Traveling Cinemas/ Bioscopes in India

Dev Benegal’s (2009) Road, Movie is only the latest addition to a number of films that have been produced over the last decade and a half around the world. For some reasons, there is a renewed focus on a practice that has been in existence since the beginning of cinema, now being revived in all corners of the world. As one takes a panoramic look at these films, it is clear that there are quite a few from India. This does not seem to be only a numerical advantage but also an indication of how traveling cinema figures in the larger imagination of the people as well as a gesture of enriching this reflective moment on the condition of cinema.

First, let us take the count of the films that seem to be around, some directly accessible and some mentioned elsewhere in discussion on this topic. Each film is in part a eulogy to cinema that is no longer with us or one that is passing in front of our eyes. There are some valiant souls in different corners of the world keeping it alive in their own ways.

Megha Lakhani’s Prakash Traveling Cinema (2006) is available in two parts on You Tube. A graduate of the National Institute of Design, Lakhani captures the story of two friends, who work almost like a “couple,” synchronizing their moods and skills in running a Pathé projector mounted on a four wheeled street cart that runs on the streets of Ahmadabad. In a true spirit of adaptable artisanship to distinct to the country, they have added sound to the projector and created a small theater around the cart with “windows” cut through the cloth. They show short clips, put together in bricolage that makes them artists in their own right. For those of us who survived the mid-century of cinema in India, this is reminiscent of the days when such traveling shows were to be found in small towns and cities. They interrupted quiet afternoons along with those who sold chanas or bought your old clothes and tin or steel pots. They are like the ice cream trucks that still roam the summer days of the suburbs in the U. S., making the immigrants who drive them real relics of the past.

It is a rare delight to watch the photographs move as you stick your head into the holes in the cloth. That this venture supports two families demonstrates a combination of the grit of the poor and their ingenuity for survival. Hovering over them is the sturdy magic of moving images that survives even as VCDs and DVDs offer easy pleasures of similar kind in the living rooms. Although their desire may have less to do with preserving cinema in its historic essence and more to do with clinging on to the practical means of survival, the justification they offer in making that old, archival technology work for the little children is telling. They realize that cinema is in the veins of the people; the spell of watching images move on the screen never left us even after a century has passed since its introduction. Feroz and Hanif’s Prakash Traveling Cinema (2006) is a treasure even beyond the instrument they use. It is a telling lesson to our film archivists who sit in air-conditioned rooms and do little except create their own bureaucratic games that do nothing for preserve cinema.

The two part film is available here:

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(part 2)

Tim Sternberg’s Salim Baba (2007) is also available on You Tube. The film is set in Kolkata and narrates the story of Salim Muhammad, who supports his family of five children and wife using a projector that is also over 100 years old. This is also mounted on a cart, operated by Salim and one of his sons. Salim’s technological ingenuity is astonishing for any Westerner but perfectly in place for his native context. He uses the same lenses used for reading palms and the same miniature bulbs used in small autos for the projector. He is also a bricolage artist and a film critic, patching his own clips from different films and editing out elements that preserve the “essences” of early cinema without committing to the corruption of the current films. In fact, there is an important lesson here for watching contemporary films. Hanif, Feroz and Salim all say in their own ways that contemporary films can be cut easily without losing their attraction. Sholay, says Hanif, cannot be cut since everything in it is so “valuable.”

The sequence of images is not important in their efforts. These attempts at taking bioscope from door to door, attracting children for small change, synthesizes what Tom Gunning has called “a cinema of attractions” with Salim’s “attractions of cinema.” The term “cinema of attractions” belongs to film clips, shorts and programs from the early days of cinema. That cinema is “exhibitionist,” one that “displays itself,” through its abilities to make images move, to attract the viewer to its magic or trickery. It is a cinema that is content to display itself and the verities of its image. The children in Salim and Hanif’s traveling bioscope shows come to watch the clips but they also come to see the machine itself, its own existence as a “curiosity cabinet.” This cinema travels as much its images move. Children’s attraction to this form of cinema is shaped in field of other competing forces, DVDs and VCDs and of course, television and film theaters, not to speak of the omnipresent culture of film celebrities and their sky-high stardoms. The bioscope becomes for the children a defense against the pressures of other attractions.

