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India's touring cinemas are dying and being reborn

A Film-mad Country Is In Need Of More Screens

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For much of the year Pusegaon, six or seven hours’ drive from Mumbai, is an unremarkable village of fewer than 10,000 people. But every winter its population swells several times over when it hosts a mela, or fair. Religion, commerce and entertainment meet at such fairs, which are common throughout India. In Pusegaon cattle traders show up, and so do pilgrims to the Sevagiri temple. There are Ferris wheels, food stalls and merchants hawking all manner of goods. When this correspondent visited in January 2002, there was also, by the banks of the Yerala river, an enormous red-and-white striped tent set up by one of India’s fabled travelling cinemas, Amar Touring Talkies.

An ancient lorry was parked alongside the tent. On its cab was a poster for the films being screened, and on its hood was a loudspeaker to advertise them to the many potential viewers who might be unable to read. When a film projector mounted on its flatbed shone its light through holes lined up between the truck and the tent, the silver screen suspended in the middle of the marquee came alive with image and sound. Tickets cost 10 rupees ($0.20 at the time).

Inside, facing both sides of the screen, as many as 1,000 men, women and children from Pusegaon and surrounding villages sat cross-legged on the dusty red soil, enraptured. For some, it was their first time at the cinema. For others it was their annual treat. And so it went, all day and pretty much all night, five or six screenings daily, until the villagers had had their fill and Amar Touring Talkies rolled up its tent, rewound the film and canned the prints, and sputtered on to the next village fair somewhere on the Deccan Plateau.

“It was one of the most romantic, most beautiful manifestations of cinema,” says Jonathan Torgovnik, who was with the group that visited in 2002. On his first trip to India several years earlier, he was fascinated by “how important cinema was to Indian people and to India’s social identity”. He kept returning to document how film manifested itself in the everyday lives of Indians, for “Bollywood Dreams”, a book of photos (some of which accompany this story). Over five years taking pictures, “the raw joy of the villagers” at the touring cinema was the highlight, he says.

India produces some 2,000 feature films—in dozens of languages—every year, far more than any other country. About a third find theatrical release. The rest go straight to television or online, or just sit around in cans, says Amit Khanna, an industry veteran and the author of “Words. Sounds. Images: A History of Media and Entertainment in India”. There are thriving industries dedicated to making movies in Bengali, Bhojpuri, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and other languages. But it is Bollywood—a once-ironic, often reviled and now mostly uncontroversial nickname for the Hindi film industry—that dominates the imaginations and passions of the country as a whole.

Indians offer any number of reasons to explain the hold Bollywood has, each at least somewhat true. One is that a country as diverse as India needs some common denominator and Hindi, for better or worse, is the one language comprehensible to the majority. Another is that the Hindi film industry is the biggest and richest, so its films are the slickest and most exciting. Their stories, geared towards escapism and happy endings, are a balm in a difficult, conservative country where day-to-day life, for most people, involves navigating between humiliation and oppressive duty.

Moreover, Bollywood’s cultural influence extends far beyond the movies. India’s popular music is dominated by the soundtracks of Hindi films; in advertisements on television and hoardings, Bollywood actors hawk cola and mobile phones, underwear and cement. Movie stars host tv shows, they appear in public-health messages, they own cricket teams, and eventually they find their way into politics. Some have even made it into the cabinet. It should hardly be surprising, then, that the idols, ideas and images of the industry form the scaffolding upon which Indians build a common identity. Apart from politics (an increasingly divisive subject), religion (ditto, but more so) and cricket (which lacks songs, dancing and romance), there is nothing else to tie the country together.

Cinemas, as much as the films, are part of this mythology. Satish Kaushik is an actor, director and producer who grew up in west Delhi in the 1960s and 1970s. Even today he can reel off the names of his favourite movie halls, fondly remembered like old girlfriends: “Naaz, Liberty and Filmistan where I lived; Rivoli and Regal were close by when I was in school; Palace, Amba, Alpana when I was in college”.

In Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, long-shuttered cinemas—Minerva, Naaz, Bandra Talkies—are stubborn landmarks of the city’s psychogeography; they still give their names to bus stops. At Gaiety-Galaxy, a pair of enormous halls in the western suburbs where many film stars live, one of the ushers is a “duplicate”, or stunt double, for Anil Kapoor, a famous actor. Stars and producers buy tickets in the balcony for the Friday matinée, entering and leaving while the lights are down, curious to see how the audience reacts in the stalls below. They could read the collections in the trade papers or go to a posh multiplex. But numbers on a page or the hushed appreciation of the bourgeoisie are no substitute for the ecstatic cacophony of whistles and claps or the tinkling of coins thrown at the screen by working-class filmgoers. Making movies is about more than just making money—it is about giving rise to love and devotion. Cinemas are where that passion finds its congregational expression.

Yet it is one more paradox among the millions of contradictions that constitute India that what is perhaps the most film-mad country in the world also has among the lowest ratios of screens to human beings. There are just eight screens per million people in India today, compared with 37 in China and 124 in America. Yet Indians bought 1.98bn movie tickets in 2017, while Chinese cinemas saw a more modest 1.62bn admissions and American ones a meagre 1.24bn.

an epic in every pocket

The screens that do exist are unevenly distributed. Mumbai has them in abundance; Pusegaon has none. pvr, India’s biggest cinema operator, has more screens in Chandigarh, a prosperous city of about a million people, than it does in Rajasthan, a poor state of 80m. Pankaj Tripathi, a Hindi-film actor who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in Bihar, an even poorer state in the east of the country, says he did not go to a cinema until he was 11 or 12—the nearest hall was 25km away. It was in this world that the touring talkies played a crucial role: if Muhammad could not go to the movies, the movies had to come to Muhammad.

