If the cinema is magic, then the nomadic projectionists and technicians of “The Cinema Travelers” are its Oz-like wizards, roaming the rural Indian countryside delivering films via their “Traveling Talkie” road-shows. It’s a vocation steeped in tradition and rooted in faith in the medium’s rapturous powers. And as illustrated by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s intimate, poignant documentary, it’s also one that’s undergoing a seismic transformation thanks to the emergence of the digital age. Recalling Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 Oscar winner “Cinema Paradiso” in its effusive love of 20th-century celluloid splendor, this five-years-in-the-making film should entice theatrical-loving cinephiles after its debut in the Cannes Classics sidebar of the world’s preeminent film fest.
Mohammed and his crew earn a paltry living hauling an enormous tent and equally mammoth 35mm projector to dusty small-town fairs, where their movies are a coveted attraction for those situated far from modern multiplexes. As audiences sit on stony soil awaiting their next feature, Mohammed and company struggle to maintain their movie machine, a corroded behemoth held together with cloth and glue which Abraham and Madheshiya warmly depict them tinkering with — and sleeping beside — as if it were a beloved, ailing relative.
In similar disrepair is the gear of fellow Traveling Talkie showman Bapu. His mobile projection booth is affixed to a lorry whose cabin doors are locked with strips of celluloid — a precautionary measure that’s mostly symbolic, since the vehicle is so catastrophically rusted, it must be towed to its local destinations by tractor. Bellowing announcements through a makeshift PA system like a DIY carnival barker, and praying for his projector while dousing it in incense, Bapu struggles to subsist, as does Mohammed, who can barely feed his employees, much less set aside enough cash to send home to his wife.
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Both men’s hearts are ignited by the spark of cinema — especially when it comes to children, who attend Bapu’s shows for free, and whose countenances are captured staring in transfixed amazement at the screen by the directors’ affecting still-photo montages. Yet with audiences often opting to stay at home and watch new movies on TV, their prospects have dimmed to a sputtering flicker.
The specter of obsolescence hangs over the fates of Mohammed and Bapu, as well as 70-year-old Prakash, a projector repairman whose dilapidated workshop houses gone-to-seed mechanical relics and accompanying diaries that recount their long-forgotten histories. It’s also home to Prakash’s personal invention — an “oil bath projector” that, he still dreams, will become the new gold standard. Prakash confesses that he’s been under the movies’ enchanting spell since childhood (“The cinema came to me”), and he describes projectors as akin to the art form’s heart — a central organ that literally houses, and outwardly projects, sounds and images that are the lifeblood of human emotion. Nonetheless, his business’ waning prospects are clear signs that radical change is afoot.
By the time the digital revolution reaches these distant corners of India, laptops and hard drives have, in “The Cinema Travelers,” come to be less harbingers of doom than the inevitable means by which these individuals might sustain their operations. Though they greet this technological development with something akin to melancholic resignation, their sorrow is at least partially mitigated by their sober understanding that their livelihood’s greatest enemy isn’t just rain, wind and rust, but time itself – and thus that, in order to endure (much less progress), evolutionary creativity is required.
Abraham and Madheshiya’s intimate lensing is buoyed by moments of fleeting beauty — a child silhouetted against a movie screen; a projector’s light dancing across a barren patch of soil — and Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum’s mournful score aids their aesthetic evocation of an era slowly receding into the realm of memory and myth. “The Cinema Travelers” proves a heartfelt tribute to India’s cinematic-caravan traditions and the disappearing art, skill and spiritual thrill of 35mm projection — what with its complicated lenses, cigarette-burned strips, and often-scratchy imagery. More generally still, it’s a portrait of the way in which a cherished, antiquated yesterday is buried by a new, hopefully brighter tomorrow — and how not everyone is ultimately equipped to successfully face its coming dawn.