Salim hangs on as the last guardian of the bioscope tradition and he might just be right. The film was nominated for Academy Award in short film category. That film and an equally illuminating article by Nilanjana Bhowmick in Little India (which also includes an interview with Salim) remind us of the tradition of bioscope in India. These bioscopes have survived and so has the tradition of traveling cinemas, which move from one village to another.

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It is difficult to miss the presence of children in these two films about traveling cinemas and projectionists’ narratives. These “cinemas of attraction” hold affordable wonderment for urban children. They flock to Salim, Hanif and Feroz’s cart-projectors rolling out on to the streets. This is their theater, their amusement and their entertainment; all with little money that they must have scrambled to put together, begged their parents for or earned with some means. This is pittance, of course, compared to the pricey and glitzy theaters where moving images that their elders and upper “class-mates” behold in their realm of entertainment. These are the “toys” for the children of the lower classes, wandering around their streets, bringing them the magic of images that move, from which they must make their own narratives.

These urban traveling cinemas are not some postmodern nostalgic trips to resurrect the mythical magic of cinema, the kind which exist in the world as shall see, but statements on behalf of the class positions that have remained where they have been, in the lower rung of entertainment when the rest of world has embraced portable screen culture. The traveling cinemas of Salim, Hanif and Feroz open up a world of imagination for children; make it more affordable to them, which the projectionists keep alive in part to make their own livelihood but in part to feed that hunger for creating the world for children, something we have assigned toys to do. It is best to understand this phenomenon of how the “discarded” or preserved toys of the adults are now being deployed to entertain the children in the urban areas through the views of two thinkers, Walter Benjamin and Gaston Bachelard, both have contributed much on how we must think of toys today.

Walter Benjamin wrote much about children, their literature, illustrated books and their toys. An irrepressible collector himself, Benjamin took great interest in children’s lives. His three essays on children’s toys, “Old Toys,” “Toys and Play,” and “The Cultural History of Toys” are now available together in the second volume of his Selected Writings from Harvard University Press (1999). One reads these essays with an overwhelming feeling that Benjamin was a privileged child, with surplus income to spare, to indulge in hobbies and habits that would not be available for the lower classes, who were at the center of his political commitments. This contradiction was to remain a central feature of his career. The most political statement in these essays comes from “Toys and Play,” where he invokes the “class character” of the toys. Benjamin distinguishes between a certain “militant viciousness” found in the toys of the privileged, the “hellish exuberance” of their toy stores, the complicated nature of the toys themselves on one hand, and the transparent “simplicity” found in the toys of the others. The toys of the “lower class” children, Benjamin suggests, had “self-evident” simplicity in them. The little portable theaters moving on to the streets of Kolkata and Ahmadabad, with their ragged-cloth made curtains and cut-out windows, with the explicitly presented bricolages of well-known stars offer nothing new to the children. They are already immersed in the culture of these images. They know the stars too. Narratives matter little to them. The children are there to embrace the process of watching laid bare, appropriate to their means and to their environments, where illusions matter little and one is never cut off from the realities of life unlike the upper classes are in their dark theaters which are Platonic caves. What survives here is early cinema as children’s toy, a return to the folk art that Benjamin extols as a “primitive technology combined with cruder materials imitates sophisticated technology combined with expensive materials.” The “class character” of these traveling cinemas, therefore, becomes glaringly evident here, to distinguish itself against the glitz, the pomp and the style of the shiny and the new.