When Mr Torgovnik visited Pusegaon 20 years ago, there were 11,692 cinema screens in India, plus another 1,400-odd touring talkies. Today there are around 8,000 permanent screens—as many as 1,500 shut just during the pandemic—and only 52 travelling cinemas. Amar Touring Talkies, whose name means “immortal”, is long gone.

The decline of India’s film halls has many causes: the rocketing value of the land they occupied; falling standards for cleanliness and comportment that made them unattractive to families and women; high entertainment taxes; labyrinthine licensing requirements; television, home video and, more recently, streaming. But the collapse of the touring talkies has been greater and swifter, for two interlinked reasons.

One is smartphone and internet penetration. There are at least half a billion screens in India today, not in cinemas but in the pocket of every third person. And what Indians use them for more than anything else is to watch video. It accounts for the majority of mobile internet traffic in the country. There are dozens of streaming services, and YouTube is probably the most visited website. Autorickshaw drivers rubber-band phones to their handlebars and watch movies as they idle in traffic. At night the dim light of the screen illuminates the faces of the men and women who live in shanties by the sides of the road. In remote villages without running water teenagers make Instagram reels set to hit film tunes while their grandparents watch mythological epics on their devices. Mohammad Naurangi, who owns Sumedh Touring Talkies in the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, sums it up: “Everyone is watching movies on mobile,” he says. “People don’t have any interest in sitting on the ground in a mela anymore.”

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Which leads to the other reason for the collapse of the touring cinemas: they failed to move with the times. Mr Naurangi started working in the travelling tents as a child—his small stature unimposing as, hawking refreshments, he skipped among the cross-legged audience. He is determined to keep the business going by diversifying into children’s games and Ferris wheels as more reliable money-spinners at the village fairs. “The theatre has become our office in the mela, and we live and eat in it,” he says. “But I will continue to run it. There are just a few of us left. We have to keep the tradition going.”

Once the film came on, it was easy to forget you were sitting in a barren field

Sushil Chaudhary, the founder of a new chain of touring talkies called PictureTime, is making a different bet on the possibilities of cinema. The son of an army man, he spent his childhood moving to a new city every few years. He graduated from one of India’s elite engineering colleges and then worked as an it consultant across Latin America. He has no background in cinema. Scouting for entrepreneurship opportunities when he returned to India a few years ago, he found himself wondering about the paucity of screens. Concluding that high property prices and a burdensome regulatory environment were, as he puts it, “very silly reasons”, he reckoned he could solve both problems with travelling cinemas. Renting public space is cheap; in much of India, touring cinemas need just three licences.

mr chaudhary’s insurgency

Old-fashioned touring cinemas have little to offer today’s smartphone-equipped small-towners. But provide a transporting experience at an affordable price and people will be queuing up around the block.

Mr Chaudhary started his company in 2015 and has since set up 37 moving screens seating between 100 and 250 people. He is on track to open 100 in the short term. His goal is 3,000 screens. A quarter will be in cities—especially at railway stations—and the rest will go to underserved areas, including some of the most remote. Already he has cinemas wandering around in Tawang, a comically inaccessible town in the eastern Himalayas where Bhutan, China and India converge, and the badlands of central India, which are infested with Naxals, Maoists dedicated to the violent overthrow of the state. Insurgents, it turns out, like Bollywood as much as the next Indian.

This summer, he set one up in Ladakh, a remote territory where in 2020 Indian soldiers clashed with Chinese counterparts along a disputed border, and which, more urgently for its residents, has not had a screen since the last cinema shut decades ago.

In Leh, Ladakh’s capital, some 11,500 feet (3,500 metres) above sea level, a PictureTime truck settled in the city’s cricket ground, surrounded by the peaks of the Karakoram. The touring cinema that emerged from the truck was nothing like the one in Pusegaon. In place of the tent was an inflatable yellow cube, with dimples for better acoustics. It was air-conditioned. The floor was carpeted and there were plastic chairs. The picture was crystal clear, the sound Dolby. Once the lights went down and the film came on, it was easy to forget you were sitting in a barren field.

PictureTime’s tickets are cheap, at between 30 and 70 rupees, compared with an average ticket price of 191 rupees at pvr’s multiplexes. Mr Chaudhary argues that 3,000 hundred-seater screens selling tickets for 70 rupees and operating at just 30% capacity could add as much $122m to India’s annual box-office collections.

It is an audacious plan. Whether it works comes down to an abstract question, the sort spreadsheets remain unequipped to answer: is there really something magical about going to the cinema? Certainly there was in 1896, when the Lumière Brothers screened “The Arrival of a Train”, a 50-second documentary which showed a mail train pulling into a platform and which, the legend goes, so terrified viewers that they leapt up and ran away. That magic was still there in 2002, when Mr Torgovnik witnessed “the raw joy of the villagers” in Pusegaon. But what can be the magic of the moving image in 2022, when video saturates the world like high-fructose corn syrup in American food?

Perhaps audiences will discover it in the feeling of sitting in a darkened hall, or in the rituals of buying samosas and popcorn and sugary drinks. Or maybe it will be in the communal experience, the cinematic equivalent of a live concert. Or in the single-minded attention they must pay to the big screen, so unlike the notification- and distraction-filled experience of looking at a mobile phone.

Cultural artefacts, from Guignol to Punch and Judy, from village fetes to county fairs, and from the circus to the cinema, live on because older generations inculcate in younger ones a love for the things they love. As long as parents introduce cinema to their children and help them form memories of being spirited to another world, the tradition of going to the movies will endure. All that the world’s film industries need to do is to provide the spaces for that magic to happen. ■

Photographs: jonathan torgovnik