign of being used. Understandably so. The pair of debut directors have been attending one film festival after another to showcase their documentary The Cinema Travellers. Their labour of love, that captures the annual phenomenon of travelling cinemas in rural India, went through an eight-year-long research and filming process and fortunately it was worth the effort. The film silently crept up on unassuming juries forcing out of them awards and accolades alike. The project was mostly self-funded, partly financed by Sundance Institute and created entirely by the two, including the sound production and editing. The duo, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, recount their journey.

An honest rendition
Shirley Abraham (SA): “It was our first feature film. We had been entrusted with a remarkable story. It was like being given a gift that we had to present to the world. How does one find the best form for telling it — you keep chipping away at whatever is not needed.”

Switching gears
Amit Madheshiya (AM): “It was almost traumatic to cross over from photography to film. The things that look effortless are the most difficult to create on screen. At a fundamental level, photography is about a frozen moment. There’s chaos in moving images, where everything operates at its own pace, whim and rhythm. You want to control it. The aesthetic and the visual language of the film evolved along with me and I think that shows.”

Picking Protagonist
SA: “We did not want to make an expositional movie. We found three people whose roles complemented each other. There was a young showman for whom it was merely his livelihood. There was an older one who had been around for decades, at a time when people were looking for other forms of entertainment. Then there was a projector mechanic who had kept all of this running for 50 years. He would repair, revive, reinvent — whatever was needed to keep the technology going. All three are the keepers of travelling cinemas: one will keep the business going, the second is looking at his own legacy, and for the third, it is a way into the human imagination.”

Making the cuts
AM: “The entire footage is 125 to 130 hours, which is not much, considering we’ve filmed for three years. There is a school of thought that says directors should never edit their work. I don’t agree with that. Objectivity is a myth. Our consulting editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, would always ask us, ‘what is the meaning that you are trying to find through this story? And once you’ve arrived at that, what is the new meaning you are trying to reach’.”

In focus at Cannes
SA: “Ours is a film that talks about a specially preserved yet transient culture of cinema. What better place is there than Cannes Film Festival? When you work on something for eight years, you can’t imagine sharing it. You don’t know if it has a place outside of yourself. When it starts to have a life at Cannes, it’s gratifying. We had only one screening there which got a standing ovation. It was unbelievable, just by virtue of how long and lonely it had been to keep working on it.”

AM: “Somehow our little film, which nobody knew about, was being celebrated, and that was heart- warming. And we won the L’Œil d’or.”

It happens only in India
AM: “There was a painter who would work on the posters, one of which had the Telugu star Gopichand, but nobody knew him in these circuits. Due to his resemblance to the Bollywood actor, they changed his name to Arjun Devgn and on the poster they wrote ‘Ajay Devgn cha bhau’ (Ajay Devgn’s brother). The film was dubbed in Hindi so it worked!”

Preserving a diminishing art
AM: “How much can you save? We should not lament things. As storytellers, we are trying to create a small ripple in the huge ocean of culture. If that ripple travels far, then good. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too.”

India release
SA: “Sometime this year, hopefully. There’s a specific audience who will pay to watch documentaries, and who do watch them at film festivals. The aim is to have a wider reach. We want to create a model that others can use.”

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