When Gaston Bachelard thought of space as something that one imagines and lives in through occupation rather than as pre-existing co-ordinates in which one moves, he considered the world of children and their embrace of the miniature world of toys. It is the through the experience of the miniature, which often imitates the world in smaller (physical) dimensions, that children comprehend the world of adult experience. It is through the tactile, the sensory and the conceptual manipulation of the miniature that they understand the space that they create and inhabit. Bachelard’s phenomenology asks us to go to the eye-level of the children, adapting a mobile embodiment to imagine, if we can, the world they create through their experience of the small and the miniature. The little “cinema machines,” which include the flip-books (at times produced by Disney and other conglomerates), the key-chains that imitate the film clap-boards, the little curios that are produced even by the toys available at the fast food stores in the U. S.; are all contributions to this world in which the children can comprehend the world that grows around them as they do. The traveling cinemas which were once our amusing machines, relics from our own childhood and now moving in few venues, are “Bachelardian” contraptions where children imagine the space, by creating a world of cinema on their own. These two examples of traveling cinemas in India only show how the world of images and its technologies is imagined by these children.

In addition to these two films available now on You Tube, there is also Battu’s Bioscope (1998), a documentary from Andrej Fidyk from Poland. Much has been written on the film which appears to be one of the most intriguing and more extensive chronicles of the bioscope tradition in India. The film does not appear to be available anywhere, including DVDs or through recent festival screenings. There is an informative review of the film by Kylie Boltin here from the journal, Intersections.

Some of the most valuable commentary on Prakash Traveling Cinema (2006) and Salim Baba (2007) may be found on the blog, The Bioscope, without a doubt one of the treasure-blogs on the web. Written and run by Luke McKernan, it exemplifies what a blog should be expected to do: to bring scholarship and serious views into the public realm so topics, issues, people and questions may be always kept alive. And of course, all this without the weight or the pomp of the academic routines! The blog keeps alive the art and the history of early and silent cinema and it is worth a visit every week. It has done the same for the films mentioned in this writing.

Vrinda Kapoor and Nitesh Bhatia’s Baarah Mann Ki Dhoban (2007) does not seem to be available either. It would behoove us to find ways to preserve and disseminate these films into the spotlight. From Road, Movie (2009) and K. M. Madhusudhanan’s Bioscope (2008)(see, DearCinema, 8 May 2009) and the films mentioned here, one notices the clash and the adaptability of culture to its technologies.  These are the last testaments to the enduring presence of cinema, seeped deep into the lives of the people. Traveling cinema appears to be still alive in India, either in the form of experimental but ingenuous bioscopes traveling in the city neighborhoods or as in the villages, seeking a flat ground and natural darkness under the skies to bring to the people an art they practiced not too long ago. Who knows if the bureaucrats keep records of their own culture but by some estimates there seem to be about 2000 traveling cinemas in the countryside today. It is important to take a moment and think how in the age of fast changing technologies, these practices survive. They survive in other parts of the world too, which we will examine shortly, but in India, the significance of that practice seems charged with verve to hold on to the ingrained presence without disembodying the experience. What the technologies do, from cell phones to the DVD theaters in homes, is to fragment the experience. Movies become furniture and décor for the consciousness. That basic ingredient is vanishing as fast as water supply is in Road, Movie (2009). It is again impossible to not to think of what Benjamin said of the art of storytelling that was vanishing with the coming of modernism. In recalling how integral, inseparable and organic practices of the people were before technology and fast life took over, he says,

“For never has the experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn street-car now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”

from “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” Walter Benjamin

All the films reviewed here attempt two fold aims: to return to and reflect on that experience of watching films in the interstices of everyday life, with an organic unity of communal experiences and to protect, in some small ways, the importance of the art of watching rather than image itself. The fetishizing effect of new technologies defeats the image itself, which now comes dressed up in smooth and shiny technologies of portable screens. Much like the art of storytelling, we have lost the connection to the organic.

One Reply to “Traveling Cinemas/ Bioscopes in India”

  1. Thank you for the kind words, and for such an interesting post on the travelling bioscope phenomenon. The connection with Benjamin and Bachelard is intriguing and I think valid. I shall look at the films again in a new light.


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